LEANDER, Texas (KXAN) — A private community’s efforts to stop speeding has some drivers seeing red.
Marc Petrick wants to hit the brakes on his homeowners association’s plan to slow down drivers. He admits speeding can be a problem, but he thinks the HOA’s solution, without community input, goes too far.
“It’s an overreach,” said Petrick. “It’s something I don’t think the HOA should have the ability to do. Especially on a public roadway.”
Last month, the Crystal Falls HOA in Leander sent residents a letter announcing it will install a portable camera and radar system to catch speeders. The HOA is considering putting the speed trap on public roads but, for now, is limiting it to private ones. Homeowners in the HOA caught speeding will be warned once and then fined up to $334 for going over the posted speed limits — even if someone else is behind the wheel of their car.
“I felt blindsided,” said Jamie Leonard, who told KXAN she never saw this coming and had no input on the measure, which is paid for, in part, by the dues she pays to live in the community.
Leonard has concerns about how her data will be stored and says the HOA is acting “like law enforcement.”
“They have our license plates, they have our addresses, they can see when we’re coming and leaving,” she said. “I’m just not comfortable with that.”
“The residents should have been able to vote if this was a good idea or not,” she added.
A good idea or going too far?
The private community of 3,000 homeowners has eight flashing radars, which display speeds to passing vehicles. Three are licensed by the city to be used on public roads, according to the HOA. On a recent weekday evening, KXAN watched drivers going nearly 50 mph in a 40 mph zone. The flashing signs are meant to encourage drivers to slow down, but it doesn’t always work that way.
In August, the HOA said, “overall speeding has decreased across all section[s]” of the community, according to meeting minutes. However, speed is still an ongoing concern in a community that has young children.
The new portable camera system, called the Traffic Hawk Video Traffic Radar System, is separate from the flashing radars and not authorized by the city for use on public roads. The device, made by International Security Networks in Florida, records video and captures license plates. That data is then used to track down, identify and fine speeders who own property in the community and agreed to follow the HOA’s regulations.
Violators are not given a speeding “ticket” but rather a fine for violating the community’s rules.
“They’re saying it’s not a ‘speeding ticket.’ They’re saying it’s a ‘deed restriction violation,'” said Petrick. “It sounds like a speeding ticket to me.”
The HOA board voted to purchase the device at its June 17 meeting, according to records. On its website, the board says it recorded more than 65,000 instances of drivers going 50 mph or greater in the past six months. Posted speed limits in the area are between 25-40 mph.
“If speeding is an issue here,” asked KXAN investigative reporter Matt Grant, “what’s wrong with doing something like this to try to stop it?”
“This seems more of a money grab than anything,” said Petrick. “You can do different things with traffic calming devices that will help slow speed down. Or, work with local law enforcement to step up enforcement and let them issue actual tickets.”
Any fines collected will go back to the community for improvement projects and events, the HOA said. If someone is caught speeding, a violation will not impact their driving record.
Leander police has patrolled the area “many times” over the last year to address concerns over speeding and stop sign running, a city spokesperson said.
Legal on public roads?
When asked if putting a speed monitoring radar and camera system on public, taxpayer-funded roads is legal, KXAN was told it is not “authorized” at the moment.
“Under certain conditions, by way of a license agreement with HOAs, the City of Leander allows radar display signs to be used on public and private roads,” said chief of staff Mike Neu. “The agreements are established to confirm that sign types, locations, etc. are consistent with city ordinances and state traffic laws. The issue currently under review by the city is whether these Traffic Hawk devices could meet the same standard. At this time, Traffic Hawk devices have not been authorized by any existing license agreement.”
Austin attorney Patrick Sutton, who specializes in HOA law and has no connection to this case, says the HOA can put up speed detection equipment on private roads. He says it is likely illegal on public roads, unless the city agrees.
“I’d be pretty surprised if the local government is very happy about private citizens putting up any kind of traffic signage or traffic monitoring on the public roads,” said Sutton. “I strongly doubt that that is legal in this state.”
