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Neighborhood Association Series
Part I - Homeowner and Condo Associations do what it
takes to keep residents happy
With hundreds of people living in each of Northville's signature neighborhoods, there's a lot of work to be done for the common good. The people who facilitate this are the board members of homeowner/condo associations.
Command central is typically at board meetings - some associations hold one annual meeting while others meet several times a year. Issues are also brought up year-round in neighbors' front yards, while walking the dog, or over coffee or a cold brew in downtown Northville.
Agenda items at meetings focus on dues collection; budgeting for new or replacement items; scheduling repairs; and taking on bigger projects, such as entrance signs, lighting and landscaping. The condition of the roads is another concern. (Each year, the City schedules several neighborhood roads to be repaired.)
Lexington Condo Homes Association, at 8 Mile and Taft, arguably has the biggest challenges of the five homeowner associations interviewed. Laura Keller, president of the association, is working with fellow board members on a plan to replace the shared water lines to each building with individual water meters, which will be paid from their operating budget.
"Trying to convince people to do this is hard," Keller said. "The payback could be 2-1/2 years."
The condo association members are also studying replacing the shared gas line into the buildings with individual meters. The goal with converting these utilities to individual meters is to give residents more control over payment for their portion and to save costs overall.
Another expense involves the neighborhood irrigation system, which keeps breaking down.
"Breaks in the line can go undetected," Keller said. "One bill was $2,500 more than usual due to a break in a two-inch pipe that didn't get noticed for eight days."
Phase I of the new irrigation system was completed in 2016; Phase II begins this spring and will add high-tech rain sensors so the system isn't activated when it rains.
Neighbors banded together for Randolph Drain repair
Another major issue for the Lexington Condo Homes Association was the rising amount of sediment in the Randolph Drain that runs along the backside of the condos. The sediment significantly slowed the flow of water that travels through several Northville neighborhoods before it crosses Center Street and terminates at the Middle Rouge River near Ford Field.
"An easement was signed to Oakland County and they were ultimately responsible for maintaining it," Keller said. Costs incurred are charged to the Randolph Street Inter-County Drain Board, comprised of representatives from Oakland County, Wayne County and the Michigan Department of Agriculture. The board oversees maintenance of the drain and assesses the City of Northville, 62.19 percent; the City of Novi, 35.4 percent; and Wayne and Oakland counties, 2.41 percent combined.
Keller and other condo owners spent three years advocating for the board to pay for the clean-up at Randolph Drain, and in 2016 the board agreed to take on the extensive project, assessing fees as described above. Dredging is going on now and will be completed by July 1, 2017.
Parks, land islands need maintenance
Lexington Commons Association covers 162 homes and is also the parent association of the north and south condo associations - with a combined 192 units.
The association manages the commons area and maintains the parks in the neighborhood. This year, it plans to repair the playscape and add new picnic tables. Lexington Commons Association President Todd Farmer says a neighbor, Johnny Vallespir, and his Boy Scout troop - about 20 in total - will do the work and earn an Eagle Scout badge.
Abbey Knoll, located at 8 Mile between Taft and Beck, plans to upgrade their entrance this year with lighting that improves visibility off 8 Mile. They also want to enhance the character of the entrance by adding short walls near the new sign.
"When they widened the road, it's hard to see the lighted monument sign on the island," said past Association President Bob Krestel. The subdivision of 98 homes also plans to refresh some of the islands with new landscaping and benches, keeping it consistent throughout the neighborhood.
Do good fences make good neighbors?
Northville Estates' biggest issue, aside from wanting additional road repairs, is fences. While the board is lenient with fences along Beck and 8 Mile, most residents of the 155 homes prefer the open space that comes without being fenced in. "I don't want to see fences divide homeowner from homeowner," said Association President Chuck Murdock.
Mailbox woes and street lights
Both Abbey Knoll and Pheasant Hills have uniform, high-end mailboxes made of cast aluminum with power-coat paint. The problem is that the finish is wearing out sooner than it should. Both subdivisions are seeking ways to cost-efficiently fix the problem.
Pheasant Hills Homeowners Association President Dan Wegienka said residents are pleased with the gas lights that were put in 12 years ago in the neighborhood with help of the City. "It makes the streets look aesthetically pleasing. We are known as the gas light district."
The Association spread the cost of the lights over a ten-year period. There are 54 lights, which are kept on day and night because it's cheaper then turning them off and on.
"People walk at night. It's not dark. Electric lights would be brighter. We have a lot of hills; people like to go up and down the hills," Wegienka said.
A parting note
One bane of associations is that it's hard to find good contractors. Keller had difficulty lining up a carpenter to rebuild steps to a condo unit, while Murdock found that sign-makers wouldn't call back when asked to bid on new signage for Northville Estates.
When you sign up for the board of a homeowners association - whether it's a condo development or houses - you are considered a leader who will assist in managing the duties of running a neighborhood. These duties range from maintenance of common areas and tackling issues such as fallen trees and flooding, to developing a budget and collecting dues.
