Water bills anger residents

Article Courtesy of NJ.COM
August 6, 2002
LAWRENCE - George Barker was sold on carefree living in a matter of hours. 

"They said, `It's going to be your home in heaven,' so to speak." The 80-year-old retiree had stopped by a roadside trailer to hear a sales presentation on Lawrenceville Point, an "active-adult" housing development. "They said, `If you move in here, your troubles are basically over.' " 

But troubles haven't let up for 134 residents of the over-55 community since Barker, the first resident, picked up his keys in April 2000 and moved in. 

The latest trouble came with a cutoff notice from Trenton Water Works. If Lawrenceville Point homeowners association didn't pay up on a $5,718 balance to have water continuously available to its fire hydrants, the utility company warned, water would be shut off June 4 - not only to the hydrants, but to all 88 houses. 

Residents said they wouldn't have a problem paying the invoice if they weren't being asked to pay twice for the same service. Like all township homeowners, they pay quarterly bills for their own home water usage. And like all homeowners, through property taxes they foot the bill for fire hydrants throughout the township. And now, they said, the water company wants them to pay separately for the development's fire hydrants as well. 

"We've been getting hit from all sides," said Fred Cohen, a homeowners association board member. "I think they want to just get over on us because we're older." 

But double payment is not an age-specific problem. 

"Yes, they are paying double," said Township Manager William Guhl. "But there's more to it than that. Lots of people are doing that." 

Guhl explained that residents in areas where no public water service is available pay for their own wells and still pay for public water service through property taxes. And private companies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb pay for public water through property taxes and pay privately for water in their fire hydrants. 

But the senior citizens with fixed incomes in Lawrenceville Point say they can't afford to pay twice. 
It's an added twist to an old problem. 

When housing and condominium developments began springing up across the state in the 1980s, residents of the private communities often found they were paying twice - through homeowners' fees and property taxes - for municipal services. 

State legislators addressed the problem in 1989 with the Condominium Services Act, which requires municipalities to reimburse private communities for snow removal, street lighting and trash collection. 

The legislation did not address double payment for hydrant water, sewage or street sweeping though, leaving Lawrenceville Point and other developments high and dry, without much in the way of legal recourse. 

But Lawrenceville Point residents did find one case in which a private development challenged double payment of hydrant water successfully. 

Pennington Point, an over-55 development made up of 102 homes, filed suit in 1997 against Pennington Borough. The residents' attorney, Robert Grundlock, said he was able to prove that the fire hydrants on the development's private property could serve other homeowners nearby. The borough now foots the bill for hydrant water in the development. 

While the circumstances may be different in Lawrenceville Point - hydrants may not be as close to homes outside the subdivision - Grundlock said the problem is the same. 

"They're basically getting charged for something that someone down the block is getting for free," he said. 

Lawrenceville Point residents contacted Grundlock in December and were told their case would cost $20,000 at minimum to litigate, even though they probably would win. 

"We've decided not to file a suit for now," Fred Cohen said. "That would just be an added financial burden. We're kind of between a rock and a hard place financially." 

Since their hydrant water charges first started adding up last summer, residents said they have contacted everyone they could think of for help, including the township, Trenton Water Works, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities and state Sen. Shirley Turner. 

All were unable to help them. 
Many people, including Lawrence Mayor Doris Weisberg, lay blame at the feet of homeowners, who "should have known better" when they bought their units that extra costs would be involved. 

"It's incumbent when you buy into this kind of thing that you know what you're getting into," Weisberg said. "I am an older person on a fixed income. I'm talking from that position." 

Lawrenceville Point residents asked Weisberg and the township council in May for help with their double-payment problem but got no relief. The council voted unanimously not to pay for the development's hydrants. 

"The township manager recommended that we maintain the status quo, and we agreed with that position," Weisberg said. "We have bent over backwards. We have given every concession that's in our power to give." 

When interviewed Thursday, Turner said she helped residents get a reprieve from a water cutoff last month, but she said officials at the Board of Public Utilities told her the residents were not being double charged. 

