Gated communities find themselves stuck

with hurricane cleanup costs


Article Courtesy of the The Sun Sentinel

By Tal Abbady
Published September 23, 2004


The perks of residential communities -- member-funded landscaping, private roads, gates to keep out the world -- have become a jurisdictional thorn in the side after Hurricane Frances. Community boards are finding that in times of natural disaster, public assistance available to those on public streets does not always apply to those behind gates or private perimeters.

Some communities have had to charge residents hundreds of dollars each to clear fallen trees and repair damage.
Additionally, cities that spent considerable resources sweeping debris from the streets of private communities are finding out that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will not reimburse them.

State officials monitoring FEMA grants say homeowner associations, not the federal government, are responsible for debris pickup on their turfs.

"As soon as you live inside a gated community with security guards and no public access, you're saying `We're going to handle all things inside here,'" said Jon Myatt, spokesman for the state's emergency response team.

"With so many homeowner associations around the state, people are going to have to get sophisticated about setting up rainy day funds. ... At the end of all this, when all the bills are tallied up and the county goes to the state, our auditors will go through and if anyone provides a bill for debris removal in a gated community, that will be pulled out and not submitted to FEMA."

Private communities in Delray Beach that sought cleanup assistance from city officials initially were turned down, but the city quickly reversed that decision when it learned that many private master association insurance policies cover only damage to buildings, and not the steep expense of hauling debris or replanting toppled trees, according to Mayor Jeff Perlman.

The city spent $200,000 clearing roads in 25 communities, only to learn that FEMA would not reimburse. City officials are appealing to state legislators for help to recoup the expenses.

"We're treating these residents like everybody else. They're taxpayers and not second-class citizens," Perlman said.

Boca Raton city officials also extended cleanup services to private communities, operations manager Judi Ahern said.

"We need emergency access to those roads. We don't care if you live in a castle," Ahern said.

She said the city expected to run into the same reimbursement hurdles as Delray Beach, and that if FEMA refuses to reimburse cities and counties for debris pickup inside private communities, an appeals process may be set up.

"We will seek every avenue of reimbursement," Ahern said.

Despite the helping hand to communities in certain cities, many residential associations are reeling from a storm that underscored the need for better budgeting and has forced boards to impose added fees on residents, who already pay maintenance dues.

In the Waterberry section of Boca Chase, west of Boca Raton, residents will be charged a $750 fee for cleanup and to replace lost trees in accordance with county landscaping laws.

"It's a lot of money and it'll be a real hardship for us," said Milton Seinfeld, 84, who has lived in Waterberry for four years with his wife, Renee, 83. The Seinfelds lost power for 11 days and were still struggling with hurricane-related bills, including the cost of staying with family out of state and having to restock their refrigerator.

"There is illness in this family," Seinfeld, who lives on social security, said of his wife. She suffers from medical problems that cost the couple $6,000 yearly. The Seinfelds pay $55 in monthly dues to Waterberry, and $550 quarterly to the master board.

"I know I have to pay my dues, but I want to see results and I see nothing that merits this new fee," Seinfeld said.

Waterberry President Sid Wasser declined to comment.

In Whisper Walk, a community of 1,446 condominiums west of Boca Raton, residents are bracing themselves for cleanup costs.

Alan Raphael, president of the Summer Winds subdivision, said his section alone has racked up $18,000 for the removal of trees, particularly oaks and other large, shallow-rooted trees. He estimates residents in the senior community will be charged $200 to $300 in fees, including the master association's assessment.

"This thing was devastating. We have to put the association back in order and that's what it's going to cost. We have downed trees and stumps all around," Raphael said.

Community leaders expressed mixed opinions about whether associations should budget for hurricane expenses.

"This is just something that you can never plan enough for," said Sheri Scarborough of the West Boca Community Council. "If you were to increase assessments every year to put money in a reserve, people would complain that you don't need to be reserving for something that's not going to happen. You're never going to please everyone."

Al Grubow, president of the Boca Chase master association, said his board set up a hurricane preparedness fund three years ago and avoided imposing fees like those charged by subdivisions such as Waterberry.

"A lot of people like myself are senior citizens on a fixed income, so a $750 assessment is quite a bite," said Grubow, who emphasized that boards should include a budget line for hurricane expenses.

Representatives of the Delray Beach community of Hammock Reserve, with 273 homes, said they avoided charging fees by opting to restore the neighborhood's flattened trees bit by bit. Board member Pat Vetillo said residents volunteered to put together a post-Frances, penny-wise landscaping plan for the long term.

"We understand people here don't want special assessments. We're willing to work with them and they're willing to be patient," she said. "We're thrifty people here. If you don't got it, you don't spend it."