The City of Northville has many subdivisions and condominiums in addition to neighborhoods such as the Historic District, Cabbagetown and Beal Town. Many of these have associations.
Setting up governance for so-called HOAs is typically done when all of the homes and/or condos in a neighborhood have been built, and the responsibilities of the builder and developer have ended. Others set up associations years after a subdivision has been built. Regardless of timing, the HOAs are typically set up as an LLC or nonprofit corporation with a set of covenants, conditions and restrictions.
Recruiting new members is a top concern for existing boards
"The goal of the board is to maintain and improve the property, keep property values up, and be fiscally responsible," said Laura Keller, who's been on the seven-member board of Lexington Condo Homes Association for eight years (serving four two-year terms).
"There's nobody clamoring to take the position." She added, "I've talked people out of resigning. It's like running a small business."
Keller's two-year term as president was up in March 2017, but board members elected her to serve yet another term.
To be more responsive to all condo owners, Keller changed the format at the association meetings so that condo owners have a five-minute open forum at the start to make their issues known. "It has made us run a more efficient meeting. The property manager and secretary take notes on complaints and list the issues that need to be worked on," she said.
As president of the Northville Estates Homeowners Association, Chuck Murdock has served three consecutive one-year terms. At Abbey Knoll Homeowners Association, Bob Krestel served on the board for years and ended his last term as president in January 2017. The HOA has an annual meeting, but Krestel says it's difficult to get people to attend and become involved with the association.
Staggering the start of board members' terms works well for many. At Lexington Commons Association, three board members are elected one year, and four others are elected the next year. Since the annual meeting in November, there are still three vacancies on a board of seven members, notes Todd Farmer, president of the association.
Pheasant Hills has an active board
Dan Wegienka has served four two-year terms as president of the Pheasant Hills Association, which represents 132 homeowners. He said they were fortunate to have two new homeowners volunteer for the board, who joined at a social event that drew 50 neighbors to the Northville Sports Den last fall.
"I want to see our board members retire to an advisory position as new members join the board," he said, because it's an easier transition. "I'm always getting information from surrounding subdivisions about how they run their association and neighborhood issues," he added.
Pheasant Hills has five board members: president, vice president, treasurer, a recording secretary who takes notes at meetings and keeps records, and a corresponding secretary who plans social events and handles communication with residents and others. They have two-year terms that end in November 2018.
Neighborhood associations aren't just all work and no play. There's typically a board member who's in charge of social events in the neighborhood. Having summer parties and holiday events build a greater sense of community. People get to know their neighbors - not just those who live next door but those who are several blocks over or in a separate condo building.
"We don't want to be a neighborhood where people just drive into their garage, shut the door and you don't see them again," said Dan Wegienka, president of Pheasant Hills Homeowners' Association.
"When you're social," Wegienka said, "people aren't as reluctant to volunteer because they know their neighbors better and are more inclined to help." As a case in point, they held a get-together at the Northville Sports Den in the fall and 50 people showed up. Of those who attended, two signed up to be on the board.
He recalled that a home caught on fire in Fall 2016 and the whole house will have to be torn down due to smoke and water damage. "People chipped in and contributed to the Northville Community Foundation. They gave the family a check to help cover the costs that insurance didn't cover."
One Saturday a month, from September through April, neighbors in Northville Estates gather at someone's home in the subdivision to play Euchre. There's typically four tables of four. Each month, 10 to 15 neighbors attend the First Friday event in downtown Northville. They meet at a local eatery, such as North Center Brewing, Northville Sports Den, and Red Dot coffee shop, and spend an hour together before heading to the galleries, concerts and retail stores.
Neighborhood garage sales, such as the one held annually in Northville Estates, not only sell used goods but foster friendship and fun.
In September, Northville Estates holds its annual picnic in someone's backyard. The neighborhood has a country feel to it, without curbs or sidewalks. The homes are on heavily treed, half-acre lots. With few fences, the yards run together like a lush green landscape.
At the picnic, rented tables and chairs are assembled to seat about 100 people. Kids have a crafts table and jump around in a bounce house. Guests nosh on burgers and hot dogs and the rest is a feast of 30 to 40 pot luck dishes. The association allocates $800 for the annual event, now in its fourth year.
Chuck Murdock, a retired engineer, heads the Northville Estates Homeowners' Association, serves on the Northville Youth Assistance Commission, the Historic District Commission, and is an active volunteer with the library, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and Friends of Maybury. He likes the small-town feel of Northville and does his part to keep it that way. His wife Andrea is also very active in town.
Greeting new neighbors
Abbey Knoll residents, through the association, make a special effort to welcome new neighbors by giving them a directory and a gift card to a local establishment.
