R-Bar resident asks county for drainage help

OKEECHOBEE — R-Bar Estate homeowner Vance Akins addressed the Okeechobee County Board of Commissioners at their Aug. 25 meeting about drainage problems in R-Bar Estates.

“Our issues are maintenance of our drainage ditches,” said Mr. Akins. He said R-Bar residents have appealed without success to the County Road Department to have the ditches cleaned out.

“One of the major issues is the county’s opinion that it is not yours to clean,” he said.

“This was cleared at one time,” he said, showing photos of ditches in the R-Bar area. Now it is overgrown with pepper plants and hydrilla,” he said.

“Over the years, because of non-maintenance, it is creating kind of a dike,” he said. “The water is not able to drain back into the cemetery.”

He said there has been no maintenance of drainage easements and culverts in quite a few years.

He also showed photos of culverts that were collapsed or completely filled with dirt.

“I was advised that in order to maintain the ditches, that the plats must be approved by the county,” he said. He said the county records show the plat was approved in 1979.

He said the easements were dedicated “for the use of the general public forever.”

Homeowners are required to provide a drainage easement when they purchase their home.

“I initially was told this issue was the problem of R-Bar Estates. R-Bar Estates in our area is not under a homeowners’ association.

“The county did maintain those easements for quite a few years. I was told later that the county should not have done that, that it wasn’t their responsibility,” he said.

Mr. Akins said he has heard the county may require R-Bar property owners pay a special assessment to maintain the drainage ditches.

“When we bought the property, it wasn’t brought to our attention,” he said.

“As far as we knew, it was the county’s responsibility.

“The county was cleaning these ditches for years, and they suddenly stopped,” he said.

An Aug. 14 memorandum from Public Works Director Lee Evett states:
“I have reviewed research performed in 1998 by the Road Department staff on the same question and reviewed all pertinent documents in the official records of the county concerning the approval process for sub-dividing land into what is today the R-Bar subdivision.

“My conclusion is that the county is responsible for maintaining the dedicated roads and associated road side swales within R-Bar but is not responsible for any other dedicated drainage features.”

At the Aug. 25 meeting, Mr. Evett said the easements that Mr. Akins mentioned were signed by all of the homeowners, and are not county easements.

He said the homeowners association at the time of dedication had accepted the maintenance responsibility for the drainage easements.

“There were two or perhaps three occasions when the county did some remedial work on the ditches,” he said. “We did not do it as a matter of routine.”

He said from time to time they did some work at the direction of commissioners who were in office at the time.

He said no work on those easements has been done by the county in at least nine years.

“It’s difficult to go back and determine what transpired 20 to 30 years ago,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper. “It becomes a legal issue.

“We don’t want to see anybody put underwater,” he said. “By the same token, we have to work within the legal parameters.”

“Dedicating property to the public does not mean acceptance for maintenance,” said Chairman Frank Irby. He said plat approval does not mean the county is accepting responsibility.

“We’ve had a history lesson,” said Commissioner Terry Burroughs. He asked how they can go from here to solve the problem.

The homeowners association needs to be reactivated and accept their responsibility, said Mr. Evett.

County Attorney John Cassels said R-Bar was done in a number of phases, and only one area has a homeowners association.

“Most of the people out there don’t have the option of reactivating their homeowners association,” he said.

Mr. Cassels said the county has three options, which were outlined in the county staff report.

• The first option is to reaffirm that this is not a county government issue except for the roads and roadside swales, and allow the homeowners to solve the problem themselves.

• The second option is to consider the creation a special non-ad valorem assessment to rehabilitate and thereafter maintain the drainage system for the R-Bar Estates collection of subdivisions. It should be noted that although the initial cost of bringing the system up to county and water management district standards would be incurred by the county at the front end, the reimbursements from the property owners would likely have to be amortized over some years to be affordable when added to the annual maintenance costs.

• The third option is to consider accepting maintenance without a special assessment district at county taxpayer expense. This alternative is not recommended by county staff as it would set an unsustainable precedent and the total cost to the county would be incalculable. Given the number of older subdivisions without active homeowners associations, active associations that may be encouraged to cease maintaining their systems or dissolve their associations, and the number of unplatted subdivisions, the concept of establishing one or more water control districts should be considered prior to accepting individual subdivisions or areas on an ad hoc basis without a funding mechanism.

Commissioner Culpepper asked if the county staff could determine how much it will cost to do the remedial work needed and to maintain the ditches.

Mr. Evett said they could do an evaluation for the work required. He said the initial expense will probably be more than the homeowners would want to pay at one time. He said if they do this with a special assessment, they will have to determine how much storm water each property contributes to the drainage. He said all of the properties in the subdivision contribute storm water, not just those with frontage on the ditches.

“We do have a number of situations that fall within the same category,” said Mr. Evett. He said R-Bar is not the only subdivision with this issue.

Chairman Irby said if the commission reaffirms that this is not the county’s responsibility, they could go forward with creating a special assessment district.

The county attorney said creation of an assessment district requires approval of a certain percentage of homeowners who own a certain percentage of the land. He said they have to come up with a fair and reasonable apportionment using a sensible methodology. He said the county commission could initiate the process or the property owners could petition the county to start the process.

“I think the first step is to get an idea what it is going to cost,” said Commissioner Culpepper.

Mr. Evett said the cost would be based on the drainage basin. He said part of the cemetery might be included in that basin.

When they figure the cost of addressing the drainage in that basin, “there is probably going to be sticker shock,” he said.

He said they could probably come up with a budget with options in about 60 days.

“Is it possible to have authorization to bring in a backhoe and give us some relief?” asked Mr. Akins. He said one ditch on a back corner has a lot of sediment built up that blocks the flow of water.

Mr. Evett said it would be a terrible precedent to set.

“This is a situation that is simply not the county’s responsibility, and it hasn’t been since 1979,” Mr. Evett said.

He added that with a storm predicted to hit Florida this weekend, the county workers are already busy with work on county property. He said he does not want to take equipment away from the storm preparation work.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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