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Rain tests Hernando County policy on repairing private roads

BROOKSVILLE — Paige Cool said she'd never seen a rainstorm like the one that hit the neighborhood surrounding her At Home Acres ranch on May 12.

In just a short time, more than 3 inches of rain fell in the area east of Brooksville, neighbors said. La Dora Drive, a dirt road that runs along her property north of State Road 50, "was like a river,'' Cool said.

About 20 homes were inaccessible, according to a report by Deputy Kevin Smith, who was at the scene.

As it happens, a Hernando County Public Works grader had been doing work in the area that day. Smith told the worker that if emergency vehicles could not get down the road, it could create "a liability issue for the county due to not having access to the residences,'' according to his report.

County workers, however, had already determined that they could not repair the road. Their records showed that La Dora Drive is a private road, meaning county crews and equipment cannot be used to maintain it.

"After several phone calls,'' Smith wrote, "the county agreed to fix the roadway.''

Among the calls that night was one from a La Dora neighbor to County Commissioner Jim Adkins. "She said the road is impassable. People can't make it up and down the road,'' he recounted.

What transpired that evening and in the following days points to the murky protocols the county uses to handle such road work, especially in emergencies.

It also raises questions, such as whether this sets a precedent for residents on other private roads to get such assistance, and whether cash-strapped Hernando County can afford to spend tax dollars to fix these roads under any circumstances.

The caller to Adkins told him about the road work that the county had been doing in the area that day. Adkins said he called assistant public works director Steve Whitaker to ask about having the county help the residents.

"I called Steve and explained the situation,'' Adkins said. "He said, "I'll just tell them to go ahead and fix it since we were there.' ''

That same night, Adkins' son, Deputy James Adkins, was at the scene of another washed out private road, Riley Harris Road, south of Cortez Boulevard. Deputy Adkins referred residents there and along washed out Rupe Road to the county road department.

Adkins said he knew how it looks to have a county commissioner calling staff about a job. "I'm going to get tore up on this, I know,'' he said.

The county's policy on emergency maintenance of private roads is unclear, at best. Officially, the county does not maintain private roads.

But that's not simple.

In September, for example, the County Commission voted to spend $1,500 to repair a large hole on Spoto Lane, another private road. At the time, Deputy County Administrator Larry Jennings called it a significant shift in policy.

Commission Chairman Dave Russell voted against the motion, saying he was concerned about the precedent it might set.

Upon learning from the St. Petersburg Times on Monday of the La Dora Drive situation and another that same night on Riley Harris Road, another private road, Russell said staff was just following the precedent the board set in the Spoto Lane case.

Adkins himself seems to be on both sides of the issue of when county staff can be used to help private property.

Last year, when he was running for the commission, he called the county's ethics hotline to report a public works employee who was using county equipment and supplies to place lime rock on a private driveway.

That employee received a three-day suspension without pay.

The La Dora situation is different, he said, because many people were at risk. "I'm just trying to do it to help the people,'' Adkins said.

First thing Wednesday morning, after the emergency repairs, Adkins went to the Department of Public Works office and spoke with director Charles Mixson and Whitaker.

"I apologized if I had said anything out of line,'' Adkins said.

"He was very candid,'' Whitaker said of Adkins' apology. "He doesn't want to micromanage any of the departments. He didn't want us to do something that we shouldn't do.''

Whitaker said he didn't think that what Adkins did was all that unusual. "If a commissioner has got a concern, he should call,'' he said.

Whitaker said it didn't make any difference to him that it was a county commissioner on the line talking to him about fixing a road problem. With the possibility of the county facing liability for the public safety issue, he said he had to decide to let county crews grade the roads.

The work was done after hours and on overtime, Whitaker confirmed.

Whitaker, however, wants the residents to know not to expect this sort of service regularly. He said he has told people on Riley Harris Road that this was a one-time-event.

They will have to find their own solution the next time their road needs repair.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at or (352) 848-1434.

Rain tests Hernando County policy on repairing private roads 05/18/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 18, 2009 7:51pm]
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