Winter Springs wall holds up merits of regulation


Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

By Beth Kassab

Published July 30, 2012


This is a story about how something so mundane, so seemingly innocuous can grow into a big and expensive problem.

It's a story about how many problems, especially in the world of local government, can be prevented if the right backstops are in place.

How we could have saved months of homeowners worrying about an unexpected bill for thousands of dollars, tense City Commission meetings and even a few rolls of yellow caution tape if things had been done properly from the start.

And it's a tale of why the election-year mantra that government regulations do more harm than good isn't all it's cracked up to be.

The story starts with a brick wall the kind that surround subdivisions throughout Central Florida suburbs. They're as common as SUVs in school pickup lines.

People love their walls. They protect backyards from traffic and noise, offer privacy and look a whole lot better than a patchwork of individually owned fences.

And that was the way it was for a long time inside a Winter Springs subdivision of 90 homes in the sprawling Tuscawilla development.

Then the wall, built in the early 1980s, began to show its age. Bricks started to crack, and the mortar turned brittle. Sections of the wall looked so ready to fall that the city recently demolished them after declaring a public-safety hazard which prompted the yellow tape.

People in the neighborhood wanted the wall fixed. Many figured it was the city's problem or didn't know who was responsible for the wall.

After all, the developer went out of business a short time after construction was finished and never set up a homeowners association. The subdivision was never even given a fancy name like the others around it Davenport Glen or Glen Eagle. It was just Unit 12.

Months of back-and-forth between the city and the residents turned up some important facts. A survey revealed that as much as 80 percent of the 3,000-foot wall along Winter Springs Boulevard and Northern Way is built on or touching city right of way.

"That should have never happened," said Winter Springs City Manager Kevin Smith. "There was a lot of confusion about ownership of the wall."

And though the city could find the original building permit for the wall, it couldn't turn up any inspection records or other documentation.

Somebody whether the city, the developer or both didn't follow the rules. And now the current city administration and the residents are paying for it.

One estimate put the cost of taking down the wall and rebuilding it at about $500,000.

"The city didn't think it had to maintain the wall," said Jon Lee, whose backyard is lined by the wall. "And the homeowners didn't think we had to maintain it because it was not on our property."

Smith insists all taxpayers won't be saddled with the cost. That means the 90 households in Unit 12 will likely have to pick up the cost, which is how it should be, considering they benefit most from the wall.

The city and residents could have avoided months of hand-wringing if the developer had built the wall in the right place and established a way to maintain it. And the city should have done its job and checked the developer's work.

You don't have to look far for other examples of expensive problems that could have been prevented.

It was too little regulation, not too much, that resulted in homes being built on and near the former Pinecastle Jeep Bombing Range, where bombs were later discovered in front yards and schoolyards. It cost the government millions in cleanup fees, not to mention the drop in property values for homeowners. The old bombing range was no secret. That land should never have been developed without being checked for munitions first.

And though the city of Winter Springs has been adamant that it won't make all taxpayers pay for the wall with no owner, other towns haven't been so lucky.

Severe flooding plagued parts of DeBary in Volusia County, sending water into homes more than once because proper drainage and development guidelines weren't followed when surrounding subdivisions were built.

Now all taxpayers in DeBary are paying yearly stormwater fees to fix the problem.

It's hard to find a candidate running for office this year who doesn't decry regulations as anti-business job killers. And there's no doubt some regulations are redundant or unnecessary.

But many are there for a reason, intended to check for shoddy work and shortcuts that will cause trouble long after developers or the bureaucrats who oversee them are gone.

And all that's left is a decrepit wall that has turned into a half-million-dollar problem for someone else to fix.