LEANDER, Texas (KXAN) — A private community’s efforts to stop speeding have some Texas drivers seeing red.
Marc Petrick wants to hit the brakes on his homeowner’s association’s plan to slow down drivers. He admits speeding can be a problem, but he thinks the HOA’s solution — issuing fines to the speeders — 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 resident 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.
When asked why the HOA’s solution is problematic, especially in a community where speeding is an issue, Petrick said the fines feel like “more of a money grab than anything.”
“You can do different things with traffic calming devices that will help slow speed down,” he told KXAN. “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 Leander 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” at the reporting on this but neither she, nor anyone else from the board, would talk on camera.
Instead, KXAN was sent a written statement.
“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 said she’s “concerned” by the 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.”
She continued: “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.”
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: