Rule of the road: Legal trumps fair

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Barbara Black peered at the gravel road leading to her spacious home in the Sunny Meadows subdivision one February morning.
At first glance, the stretch looks no different than the hundreds of public roads networked across Lee County: It’s clean; it’s maintained; it’s dotted with a dozen new homes.
But the absence of a blue county road sign lets motorists know Sunny Meadows is no public road. It’s a private drive.
And therein lies a problem – at least for residents who have tried and failed to get the county to adopt and maintain the 450-foot stretch. Because the county won’t take it in, they spend thousands of their own dollars to maintain it themselves.
“We pay $800 a year in property taxes to the county,” Black said. “Others in the subdivision pay $1,500 to $2,000 a year in property taxes. They’ll take in other people’s roads, but they won’t take in ours. It’s not fair.”
The ongoing battle over Sunny Meadows Lane reveals a dark spot in the otherwise consistent process of handling government affairs.
In the absence of strict guidelines on how private roads become public, county supervisors can make their own rules and apply them as they see fit.
It doesn’t have to be fair. It just has to be legal, said Pat Dendy, director of technical assistance for the state auditor’s office.
“The real issue here, the only issue, is, does the board have a duty to perform some action?” Dendy said. “If the board is failing to perform any action they’re supposed to perform, they can go to court. That’s not the case here because it’s discretionary.”

Taking in a road
Lee County operates under a unit system, meaning roads are catalogued and maintained countywide – not district by district. A county road department managed by a county road supervisor handles the work.
Supervisors don’t control public roads in their own districts, but as the Sunny Meadows case illustrates, they can – and do – decide whether the private drives in their district become public.
Although any supervisor can recommend roads outside his district, Lee County supervisors have an unofficial agreement not to meddle in each other’s affairs.
That means no one outside District 1 will touch Sunny Meadows. The decision to recommend it rests solely with District 1 Supervisor Phil Morgan.
Morgan told the group he won’t recommend the road to the full board until it meets certain specifications. They require a thick layer of asphalt or a mix of double bituminous surface treatment – DBST – with slopes on either side of the road for drainage.
The specifications were outlined in a 2002 letter from Morgan to subdivision developer Dean Webb and again in a 2005 fax to Webb.
To bring Sunny Meadows “up to that standard would take some crushed stone or clay gravel,” said Tim Allred, county road supervisor. “It’d take about $10,000 to put it down and another $3,500 to $5,000 in DBST or asphalt. That’d be what it would cost to bring it up.”
That’s a hunk of change for residents who live along the road. Conversely, it’s only one-half of 1 percent of the county’s $3.4 million annual road maintenance budget.
Still, Morgan said it’s unfair to make all county residents pay for the inadequacies of one subdivision’s roads. He said the fixes should be covered by its residents and developers, not taxpayers.

Rules applied inconsistently
But developers say those specifications haven’t been applied consistently.
Take the roads in Sunny Lane and Golden Hills subdivisions, for example. Both are in Morgan’s district, both were developed by Webb and his partner, Sid Kirksey, and both were taken in by the county.
But neither were made to adhere to the regulations cited by Morgan.
The Daily Journal couldn’t obtain county maintenance records for Sunny Lane, but those for Golden Hills reveal $105,824 in expenditures to improve it since it was made public in 2006.
Workers performed grading, road-bed repair, right-of-way maintenance, installed culverts, laid DBST and patched potholes.
Billy Curl, who developed the nine-lot Ridgeland subdivision in 2004, said Morgan also gave him regulations for his roads. Curl built them according to the specifications but didn’t add the DBST because, he said, it wasn’t part of the deal.
Now, Curl said, Morgan won’t take in the roads until they have DBST.
“I thought it was unfair,” Curl said. “Phil Morgan took in Dean Webb’s … subdivision without it, but he won’t take in mine.”
Morgan had told the Daily Journal last month that he accepted Golden Hills because residents of that subdivision began their petition process earlier than that Sunny Meadows group.
Residents of Sunny Meadows, which was developed in 2002, said they’ve been trying at least five years to get the process started.

Rules or opinions?
Regardless of when the petition process began, no one in Lee County knows whether Morgan’s regulations ever were adopted by the five-member board. If they’re not a part of the minutes, they’re technically not in effect.
A review of board minutes dating back to January 2000 shows no record of them. Current county attorney Gary Carnathan and past county attorney Bill Beasley say they can’t recall their adoption, nor can Chancery Clerk Bill Benson, who acts as the board’s official records keeper.
Even the faxed version of the regulations, sent from the Lee County Board of Supervisors office on Aug. 5, 2005, casts doubt on their official status.
Typed across the top of the paper are the words: “Proposed for new regulations, effective date will be set when passed and excepted (sic) by the Board of Supervisors.”
If supervisors adopt a rule, it must be applied uniformly, Dendy said. If it hasn’t been adopted, then it’s just an opinion.
A supervisor can request that his opinion be followed. But because it’s not official county policy, the rest of the board can override it. That hasn’t happened in the case of Sunny Meadows.
When residents most recently submitted a petition to have their roads made public, the board listened silently before moving on to other business – no vote, no comment.
Other board members won’t intervene because, again, they don’t want to meddle in another district’s affairs.
“Different supervisors approach it in different ways, and it’s their prerogrative to deal with it,” said District 2 Supervisor Bobby Smith. “I don’t interfere in their districts because I don’t want them to interfere in mine.”

2008 Subdivision Regulations
The only official regulations the Daily Journal could find were those adopted by the board in 2008. The Lee County Subdivision Regulations require roads within planned subdivisions to meet high standards before the county will take them.
It doesn’t apply to private drives outside subdivisions.
“Until we adopted subdivision regulations,” Smith said, “I don’t know we had any regulations except that the roads be gravel.”
Since 2008, two new subdivisions have fallen under the subdivision regulations. All those built beforehand, including Sunny Meadows and Ridgeland, are grandfathered in, said County Administrator Sean Thompson.
And that’s why residents and developers of the earlier subdivisions are crying foul. Since their homes were built before the subdivision regulations took effect – and since Morgan’s guidelines appear unofficial – they feel they shouldn’t have to meet them.
“I didn’t do anything different to those roads than I did to Sunny Meadows,” Webb said.
Echoing Black and the other neighborhood residents, he added, “I don’t understand why now, all of a sudden, I need to do this for Sunny Meadows.”

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.

For more – A look at Lee County Roads is inside today’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.