The Palm Beach County Commission gave preliminary approval Tuesday to an ordinance that would make people living on private roads who want paving to pay 100 percent of the cost.
The ordinance would amend the county’s municipal service tax unit (MSTU) ordinance to allow for assessments and collections from affected residents at 100 percent of the total cost of improvements, with certain exemptions, as opposed to 50 percent previously.
During public comment, Andy Schaller commented that he had been trying to get improvements on his unpaved road for about five years and was still waiting.
Schaller’s property is in Palm Beach Ranchettes, a community on the east side of State Road 7 north of Lake Worth Road where Lyons Road passes through.
County Engineer George Webb said his department was still designing Lyons Road, which will tie in with the roads in Palm Beach Ranchettes, and had run into delays with roundabout design and other issues.
Commissioner Jess Santamaria asked what the legal responsibility of the county was to maintain roads that are fully or partially private, and County Engineer George Webb said the county has responsibility in Palm Beach Ranchettes, which has a paving project underway and regularly grades the unpaved roads.
“We will be maintaining, and it is our responsibility for any paved road that currently exists within the boundaries of the Ranchettes,” Webb said, explaining that there are several miles of paved road there already that have been installed under the MSTU program.
Santamaria said the MSTU program is designed to assist community improvements, but asked, “Prior to the MSTU program, there is no legal responsibility of government, is there?”
“That’s right,” Webb said. “That’s how we interpret it. We have many, many roads in the unincorporated areas of Palm Beach County that Palm Beach County never accepted for maintenance. They’re open for the public to drive on just by legal dedications in the past.”
Santamaria pointed out that there have been two requests from residents on private roads in the Loxahatchee area for intervention by the county, which it refused on the grounds that it had no responsibility on those properties.
Webb said there is a large segment of property in the central area of the county that has flooding and road maintenance issues for which the county takes no responsibility. “In a way, it is a selective process when we decide to apply the MSTU program to assist a community that may have some problems or just a request for paving,” Santamaria said. “It’s not really a right, but an extension of assistance to apply the MSTU program.”
Webb agreed that it is a policy call resting with the commissioners.
Assistant County Attorney Marlene Everitt distinguished between private roads, such as those in a gated community where the roads are truly private and there is no governmental interest to maintain the roads, and roads in the county that are private but perhaps owned to the center line by the property owners.
“The county has no responsibility to maintain those, but they are open to the public, and as a result of that, the statute is that the county has jurisdiction if it chooses,” Everitt said. “So part of the assessment process is that the property owners have to give up a private right they have to those roads, and that is a condition of moving forward with any improvement. Those are the type roads that are included in our MSTU program. Once that’s determined as policy by the board, which ones are eligible, then they turn those roads over to the county and they become county government roads, and they are maintained.”
Everitt emphasized that the county does not maintain or do MSTU assessments to pave private roads owned by homeowners’ associations. “These roads that we bring to you under the MSTU are private but publicly used, and that is what the MSTU ordinance was designed to do,” she said.
Everitt said the original MSTU program was put into place in the early 1970s.
Santamaria said his concern has been how individual property owners are notified before they are charged the shared cost of the road improvements. “What is the process of notifying the property owners?” he asked.
Webb said there are several different procedures, including a petition that gets circulated usually by an interested resident in the neighborhood asking whether there is general neighborhood support for a project.
“If we deem there is, we move forward with the design process and then go into the bidding process,” Webb said.
Santamaria said it is still unclear how it is determined what votes count toward approval or disapproval. Webb said when they receive petitions or send them out, they explain that if they return a “yes” or “no” vote, each of those will be counted. “We have counted a non-returned petition as a ‘no,’ not in support of the project,” Webb said. “That is historically how we have been doing it.”
Santamaria suggested that the unreturned non-responses be sent a second notice to either agree or not agree to the project, and specify how a non-response will be counted.
“In my opinion, silence means consent,” Santamaria said. “In my opinion, somebody who does not respond probably feels that is not important enough, so I’d like the final notice to specify how his non-response is going to be counted, and in certified mail, to be sure that he gets it.”
Webb said that question had been raised previously by Commissioner Shelley Vana.
“It is not included in this ordinance,” he said. “We intend to operate that as board direction under a policy. My intent was to bring that back and have that as a separate discussion with the board, about how you want us to handle the petitioning process.”
Webb pointed out that such a determination will be an important policy decision because both the engineering and water utility departments utilize the MSTU process.
Webb estimated that question will probably come before the commissioners again in September.
Commissioner Priscilla Taylor made a motion for preliminary approval, which passed unanimously.
ABOVE: The Palm Beach County Commission.