Residents caught speeding must be given due process, by law, and allowed to challenge the fine, Sutton said. He says the HOA must turn over any evidence it has to homeowners who want to fight the fines. The board’s attorney says speeders will be given a hearing with the HOA if they wish to challenge any violation notices.
He says the measure, while good intentioned, can create legal problems.
“It’s another example of what happens when ordinary people are asked to run a private local government,” he said. “And they have no experience in either government or the law.”
Homeowners who are found guilty of speeding and refuse to pay can face attorney fees and liens on their property, the HOA said.
“You expect the board to be looking out for homeowners,” said Sutton. “Not gunning for them.”
The attorney for the HOA told KXAN she’s “pleased” we are reporting on this but neither she, nor anyone else from the board, would talk on camera.
Instead, KXAN was sent a written statement responding to our questions.
“Fines are not intended as a revenue generator and the association did not include any fines from this pilot program for its budgetary purposes,” Crytsal Falls HOA attorney Connie Heyer said, in part, in a written statement. “Rather fines are a tool to incentivize compliance when owners decline to voluntarily comply with contractual deed restrictions.”
While the HOA can’t fine nonresidents for speeding, it will share video of unsafe delivery drivers and workers with their employers, according to the Crystal Falls HOA website. Repeat offenders will be asked not to come back.
The Traffic Hawk system is set to be installed on Nov. 20 and rotated around the community. Residents will be given a 30-day grace period.
After KXAN started asking questions, representatives for homeowners formally requested the board stop its plan to fine speeders. The board is being asked to consider using the new system to “monitor [speed] only,” according to the agenda for the Nov. 18 board meeting.
This will be a topic of discussion but “no change to protocol has been made,” according to the board’s attorney.
“I don’t disagree that speeding is an issue in certain parts of the neighborhood,” said Leonard. “But I do think that there are better ways to handle this.”
Leander mayor responds
Leander Mayor Christine Sederquist told KXAN by phone she’s “concerned” by this issue and called the HOA’s plan “new territory” for the city.
Sederquist added in a statement, in part: “City officials have been working with Crystal Falls Homeowners Association to address resident concerns about traffic safety for the last several months. The association is particularly concerned about speeding, and the city provides license agreements to allow for an HOA to purchase radar display signs to be used in public rights of way. However, signs allowed under these agreements are not used by the city or HOA to issue traffic citations. Rather, they simply provide drivers with a visual notification of their current speed. By helping drivers become more aware, we believe these signs have improved overall traffic safety in the areas where they are currently installed.”
“PLEASE NOTE: The devices that Crystal Falls HOA proposes for issuing covenant violation notices are different from the city-approved signs described above. City officials are still communicating with the HOA to understand where and how these additional devices would be used, but they are not currently part of the city’s license agreement process.”Leander Mayor Christine Sederquist
HOA defends plan to combat speeding
Nobody from the Crystal Falls HOA would talk about the new speed control measures with KXAN on camera. Instead, through an attorney, the board gave a written statement:
“… The association is governed by a board of volunteer directors elected from the community, all of whom live in the community and care very much about the safety and peace of mind of all residents. Crystal Falls is in a unique situation in that, due to its size, unlike most other associations it has the budgetary resources to address concerns of this nature and volunteers willing to explore options with guidance from City of Leander officials. After much research and discussion the board has implemented a pilot program to try and help calm traffic speeding.”
The HOA board’s attorney, Connie Heyer, responded to KXAN’s questions in writing. The responses are below:
Q: Where is the money for this coming from? How much will it cost? How many speed cameras are being installed?
A: As with most all community associations, homeowner dues fund the services provided to residents. In Crystal Falls services including maintenance and staffing of four pools, a splash pad, tennis courts, disc golf course, beach volleyball course, multiple parks, landscape maintenance, as well as deed restriction enforcement.
Q: Will enforcement be done on any public roads (which ones) or just private?
A: The pilot program will begin with private roads. It may in the future include public roads if the City authorizes placement of the safety radar device in the right of way.
Q: Did you consult with Leander police or the city? Did you ask police or the city if law enforcement could enforce speeding in the area? If not, why not?
