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When residents own the streets

Private roads offer a sense of security and may help neighbors bond. But in the absence of city services, owners must pony up.

May 14, 2006|Michelle Hofmann | Special to The Times

FOR Ventura County resident Peter Zinnato, sanctuary is living on a private street in the secluded community of Solano Verde Ranch in Somis. Here, 39 homes sit on 20-acre parcels, and long driveways lead to elegant mansions.

Privacy and safety drew Zinnato, 62, to the area four years ago. Peace of mind and a sense of community keep him here.

Roads privately owned and maintained by homeowners are popping up all over for one simple reason: As budget-strapped municipalities cut back on services, new developments have no choice but to go private.

Some cities won't approve new subdivisions unless there is a plan for a homeowners association to maintain the streets, said Claude John "C.J." Klug, a former city manager for La Mirada and Commerce who has run homeowners associations for 20 years.

Although new home buyers are increasingly encountering private-road communities, public roads are the norm in established neighborhoods. About 3% of the 6,500 miles of Los Angeles' city streets -- about the same percentage as a decade ago -- are private. About 4% of the 310 miles of streets in Burbank are private. And, in Pasadena, which has added less than one mile of private streets since 1996, about 2% of the 350 miles of city streets are private.

From a home buyer's perspective, private streets may mean more available parking, privacy, a safer and more closely knit community and a lack of cut-through traffic. But they also may drain homeowners' wallets.

If a tree falls onto a public street, the municipality removes it, said Ken Pellman, a spokesman for the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works. "But if that tree was on a private street and private property, the owner of that property would be responsible for removing the tree and paying for any damage."

Without the ability to tap city services, owners on private streets have to reach a consensus about everything associated with maintaining a street, such as roadways and sidewalks, landscaping and trees, street lighting, gates and security, parking hours and speed limits, plus any number of unforeseen difficulties.

Chatsworth resident Jenny Sheng, 42, who bought a 5,000-square-foot contemporary home in Trammell Estates in 2001, said living on a private street is not like moving to Mayberry.

Sheriff Andy Taylor isn't there to ticket speeders, and to date, Sheng said the community, which is responsible for hiring its own security and street maintenance, has been unable to agree on whom to hire.

For now, the owners are keeping the streets clean themselves.

If she moves again, Sheng said, it won't be to a private street.

"Some people are controlling to the point that it's ridiculous, and there are a lot of additional rules and regulations," she said. "On a private street, you have to deal with that."

For Lomita resident Anne Antletz, living on a private street has had its challenges. Antletz's quiet road has four houses and little traffic.

There is no formal homeowners association, and Antletz, who has lived there for 30 years, said the neighbors just work things out.

Sometimes that's easier said than done.

When the paved street started to deteriorate in the 1980s and one owner refused to share repair costs, Antletz and her neighbors took matters into their own hands.

"We only paved the road in front of our three houses," she said. Over time, the unpaved portion of the road, which sits opposite Antletz's home, has eroded. Some of the residents fill it with gravel periodically.

Though relations can get bumpy, owners say living on a private street can result in a sense of community. And in a city where some people never meet their neighbors, Zinnato said, unity can be an advantage.

When a wildfire destroyed one home, charred the landscape, melted sprinklers and water lines and resulted in the only water tank that services the community running dry in October 2003, Solano Verde owners banded together.

"The fire department sent two trucks, but all they could do was direct traffic," he said. "There was no water."

When the smoke cleared, the community rallied. Rather than wait for the management company to send a cleanup crew, some residents cleaned the streets and removed debris in the common areas not covered by homeowners' insurance.

They also spent $70,000 replanting the hillsides to protect against erosion.

In Solano Verde, monthly dues of $390 provide a financial buffer for unexpected expenses, and the homeowners association maintains the trash, streets and parkways. But if there's a problem, Zinnato said, they all pitch in.

Pitching in doesn't suit everyone's style. Those considering buying on a private street should find out what the developer proposed or the municipality granted during the permit process.

For instance, publicly owned storm drains and sewers should have an easement that allows the municipality access for maintenance. Without an easement, the responsibility for the infrastructure could fall to the property owner.

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