About 10 miles east of the dirt moving at Eastland, and even farther from the construction sites filling Plaza Midwood, residents in the Rocky Ridge community in far east Charlotte are watching the development boom spread their way.
But inside Rocky Ridge, the streets are crumbling.
What’s happening: The neighborhood just outside the Charlotte city limits has what are known as “orphan roads,” which means neither the city nor the state maintain them. No one takes care of them, in fact — which is why several potholes have formed, grass is starting to grow through the cracks and a stop sign has faded to grey.
- But now, more than 20 years after the community was built, residents are being told they may have to pay to fix the streets themselves.
- And many say they were never told about the potential for a roads issue when they bought into the neighborhood.
That’s because Rocky Ridge is an unincorporated area of Charlotte, in what’s known as an extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ). Because it’s outside city limits, residents don’t pay city taxes — but they also don’t get the services the city offers.
- Residents of ETJs don’t feel like they’re represented when change comes, as the Observer reported recently. People who live within ETJs can’t vote in at-large city council races, nor do they have district representatives. But the city still makes decisions about development within ETJs.
Why it matters: If you’re buying a house, unless it’s in a private community, you probably expect that the government is taking care of the roads in front of it.
- Plus, roads that are in disrepair pose a danger to drivers and could impede emergency services.
The big picture: Neither county nor state officials keep track of how many orphan roads there are in Mecklenburg County. But Mecklenburg County Commissioner Mark Jerrell, whose district includes Rocky Ridge, estimates there are well over a dozen.
- Other neighborhoods, like Palisades on Lake Wylie, have approached leaders about this issue, Jerrell says.
What they’re saying: Homeowners who spoke with Axios say they were never told about the road maintenance issues when they were buying in the neighborhood.
- “This is my life investment of getting a nice house in a good neighborhood where I thought the streets would be maintained,” says resident Kristal Kiser, who has lived in the community since 2007. She bought her home for $120,000, and said she can’t afford to move closer to Charlotte.
Context: When a community is being built in an unincorporated area, developers can apply for the property to be annexed, or they can petition the North Carolina Department of Transportation to maintain the roads.
- But the developer of Rocky Ridge did not do either. Property records show Don Galloway Homes of North Carolina first sold some of the houses in the neighborhood to individuals in the late 1990s. The homebuilding company appears to have dissolved, per corporate records filed with the state.
Between the lines: The neighborhood can still request annexation, but it requires 100% of property owners to sign off.
- About a quarter of the homes in Rocky Ridge are owned by corporate landlords like Tricon Residential, American Homes 4 Rent and Progress Residential, according to a review of county property records. Kiser, who has been leading the neighborhood’s efforts, says she has been unable to get in touch with them.
- The companies often purchase homes under LLC names that make it difficult to ascertain who the owner is.
Details: North Carolina counties, unlike cities and towns, don’t typically build or maintain roads, says David Goode, land project manager with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services. But he says state law does allow the county to improve public streets and pass the cost onto property owners along that street as a loan.
- That happens through what’s known as a special assessment, and the residents have to request it.
- But Rocky Ridge neighbors say they’ve been told that assessment would amount to $4,000 to $5,000 per homeowner, and they can’t afford that.
- Plus, 75% of property owners have to sign the petition for the assessment, and with the corporate land ownership in the neighborhood, residents don’t believe they have the support.
State of play: Last year, North Carolina House Rep. Nasif Majeed, who represents parts of Mint Hill and eastern Mecklenburg County, introduced two bills to address orphan roads statewide.
- One, House Bill 721, extends the length of time to repay the assessment, from five years to 20. It passed the House unanimously but did not advance in the state Senate.
- The other, House Bill 720, would have allowed local governments to require a performance guarantee to ensure that roads are built to local government and North Carolina Department of Transportation standards. The goal, Majeed tells Axios, is to ensure that other neighborhoods don’t wind up in Rocky Ridge’s situation.
But House Bill 720 never advanced in the House, and Majeed blames that on the housing industry’s opposition.
Instead, Majeed says he negotiated with the industry, and it threw its weight behind a $30 million fund where neighborhoods could apply for grants to cover the cost of bringing the streets up to NCDOT standards.
- But he says that the funding was pulled from the state budget at the last minute, and he’s still trying to figure out why. He said he plans to push for that money again next year.
What they’re saying: Jerrell said the General Assembly needs to give counties more flexibility to fund the improvements, not just extend the length of special assessment payments.
- “While that softens the blow, it creates this expense on our residents that they shouldn’t be responsible for,” he says.
- Jerrell said he’s also looking at whether federal dollars from the infrastructure bill can be used for the roads.
The bottom line: Neighbors feel left behind as they watch the new development around them. Just across the street is Cresswind, a luxury community for those ages 55+ covering 370 acres.
- “Sooner or later, this little strip is just going to look totally different from what it did four, five, six years ago,” says resident Barry Cobb.
- “And we’re still not going to be able to get help.”
To see where orphan roads are in Mecklenburg County, visit Polaris 3G and select the layer for “NC State Maintained Roads.” Any road in the unincorporated areas (shaded tan on the map) that is not highlighted green is an orphan road, according to Goode.