"If they are being taxed twice, then that should not be," Turner said. "I would be happy to introduce legislation that would make it clear that a homeowner should only be charged once for the same service. All I need to know is what type of legislation to introduce." 

The senator said she wants to put a stop to the practice statewide. 

"Apparently what happened is a lot of these developers agreed to whatever the townships wanted," Turner said. "Then when the homeowners moved in, they realized they shouldn't have agreed to all that." 

The developer of both Lawrenceville Point and Pennington Point, Peter Blicher of Pennington Properties, said he had no idea about the hydrant water fees until very late in the process. 

"This issue, I think, surprised everybody," he said. "There was a big debate. We didn't find out about it until the end." 

That means he didn't tell prospective buyers about the fees, and they weren't included in estimates of what homeowners would be expected to pay for. 

"There's got to be some legislation to solve this or the township's got to take care of it," he said. "Obviously on anything we do in the future we've got to talk with the towns about this." 
The battle to obtain reimbursement for the services that are covered by the Condominium Services Act has not been easy either. 

"Whatever is required by law they'll pay us and not one penny more," said 66-year-old Robert Guadagnino, president of Lawrenceville Point Homeowners Association. "It doesn't even come close to meeting the cost." 

Lawrence Township paid the association $355.24 for snow removal during the past 18 months, while the association paid out $29,790.17 for the service. 

The township reimbursed $1,817 for 18 months of street lighting, but the lighting cost residents $8,600.32. It would have cost more, but developer Pennington Properties picked up part of the lighting tab last year. 

Trash and recyclables at Lawrenceville Point are picked up by the township. 

Several factors account for the large differences between costs and reimbursements, said township manager Guhl. 

Lawrenceville Point has more street lights than the law requires, and driveways and sidewalks are included in the development's snow removal costs. 

"All we do is make the roads driveable," Guhl said. "They get a lot more plowed than that." 

Also, private communities are at the mercy of private contractors so developments pay a lot more for services than the township would, he said. The Condominium Services Act only requires the town to reimburse at the same rate the township would have paid to provide the same services. 

Lawrenceville Point board member Fred Cohen said over-55 communities, whose numbers have exploded across the state in recent years, pose unique problems. 

"We have people here in wheelchairs, people who are disabled, people who can't take care of themselves," he said. 

That means they need more street lighting, more snow cleared and more sensitivity. 

"We have 134 people who need representation," said Guadagnino, the association president. "There's been a lack of sensitivity toward these problems." 
But the issue plagues all-age subdivisions as well. 

Because the Condominium Services Act did not include any methods of enforcement, residents across central Jersey who live in both age-restricted and unrestricted developments have been at the mercy of municipalities and their willingness to pay. 

In East Windsor, all-age developments such as The Orchard, Windsor Mill, Windsor Regency and Twin Rivers all reported trouble getting reimbursements in the mid-'90s. 

The Lumberton Township Committee in Burlington County only reached a payback accord in 1996 with the Country Estates subdivision - three years after the act was to take effect. 

The Homestead at Mansfield, which boasts 873 over-55 units, concluded a five-year dispute in 1998 with Mansfield Township over financial responsibility for municipal services. 

Last year, residents of 403 over-55 units in the Evergreen housing complex in Hamilton retained a lawyer to help them mediate with the township. In February, the all-age owners of 303 homes in Ravenscroft, also in Hamilton, threatened to file suit to recover reimbursements. 

While other subdivisions are fighting it out in the courts, Lawrenceville Point hopes to resolve its issues without astronomic legal costs. 

The homeowners association has paid a portion of the hydrant water bill "under protest." 

"We paid just enough so the water wasn't shut off," Cohen said. 

The next installment of $1,269.34 is due Aug. 25. 

"We're not being treated like every other household in the town," said Dee Davis, vice president of the homeowners association. 

But not every other household in the town bought into the carefree living concept. 

"The builder said you move in here and you won't have to do anything," said Janice Guadagnino, wife of the board president. "Nothing except pay."