CINCINNATI — Erica Riddick still remembers how she felt that day in 1999 at Cincinnati City Hall when she heard her name called out.
“It was so exciting. They gave us all a little gold key that’s just wood, and it’s painted gold,” she said. “It felt like a big deal. They made it special.”
Riddick won the chance to buy a house for $1 through the HUD Dollar Homes program, an initiative designed to help first-time homebuyers and stabilize neighborhoods.
But the key that should have unlocked a future of stability for Riddick instead has left her feeling trapped. That’s because her Northside home sits on a section of Vandalia Avenue that is privately owned, and the owner argues it isn’t a street at all.
Now Riddick can no longer park on Vandalia or leave her garbage or recycling cans there. She doesn’t see much of the neighbors she spent years getting to know, she said, because they now use different access points to get to their homes, all of which have Vandalia Avenue addresses.
“It’s also kind of just left me feeling like, I don’t know how I feel about my house,” she said. “Like it’s not really the house’s fault, but you know every day I come home, and I’m reminded of this situation. So that just kind of sucks.”
Riddick and her neighbors are far from alone.
The city of Cincinnati has hundreds of private streets, loosely defined as stretches of roadway that are owned by residents, homeowner groups or businesses. Owners of private streets are legally responsible for maintenance, such as street repaving and repairs. The people who live on those streets get some city services, such as garbage collection, but not others, such as snowplowing.
Private streets are “very common” throughout Greater Cincinnati, said Kelly Meyer, president of the Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors, even among new developments.
“Especially if they’re smaller,” Meyer added. “A lot of people don’t know the difference.”
The difference, Riddick found out, can be life changing.
Many private streets in Cincinnati are owned by the residents who live on them or a homeowners’ association that is supposed to look out for residents’ interests, said Cincinnati City Councilman David Mann.
“Abutting property owners are responsible for maintenance, and they’re guaranteed ingress and egress,” he said. “If they want the street to be improved, that’s where they want the city to get involved. And we say, as soon as you bring it up to our standards, we’ll be glad to assume responsibility.”
As simple as that sounds, it can be expensive.
Bringing a private street up to city standards can mean widening it or adding sidewalks or different types of sewers, he said.
Meyer lives on a private street outside the city limits in Hamilton County, he said, and he and the other five homeowners that live there have an informal agreement to take care of it while the owner of the street pays the taxes.
“We split the cost,” he said. “We all collaborate on what needs to be done and how it needs to be done.”
In other places, maintenance agreements spell out who is responsible for repairs and improvements and who has to pay taxes on the property, he said.
It can get ugly.
“There have been the full range of issues that have come up where people have gotten violent to just having an argument,” Meyer said. “Most people are civil enough with their neighbors that they can work through them. But it only takes one neighbor to cause an issue for everyone. That’s why it’s important to have that spelled out.”
That’s why Meyer recommends that home buyers have Realtors involved in their transactions to look out for things like private roads and recommend when to get a lawyer involved.
He said Realtors can help figure out:
• Ownership of a private street
• Rules of access
• Whether a managing authority exists
• And what cost sharing might be involved for residents
Riddick says her particular situation wasn’t spelled out at all when she bought her home. Not by anyone with the nonprofit Homesteading and Urban Redevelopment Corp. that transferred the property to her and not by anyone with the city of Cincinnati, which managed the HUD Dollar Homes program for the nonprofit at the time.
“This was my first house. It was only offered to first-time homebuyers,” she said. “For a lot of people buying a house is like the single biggest expenditure you make in life. It’s terrifying.”
‘A friendly neighbor’
Riddick took three different homebuyer training classes, she said. And because of those classes, she purchased a homeowner title insurance policy, too.
“I did request to read the documents ahead of time, which was also encouraged through the homebuyer training classes,” she said. “But the response was, ‘that’s not how we do things.’”
For many years, there was no problem.
Riddick and her neighbors parked on a paved area in front of their homes marked by a city street sign that says “Vandalia Avenue” then walked up steps to get to their houses. The city picked up their garbage and recycling cans from that stretch labeled Vandalia, and U.S. Postal Service delivered their mail that way, too.
Then Matthew Strausbaugh bought the property at 4159 Dane Ave., which included the property that Riddick and her neighbors knew as Vandalia Avenue, and wrote a letter to surrounding property owners.
“Some of the neighbors seem to think that there are easements or even a private drive called Vandalia on the land,” he wrote. “This is not true.”
Strausbaugh, who has since transferred the property to MLS Homes, LLC, wrote that there were no recorded rights of way on the property going back 125 years. He said in the letter that he understood residents had been parking there and that they could keep parking there for free until the end of 2015.
Effective Jan. 1, 2016, he wrote, “being a friendly neighbor that I plan to be with all of you I will offer parking at $1 per day or $30 per month per vehicle or trailer.”
