When Misba Rehman and his family moved to Rosemount, they knew their brand-new house came with a neighborhood full of quiet, winding streets. They didn’t know the street was private, and that they, not the city, would be responsible for its upkeep.
“It’s going to be a huge cost to rebuild in the future, 20 years down the road,” Rehman said. “It doesn’t make sense to have homeowners pick up that kind of cost.”
For residents, private streets offer seclusion and a lower upfront price tag. For developers, they’re an opportunity to build without municipal costs and design constraints. But homeowners in Rosemount and elsewhere, faced with road maintenance costs that will only rise as streets age, are asking local officials to make their streets public.
That transition, however, may not be easy. Private streets often skirt city codes — using thinner asphalt, for example, or providing less right of way — so integrating them into a public network can be tricky, said John Bradford, Woodbury’s city engineer.
“It really poses a maintenance burden on the rest of the taxpayers in the community to take those over,” he said.
Private streets and the homeowners associations that control them started popping up nationwide in the 1970s — a symptom of home buyers wanting greater control over their communities, said Robert Nelson, a University of Maryland professor who studies homeowners associations and the privatization of neighborhoods. He said cities have agreed to developer proposals for private infrastructure, lured by the prospect of a tax base increase without the burden of new streets to maintain.
The private model works as long as homeowners associations have the spending power and wherewithal to keep up with maintenance. But for those that haven’t planned well or simply can’t afford it, future fixes loom large.
“It’s not surprising that some of them might have said, ‘Well, we might have made this deal originally, but we’d rather have the government take care of these things,’ ” Nelson said.
Sometimes residents don’t realize they live on a private street until they’re faced with maintenance costs. In 2012, Eagan started marking private streets with brown signs instead of green signs to show where the city’s responsibilities ended and residents’ began.
Rehman said he and his neighbors, who spent more than $13,000 on a preventive seal coating a couple of years ago, are worried they won’t be able to meet the cost of rebuilding as the street ages.
After hearing from the neighbors, the Rosemount City Council is considering an ordinance that would allow the city to acquire private streets. But there’s no consensus yet, said City Administrator Dwight Johnson.
Upgrades can be costly
In the late 2000s, Prior Lake got a slew of complaints about private street maintenance from homeowners associations.
“We heard a lot of people say, ‘We pay taxes just like everyone else, yet we have to maintain our own streets,’ ” said City Engineer Larry Poppler. “That was kind of the cry from a number of neighborhoods.”
In response, the city created a policy in 2009 that requires homeowners to go through a multi-step process, including obtaining the consent of all their neighbors, before their street can be made public. A big part of that process is bringing the street up to municipal standards, so the city isn’t saddled with a rundown street. But for homeowners, those fixes can cost thousands of dollars.
Since the Prior Lake ordinance passed, requests from homeowners associations have dropped significantly, Poppler said. In nearly six years, only two streets have gone through the process. The latest will likely be approved next month, after more than two years of work by homeowners and city staff.
These days, city officials actively discourage developers from building private streets.
City Council members “don’t want to have to take that call 10 years from now,” Poppler said.