Some Abbey Knoll residents organize neighborhood parties in the winter and block parties in the summer. "It's good to reach out and get the know the neighbors," said Bob Krestel, immediate past president of the Abbey Knoll Homeowner's Association. "We used to do a strolling dinner around Christmas time, but there's not much interest anymore.
Krestel likes his neighborhood so much that when he moved out of state, he and his wife knew they wanted to buy again in the subdivision when they returned.
"We think it's a wonderful community. We've got good schools. It's safe. And we like the quaint downtown. There's a lot of walkers in our neighborhood and many walk to downtown."
Easter egg hunts and pool parties
In the Lexington Commons Association, there is an Easter egg hunt this weekend where eggs are hidden in the commons park. It brings together the two condo associations (north and south) and the homeowners' portion of the neighborhood.
"It's a nice, family friendly neighborhood. A lot of neighbors are friends. Sometimes they have a progressive dinner," said Todd Farmer, Lexington Commons HOA president.
Farmer likes living in Northville, "What is there not to love? I'm so happy to be here. Everybody is so friendly and nice when you walk around downtown. It's a great place for the family."
Neighboring Lexington Condo Homes Association holds an annual party, in addition to other social events. For the past five to six years, they have had a pool party in July or August.
Many of the condos back up against the woods or the Randolph drain, a narrow river that cuts through the property, which provides a scenic setting for outdoor events.
When neighbors work together on issues that matter to their households and also take the time to socialize, it creates a closer-knit community, which is what many residents like about living in Northville.
Neighbors benefit from having attractive landscaping in their subdivisions, a well-kept commons area, an inviting clubhouse and pool, and tennis and basketball courts that are in good repair. Since dues must be collected to cover the cost, the quest is to get the most bang for the buck.
In the Lexington Condo Homes Association, the association fee covers pool maintenance, lawn care, upkeep of the clubhouse, and exterior repairs to the condos. As of now, one-third of the average monthly fee of $440 goes towards the utilities of gas and water.
Condo units will have their own water lines later this year, which will reduce their association dues attributed to that cost. Discussions are being held to do the same thing with the gas lines - changing from a shared line per building to individual meters for each condo unit. They have a reserve fund for future repairs and unforeseen major expenses.
Annual dues at Lexington Commons Association, which includes the north and south condos as well as 162 houses, annually charges $60 for condos and $120 for houses.
"These two Condo Associations work collaboratively with Lexington Commons Association for the good of the entire neighborhood," said Todd Farmer, president of Lexington Commons Association.
The dues cover snow removal and insurance on the buildings and grounds, said Laura Keller, president of the Lexington Condo Homes Association.
In Northville Estates, annual $50 fees go toward maintaining the front island entrance, new landscaping, signage, water and electricity (mostly for lights) and the annual summer picnic. This subdivision has 155 homes. This year, they plan to install a new sign at their front entrance - having saved for this major expenditure.
Abbey Knoll has used association funds - $250 annually - for landscape projects, custom signs, and standardized mailboxes, which project a nice curb appeal. They display outdoor holiday lights during Christmas and New Year's.
Pheasant Hills HOA president Dan Wegienka says dues are $330 annually (they had been $300 for 20 years). Dues are used to pay for required landscaping, tree trimming, mailbox/ street sign maintenance, water, electricity and insurance for the subdivision. In the past, beautification projects such as new mailboxes and a new stone entrance were completed to help maintain the beauty of Pheasant Hills.
Part V - Neighborhood Associations keep lines of communication open
Communicating with neighbors has caught up with digital technology. In addition to spreading the word over the fence, while walking the dog or strolling with a baby, a formal notification system has evolved.
Keeping in touch with neighbors is a breeze for some homeowners associations (HOA) and neighborhoods while others have had hit-or-miss results with e-mail lists, websites, Facebook pages, printed newsletters and phone banks.
Northville Estates has a website, which it is updating, and a residential e-mail list of nearly 155 homeowners. HOA president Chuck Murdock estimates that he sends out 60-70 e-mails a year to convey notices and issues concerning the subdivision. Cabbagetown has a popular Facebook page started by resident Larry Parks, which now has 58 members.
Pheasant Hills Homeowners Association has a website and uses a company to update it, but members plan to start doing it themselves to save costs and do it quicker. The association also produces a print newsletter twice a year, and maintains an e-mail list of residents, managed by board member Kelly Green.
Pheasant Hills HOA President Dan Wegienka stays in contact with Northville Police Chief Mike Carlson so he can keep residents informed about any suspicious activity and other ways to keep their neighborhood safe. He also talks to neighbors in other subdivisions to see if there are any common issues that can be resolved in tandem.
"The more communication you have with residents, the less complaints you get. People need to know the ordinances," said Wegienka, who is pleased with the way the city is enforcing ordinances.
Abbey Knoll's communications are handled by Diana Krestel, who maintains an e-mail list of the 98 homeowners who live there. Her husband Bob is the immediate past president of the HOA.
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