A: Our homeowners have reported that many reports have been made to the City regarding excessive speeding on roads. We appreciate the City of Leander doing all that it reasonably can to help control speeding on public roads. Cities cannot enforce private deed restrictions, and community associations have no authority to enforce City ordinances. The association has received numerous complaints related to speeding on roads. Data collected to date through the safety radar equipment showed that vehicle speeds on both public and private roads have exceeded the speed limit by over 30 miles per hour.
Over a year ago association representatives met with the Leander Fire Chief, City engineer, and the head of traffic management (Sgt. Doyle) for the Leander Police Department. A variety of traffic calming solutions were discussed. Sgt. Doyle advised that a speed enforcement program was the most effective means to calm traffic. In short, discussions have been ongoing for a considerable time with Leander officials including law enforcement and fire officials.
Q: What due process rights do violators have? Will there be a hearing?
A: The due process rights of any owner living in a community association are provided by state law, Chapter 209, Texas Property Code, aka the Residential Real Property Owners Protection act. This act provides among other things for a right to a meeting with the board to discuss any deed restriction violation.
Q: How are fine amounts set?
A: As do most community associations, Crystal Falls has an enforcement policy filed of record and will issue any fines consistent with the policy. It is the association’s sincere hope that no fines will be assessed, the goal is to calm excessive traffic speeds not levy fines. Under state law there is no duty to provide a courtesy warning for a violation of this nature. However the association’s board has made clear including in communication to Crystal Falls residents, that the association will provide courtesy warnings before taking formal enforcement action.
Q: Did property owners consent to this? If not, why not? Was this discussed/decided at a HOA meeting with community input?
A: There are over 3,000 owners in Crystal Falls. Crystal falls owners elect voting representatives from their neighborhoods to represent the neighborhoods’ interests in association matters. Voting representatives have been working more than a year hand in hand with neighbors and with the board of directors of the association to implement this pilot safety program.
Q: Why are fines going to the property owner instead of the violator? If someone borrowed my car, for example, and was was speeding, the ticket would be written to the driver not to me.
A: Under Crystal Falls dedicatory instruments, as is common in most all community associations, the owner of the property is the party contractually bound by the restrictions.
Q: What constitutes “excessive speed?”
A: Any speed over the speed limit is excessive. All dedicatory instrument violations, speeding or otherwise, are prioritized and pursued taking into consideration many factors including the dedicatory instrument provisions, available resources, and the degree of the violation. The board has no intention of pursuing de minimis violations.
Q: What happens if a violator refuses to pay?
A: The remedies available to the association are controlled by state law, Texas Property Code Chapter 209.
Q: How will the money generated from these fines be spent?
A: Fines are not intended as a revenue generator and the association did not include any fines from this pilot program for its budgetary purposes. Rather fines are a tool to incentivize compliance when owners decline to voluntarily comply with contractual deed restrictions.
As residents have been informed, any revenue from any fines issued if courtesy warnings go unheeded will be used for community events and improvement projects. It is the board’s hope that there will be no revenue from fines and that the safety radar system will bring excessive speeds to the attention of drivers and they will subsequently voluntarily comply with the speed limits.
In short, the association’s goal is to control speed for the protection of its residents, not to enforce violations.
Q: What part of the HOA covenant covers this?
A: Crystal Falls has an enforcement policy recorded in the Official Public Records of the County. Speed limits are also addressed in Declarations of Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions for the community.
Q: Who came up with this idea and why? How bad of a problem is speeding in your community?
A: The Voting representatives, board of directors, residents and managing agent for the community have worked collaboratively on this pilot safety radar program in response to many reports of concern with speeding in the community. The number and degree of complaints were significant enough that these parties felt it appropriate to take proactive measures.
Crystal Falls is a unique community not only in its size and scale, but also due to the roads having few sidewalks; its streets are the sidewalk and regularly used by pedestrians. Its rolling hills and winding roads are beautiful and also present many blind hills and turns. Crystal Falls is a dark sky community so has few street lights. As with neighboring communities, Crystal Falls also experiences frequent visits from deer and wild hogs. All of these things lead to an enhanced importance to address safety concerns with traffic speeds.