When CiTiRAMA 2005 opens May 14, visitors might not give a second thought to Rockford Woods, the 2001 CiTiRAMA neighborhood. But if they're considering buying a house in the new one, they might want to first look at the previous one.
The development company the city chose for Rockford Woods, in Northside, left the new neighborhood with vacant lots, deteriorating streets, $25,000 in back-due taxes, thousands more in unpaid bills and assorted other problems. One of the owners of that company is back again for CiTiRAMA 2005.
EHHV, LLC was the developer of 2001 CiTiRAMA. Two of the partners are Jerry Honerlaw and Rob Etherington; records are unclear about the identity of a third. Homeowners say the developer has failed to return calls and to respond to various directives from the city of Cincinnati to follow through on its commitments.
Now the clock is ticking on foreclosure proceedings for unpaid property taxes for parcels that were supposed to be community greenspace.
Shovel your own street
Rockford Woods was planned in two phases. Four years after it was started, residents have spent $10,000 and countless hours trying to have the development finished.
"We're an unusual community," says Mike Smith, active in neighborhood efforts to untangle the legal and financial mess. "It has what Cincinnati has the potential to be: We're black people, white people, gay people, straight people, interracial couples, we have a home for retarded women — a real mix of folks."
Discovery of the problem started with a discussion about fees for the the homeowners association. Smith was talking with a neighbor, who asked, "What homeowners association?"
It turned out that only three residents were ever told about the homeowners association. No covenants or restrictions were provided during the sales process, according to residents. No dues were paid. When Smith wanted to build a fence, he dealt with Etherington — who, Smith says, represented himself as acting on behalf of the nonexistent homeowners association's board.
"This neighborhood was a partnership between the developer, community and city of Cincinnati," Smith says.
He and his neighbors would like to see each party take responsibility for its commitments.
Zoned as a planned unit development (PUD), Rockford Woods required a variety of city permits.
"The city has some policies and codes that they enter into with any developer in the city," Smith says. "The city establishes criteria for the city to issue building permits relative to the PUD. The developer had to establish and legally incorporate a homeowners association, restrictions, covenants and agreements."
A draft of those documents was filed with the Building and Inspections Department, but final copies never materialized. Yet the city approved permits for the builder anyway.
"There are procedures for which (the department of) building and inspections can issue the permits without all the appropriate filing," says Mike Cervay, director of the Community Development and Planning Department. "It was decided to expedite that process because this was the site of a CiTiRAMA and it's in the city's best interest to facilitate CiTiRAMA events."
Cervay, who has been in his position less than a year, relates why the decision to issue permits was made.
"Part of the reason that decision was made was because we could hold up the certificates of occupancy after the construction is done," he says. "What that does is it closes out the building permit."
This safety net sounds reasonable, but it didn't work for Rockford Woods.
"Property owners had closed on the lots and their structures and were trying to file for tax abatement they were promised, and they needed that certificate of occupancy for the county to get their tax abatement," Cervay says.
The city's desire to further the success of CiTiRAMA 2001 appears to have sacrificed the long-term integrity of the homes of at least 16 families.
All of the deeds on record for houses on the streets of Dovetail Lane and High Hollow Lane are inaccurately recorded; homeowners association restrictions and covenants weren't included, according to Smith and his neighbor, Jeffery Leptek-Moreau. But that's not the only problem.
The streets were built as private roads. Homeowners say they were never told, and title searches on their properties didn't turn up the easements that would have warned them.
Until the streets fell into disrepair and basic services such as snow removal weren't provided, residents didn't know that the nonexistent homeowners association — not the city — is responsible for maintenance.
Complicating the matter further, the Hamilton County Auditor's office says the developer didn't file the necessary easements on the private roads, and taxes on them are also past due.
Unless the developer brings the roads up to code and requests the exemptions necessary to make them public streets, residents will either have to pay the $95,000 bill to bring them up to city standards or deal with the maintenance on their own.
In addition, Cinergy has an outstanding bill for the installation of streetlights and the electricity that's operated them for three years.
The maintenance, repair and bills for the sewer system are also up in the air. In a report dated March 31, 2004, Laura Porter, then acting director of the Community Development and Planning Department, reported to neighbors about her discussion with the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD): "MSD's ratepayers are not going to be saddled with the undo liability arising from a private sewer system. You are advised to contact MSD's Engineering Division ... should you desire to address this matter with MSD."
At an informal meeting in October 2003 arranged by the mayor's office, homeowners say, the developer attempted to dump all these issues into their laps. Etherington arrived with his attorney and a completed draft of the homeowners association restrictions and covenants. Residents were instructed to sign the documents and elect their board. This would have given the group liability for the developer's mistakes and debts. They refused to sign and told the developer to leave, according to Smith and Leptek-Moreau.
Honerlaw says the blame lies with the city and the homeowners.
"I don't think I want to say anything because this could get into a pretty nasty legal battle," he says. "I've had it with them. They've abused me enough, and they're not going to abuse me any more. I'm being blamed for a lot of things I didn't do."
Etherington didn't return calls requesting an interview.
'The bizarre twist'
The Community Development and Planning Department is attempting to sort out what to do next. Cervay has asked residents to be patient while they try to "get their arms around" the issues. When asked why this attempt is different from past failed efforts, Cervay's response is direct.
"I'm here," he says. "There's been a series of acting directors in this position which has encumbered them from giving this the attention it warrants."
Della Caldwell, a Rockford Woods resident, can't understand the delay. She and other residents met with Cervay and provided him all of the information they've gathered over the past three years.
"This is an easy fix," she says. "They're making it more complicated than it needs to be."
In a March 2 report to council, City Manager Valerie Lemmie only partially summarized the problems and called homeowners uncooperative in establishing the homeowners association. Lemmie outlined a plan to offer the developer "financial support" to finish Phase I and begin Phase II.
Cervay admits that going back to the same developer with additional work is "risky." In the month and a half since council directed city staff to meet with all the parties, the city has called the developer's last known attorney but messages haven't been answered, Cervay says.
Leptek-Moreau met with Councilman David Pepper, vice chair of the Neighborhood and Public Services Committee. Pepper expressed concern about holding up new projects while trying to sort out the Rockford Woods situation, according to Leptek-Moreau.
"What assurances are there that this fiasco isn't going to be repeated at this year's CiTiRAMA?" he says.
Pepper says he's trying to get a handle on the issue.
"To be honest, the first I heard of it was two weeks ago," he says. "Given all that I've heard, it would not be good to have this happen again. If I thought I was getting into a situation where I thought a (developer) wasn't capable of doing it, that's another issue."
Cervay outlines what needs to take place in the future.
"Good management and administration of the regulations and conscientious adherence to the regulations in the future is what needs to happen," he says. "But we run the risk, in doing that, of appearing bureaucratic and doctrinaire. So it's a fine line the city has to walk here as far as being sensitive to the needs to facilitate development and on the other hand protect the city's interest. That's why the codes and regulations are there, to protect the public's interest. This is an example of where it was not done as good as it normally is, and that's what makes it an anomaly."
Pepper says a meeting is the best way to address the current problem.
"We work through this with lawyers," he says.
But residents say they want to find a resolution that won't require having lawyers involved.
Tim Jeckering, former president of the Northside Community Council, says the homeowners are caught in the middle.
"I think it's unfortunate that the homeowners are the ones saddled with sorting this out," he says. "But they're pretty happy people. You can see how happy and satisfied the owners still are. They want to stay. That's the bizarre twist to the whole story — they don't want to leave, even with all this going on." ©