Can County Get Ventura Heights Out Of Lien Times?

"The Legislature is a Patsy for Homebuilders!"

That's County Judge Nelson Wolff in yesterday's Bexar County Commissioners Court expressing his frustration with flimsy state law that allows for messes to develop like the one currently found in Ventura Heights, an unincorporated subdivision near Converse. In response to resident after resident pleading during public commentary for help to fix roads pockmarked with giant potholes and foot-wide curb erosion, Judge Wolff said the Texas Legislature prevented counties from truly holding developers accountable for shoddy infrastructure, but strongly suggested the commissioner's court find a new solution to the residents' plight, which he considered a matter of public safety.

In the case of Ventura Heights, the developer, Obra Homes, failed to build the subdivision's roads in compliance with county specifications and went out of business before finishing required maintenance to bring the roads under the County's jurisdiction. The gaps between driveways and road, lane-wide potholes and crumbling curbs cause residents to swerve like Grand Theft Auto players and refrain from using their own driveways. Two residents told the Commissioners Court that the shabby roads also hampered bus service from Judson ISD and police response time. Janet Ahmad, president of Homeowners for Better Builders, said she's seen this type of damage frequently in other unincorporated subdivisions since she began investigating it in 2000. Ahmad helped organize Ventura Heights resident speakers at Commissioners Court, many of whom were female or minority homeowners.

Initially, San Antonio Express-News reported that Bexar County would front the $1.3 million to repair the two most damaged roads, placing $7,731.84 liens on each of Ventura Heights' 170 homes, to be paid back when the home sells. But after hearing residents, many of whom bought their homes for between $80,000-$110,000 since 2003, Judge Wolff stated a change of course was needed. "That won't work," he told us today by phone, echoing comments he made in Commissioners Court. "This is only within two streets in this neighborhood," thus many neighbors would likely be unwilling to agree to such a lien, to say nothing of those who bought their homes along the rutted roads with no inkling of the damage to come.

While an editorial in the Express-News encouraged Ventura Heights to vote for the lien proposal after their paper reported on the story in early May, and not "stick taxpayers with subdivision costs," it seems the bad roads make it more difficult for Ventura Heights residents to receive the same quality of local services they pay for their own taxes. With this inequality only growing, and a limited amount of authority and funding available, county commissioners batted around alternative ideas, to be further discussed with Ventura Heights homeowners in an ad-hoc meeting Precinct 4 Commissioner Tommy Adkisson will convene next Thursday.

"What you saw yesterday was an exercise in spontaneity that public officials are confronted with from time to time," said Adkisson today. While he and the rest of the court take this issue of subpar streets more seriously than they ever have -- on April 20 they passed a requirement for developers to post an 18-month warranty bond for 10 percent of the cost to build the subdivision roads -- they are wary of opening what Precinct 2 Commissioner Paul Elizondo called "a Pandora's box" among the 122 units throughout Bexar County experiencing similar problems. "We cannot make decisions in a vacuum that are not considerate of the big picture," said Adkisson, and the big picture is that the county doesn't have the millions of dollars needed to fix problems caused by developers who cut and run. Elizondo suggested authorizing the County attorney's office to review whether the County could bring a class action lawsuit against the developer under Texas' deceptive trade practices consumer protection act, which includes passing off goods and services for those of another as a punishable deceptive act, which Adkisson said he's also very supportive of investigating, as is Wolff. "We need to go after somebody on this," said Wolff, "how are `the homeowners` to know who's responsible for the streets?"In the meantime, Adkisson suggests potential buyers considering a home in an unincorporated subdivision contact the county's infrastructure services department. "They may be able to get some inside information."

Otherwise, County Commissioners claim they're "hamstrung" by the Legislature in terms of their regulation capabilities. "We go to them every year for permit and zoning authority," said Wolff. "Every year they turn us down and terrible tragedies like this happen." With campaign donors like Bob Perry continuously filling state congressional coffers on both sides of the aisles, don't look for legislators to change their tune next session, either.

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