Options limited for some residents seeking road repairs

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PRINCETON — Homeowners in unincorporated Johnston County needing street repairs will find most roads to assistance closed.

That ‘s what residents of the Holt’s Landing subdivision near Princeton discovered when they sought assistance from Johnston County and the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Property owners said they were caught unaware when they discovered road maintenance in Holt’s Landing was their responsibility. Several residents said real estate agents didn’t notify them before they bought their homes. Had they known, the residents said, they likely would have moved elsewhere.

“Eleven years ago, while I was serving as the Johnston County executive director of Habitat for Humanity and my wife was teaching at West Smithfield Elementary School, we purchased our retirement home located at 457 Madison Ave.,” said Ned Walsh. “Had we known then what we have recently discovered, we would have never purchased a house here.”

Walsh said the streets are deteriorating and will, in time, greatly devalue his property.

“We have been shocked, even though we faithfully pay our state and county taxes, to discover no governmental entity will take any responsibility for the care and repair of these streets,” said Walsh. “My wife and I are living on a fixed income and to cough up the thousands of dollars just to repair the 100 yards of street that front our property would break us.”

One option Walsh explored was annexation by the town of Princeton. But he said that would require 100 percent agreement of the property owners and wouldn’t happen because some don’t wish to pay municipal taxes.

Walsh said several homeowners have met with me him and are at their wits’ end.

Walsh’s neighbor Rosa Arteaga lives at 499 Madison Ave. Her family moved there from Chicago three months ago. She and her husband have four children, ranging in ages from three to 13.

“We wouldn’t have bought here,” said Arteaga. “We have four children, are barely making ends meet and can’t afford to save money for street repair. If the roads are damaged, we don’t know what we’ll do.”

Jean Lewis of 460 Madison Ave. moved to Holt’s Landing 12 years ago from New Jersey. She said family and the lower cost of living prompted her to move to Johnston County.

“Had I known this, I wouldn’t have bought here,” said Lewis, who is 81. “I’ve never heard of anything like this. We pay taxes like everyone else. I was shocked and would never have put myself in this position had I known.”

Walsh said Holt’s Landing is located between two floodplains and the neighborhood frequently floods during heavy rains.

Lewis said she paid to have someone clear the ditch next to her house leading to the drainage pipe that runs underneath Madison Avenue.

Johnston County Planning Director Braston Newton said the county is prohibited by state law from maintaining roads in unincorporated areas. He said this responsibility lies with the NCDOT when roads are built to state standards and accepted for DOT maintenance.

“Johnston County has developed a paving program to assist residents with paving needs for roads and streets in unincorporated areas of the county that are to be petitioned for acceptance into the NCDOT system,” said Newton.

The Residential Subdivision Paving Assessment Program requires 75 percent participation from property owners within the subdivision and 10 percent of the total project cost upfront via certified funds, with the remaining 90 percent assessed to the property owners for no more than five years.

“Johnston County does not acquire or assume responsibility for the streets or roads improved, and has no liability arising from the construction of such improvements or the maintenance of such improvements as part of this financing,” said Newton.

Department of Transportation spokesman Andrew Barksdale said developers dedicate the roads as public and then build them to NCDOT standards, which Walsh said apparently wasn’t the case with Madison Avenue and the other Holt’s Landing roads.

Once the roads are built to NCDOT standards, Barksdale said, the developer or the abutting homeowners and property owners formally petition to have the NCDOT accept the road for maintenance.

Bonnie White, executive director of the Johnston County Association of Realtors, acknowledged the situation.

“During the building boom, developers constructed neighborhoods but never established a structure for future maintenance of the subdivision’s streets,” said White. “There is no comprehensive record of a road’s maintenance responsibility until it is accepted by a local government or the NCDOT. As these roads have deteriorated over the years, homeowners are finding that they are responsible for the repair and maintenance of them.”

Ted Godwin, chairman of the Johnston County Board of Commissioners, said the county has never been involved in road building or road maintenance.

“It is not within our purview,” said Godwin. “It’s always been a routine part of a real estate closing to understand access to the property. Maybe it’s because I was in banking so many years and have attended so many closings, but the vast majority of buyers that I have had interaction with were also interested in access.”

Godwin said homebuyers are ultimately responsible, but real estate agents should disclose the information.

“Yes, I believe the Realtor should be making sure the buyer has covered all the bases,” Godwin said. “Most do, but there may be some that don’t.”

Godwin said most taxpayers don’t have children in school, but all have to pay taxes for schools and Johnston County is better off for it.

“But, in a case such as this, would the county be better off paying tax dollars to repair a subdivision road where developers made profits but didn’t get the roads taken over by DOT at the outset?” said Godwin. “Subsequent buyers facilitated the situation by not verifying who maintains the road prior to purchasing. It’s a simple task to verify if a road has an assigned road number and has been taken over by NCDOT.

“As commissioners, we have to be concerned about all 200,000-plus citizens. Having said that, every individual is important and everyone has a voice. But I can’t recommend taxing the entire county for the benefit of specific few.”

Godwin said the county’s assistance program could be a viable solution for this type of problem if all residents chose to participate and spread the costs.

Janet Thoren, legal counsel for the North Carolina Real Estate Commission, said the commission occasionally receives complaints on issues where a broker may not have disclosed a private road and a buyer’s obligation to pay for future repairs or improvements.

“This is a complicated issue,” Thoren said. “The commission looks at whether or not a broker knew or should have known that the property was on a private road. Often, it is difficult to tell a road is private and not public.”

Thoren said it’s also the closing attorney’s responsibility to complete a title search.

“A review of those records should indicate whether or not a property is on a public or a private road and the attorney usually obtain a title insurance policy indicating whether or not the property is on a public or private road,” said Thoren. “A good closing attorney will be certain the buyer knows.”