To stop or not to stop?

Residents, HOA Disagree

Legal status of development’s four-way stop signs in question


Article Courtesy of Hometown News -- Palm Beach Gardens

By Pamela Sichel
Posted June 10, 2005

PALM BEACH GARDENS — One December morning in 1990, Norm Ingram headed out of his neighborhood in Frenchman’s Landing, a private development in unincorporated Palm Beach Gardens east of Prosperity Farm Road, just like any other day. This day, though, something was different.

Overnight, new four-way stop signs had appeared at every intersection on Frenchman’s Passage, the main thoroughfare through the development.

Mr. Ingram didn’t have the faintest idea that he would spend the next 15 years in a heated battle over the signs that would include traffic studies and legal fees and promote ill will in the neighborhood.

The contention is over the legality of the signs and whether or not the development’s liability insurance would cover accidents at those intersections.

The first batch of stop signs were hand-made but later replaced with the familiar, red regulation signs.

Mr. Ingram didn’t give the signs much thought but did start using an alternate route out of the development to avoid them, as did many of his neighbors.

In 1994, Mr. Ingram’s friend and attorney, Gil Brophy, stopped by for lunch. Mr. Brophy asked if Mr. Ingram realized that the signs might be illegal.

Stop Signs like this at the intersection of Calais Circle and Frenchman's Passage in the Frenchman's Landing sub-division in Palm Beach Gardens cause the argument.

Mr. Brophy explained that if the signs were illegal, any accident occurring at those intersections might not be covered by the homeowners association’s liability insurance.

Who is liable?

This piqued Mr. Ingram’s curiosity. He called the HOA’s insurance carrier, Nationwide, to ask about liability coverage. A company administrator told him to contact Tom Rice, another resident of Frenchman’s Landing. Mr. Rice, property manager for Frenchman’s Landing, had installed the signs in 1990.

“My wife Gail and I went to see him [Mr. Rice] to find out our status with insurance coverage and if the signs were indeed legal,” Mr. Ingram said.

“He became very angry with me and said he had a pile of documentation several inches thick.

“He said the purpose of the signs was to slow traffic, and there was no issue with legality. He never showed me the documentation, though,” he said.

Mr. Ingram began to investigate the legality of the signs himself. He researched the federal published Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices, adopted as Florida law.

The signs did not meet the warrants or conditions that must be met for stop signs on private property. The MUTCD regulations also said that stop signs may not be used to control traffic speed.

Moreover, Florida law 316.0747 makes it a criminal offense for any non-governmental entity to install traffic control devices not in conformance with the warrant conditions of the MUTCD. Placing unauthorized traffic control signs on private property is a criminal act, according to Florida law.

Mr. Ingram re-contacted the insurance company, still trying to establish whether the homeowner’s association had liability coverage at the intersections.

An attorney for Nationwide responded with a letter stating, “any bodily injury or property damage claim made as a result of an accident or incident related to the four-way stop signs may not be covered under the commercial general liability policy.”

Several years of legal wrangling ensued, with various opinions rendered by traffic engineers, attorneys, the Palm Beach County Planning and Zoning Department, the Florida Department of Transportation and the National Motorists Association.

Who says the signs are legal?

The signs were originally certified as legal, in 1994, by Arnold Ramos, a civil engineer licensed by the state board of engineers.

When SFBE became aware that Mr. Ramos certified the questionable signs, Mr. Ramos was reprimanded by the agency with one year’s probation, a $1,000 fine and additional classes on traffic regulation signs.

In spite of these punitive measures against Mr. Ramos, the certification was not rescinded until 2004, but the signs have since been re-certified by Mr. Ramos.

A change in the MUTCD codes made the re-certification legal, said Mr. Ramos who is now in private practice in Fort Lauderdale. However, he said  he did not conduct a warrant analysis on the signs.

“It’s the warrant analysis that reveals the illegality of the signs,” Mr. Ingram said.

Even county officials disagree on the status of the signs.

In 1994, the Palm Beach County Building and Zoning Department issued a notice of code violation, stating that not only did the signs not conform with the MUTCD warrants, but the four-way signs did not appear on the development’s original site plan filed with the county.

But Denise Nieman, then executive assistant to the county attorney, stated in a 1995 letter to Mr. Ingram, that the MUTCD warrants are “discretionary, not mandatory.”

Florida DOT officials responded to Ms. Nieman’s statement.

“If none of the conditions [MUTCD warrants] are met, then a multi-way stop sign is not warranted,” they wrote.

To date, the Palm Beach County attorney’s office has allowed certification of the signs to remain.

In spite of that, county magistrates have dismissed nine traffic tickets for failure to stop at the contested signs. The dismissals were based on evidence of the illegality of the signs presented by defendants.

A question of safety

Mr. Ingram fears the signs have become more of a danger than a safety precaution because passing motorists routinely ignore the signs.

In videos taken from Mr. Ingram’s front window, the signs are routinely ignored by motorists, including a school bus, UPS delivery trucks, and in one instance, a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office patrol car.

An analysis of the video showed an average of only one in eight cars came to a full stop.

In 2003, Mr. Ingram hired Jack Brucato, a former state highway patrol officer turned private investigator, to perform surveillance on the contested four-way stop signs on Frenchman’s Passage to observe compliance with the signs.

 “In the large majority of vehicles observed, the vehicles roll through the intersection, and in many instances, they make left or right turns with no cessation of movement. This is a scenario that repeats itself on a daily basis,” he wrote in a reported.

“In my opinion, the traffic control devices are not affective in the Frenchman’s Landing complex to the degree that they were intended. Eventually, a side impact or worse will occur at these intersections,” Mr. Brucato wrote.

The development’s homeowners association surveyed residents on whether or not they wanted the signs, according tosaid Lynne Sommers, president of the HOA.

 Sixty percent of the residents responded, and of the 60 percent, 92 percent approved the signs, she said.

When asked about whether the development’s insurance would cover them, should an accident occur at one of the stop signs, Ms. Sommers questioned why the signs were receiving media coverage.

“We have several new and exciting improvements proposed for 2005-2006 years. We are looking forward, not backward,” she said.

Engineer endorses contested stop signs in Frenchmen's Landing

Community's sign fight just won't stop