“If no one wishes to lease parking,” he continued, “the lot will be barricaded from any use at all. I understand the city trash is currently being collected in the lot. I have no problem with this but if the lot is closed off you will have to have it collected at your easements of record.”
Riddick said she was stunned.
‘A private property dispute’
She and some neighbors went to the Northside community council for help. They approached Cincinnati City Council members.
Mann, who was vice mayor at the time, introduced a motion that he and seven other council members signed.
It directed the city administration to “take all appropriate actions” to ensure that residents of Vandalia Avenue between Dane Avenue and Chambers Street maintain access to their homes and to ensure that police, fire and public services personnel could continue to provide basic city services to them.
But former City Manager Harry Black determined there was little the city could do.
In a letter to council, Black called the matter “a private property dispute,” adding “there is not an obvious role for the City to play in resolving that dispute.”
The letter suggested that the only way to solve the problem was for Riddick and her neighbors to take legal action, which several of them did in June 2018.
Their lawyers argued that Vandalia Avenue is a street and that the residents should be able to use it to access their homes.
Steven Davis, the lawyer for MLS Homes, argued the property was not a street at all, and that MLS Homes should be able to use it however the company saw fit.
Last March, Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Patrick Dinkelacker ruled in favor of MLS Homes.
Riddick is appealing the decision.
Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for Feb. 12 in the Ohio First District Court of Appeals.
“The major issue is does this land serve as the primary means of ingress and egress to their property? That’s what the statute says,” said Davis, a senior litigator with Barron Peck Bennie & Schlemmer Co., LPA. “There is an easement to these properties that is not on the land that they say they’ve been using all these years. When you’ve got an easement, can she claim that there’s other land that is the primary means of access to her property?”
A ‘puzzling’ feature
Davis likened the situation to a homeowner wanting to use a neighbor's driveway because it was better maintained than their own.
"She has access to her land. It’s just a little bit more inconvenient than she would prefer," he said. "She would prefer using our land to access her property. But she has access to her property. She’d just rather not use it."
Riddick now uses a narrow, unpaved easement off Chambers Street to get to her home, a path she said she didn’t know she could use until the controversy over Vandalia. She assumed the easement, which also is privately owned, was a driveway leading to the two-family home that sits adjacent to hers, she said.
“Vandalia has been on the map for a really long time. We personally have spoken with city engineers that said this is an undedicated street,” said Melanie Lennon, an associate with Cooper & Elliott LLC and one of Riddick’s attorneys. “We’re fine with it being an undedicated street. We just want to make sure they have access.”
Two of Riddick’s neighbors have been getting to their home using Vandalia since 1972, according to the 2018 lawsuit.
Real estate lawyer Chris Finney of Finney Law Firm argued that should go a long way in convincing a judge that the homeowners are entitled to what’s known as a prescriptive easement.
“If somebody’s been driving there on a horse and buggy or a car continuously, there’s a legal property called easement by prescription,” he said. “It’s very difficult for the owner of that street to establish you don’t have the right to keep driving on it.”
But that’s not the argument that Riddick’s lawyers made. They argued the court should declare Vandalia Avenue a private street that Riddick can continue to use it as her primary point of access.
Davis argues Riddick doesn’t need his client’s property because she can access her home through the easement off Chambers Street that she now uses.
"MLS Homes isn’t trying to deprive, in this case Erica Riddick, access to her property," he said. "All we’re trying to do is treat our private property as private property because that’s what it is."
MLS Homes has other ideas for the property, Davis said, and plans to build some sort of multi-family residential development there.
So how can Riddick’s house have a street address for a street that doesn’t actually exist?
“It is one of the puzzling features of this case,” Davis said. “The area that’s in dispute is only about 100 yards long. There is a Vandalia Avenue that kind of exists on one side of this disputed area and on the other side of this disputed area. And this particular area, we understand, is only designated as Vandalia Avenue because it finds itself on a list of the city of Cincinnati’s undesignated streets. But just because it finds itself on that list and has a name doesn’t mean it’s a street.”
‘Common law’ and ‘common sense’
“Common law and, frankly, common sense dictates it shouldn’t not be a street,” she said.
The most direct way for the city of Cincinnati to help would be to acquire the property, possibly through eminent domain, and make it a city street, said Sean Suder, a partner with Calfee who used to be a lawyer in the city’s law department.
“The city does have the right to take property for things like public improvements,” he said.
But that can get expensive in a hurry, Mann said.
“We just don’t have the budget to solve all the problems that there are in the city,” Mann said. “I dearly wish there were a solution.”
Riddick said she does, too.
She believes there are zoning rules the city could enforce more strictly to help her and her neighbors. But she feels like not much has happened since they filed suit.
Friends have asked why she doesn’t simply sell her house to get away from the problem and all the stress it brings.
“And my response back is, would you buy a landlocked house?” Riddick said. “And usually the answer is no. Or silence.”
As she waits for her appeal to make its way through the courts, Riddick isn’t sure what else she could have done to protect herself.
“I was very green,” she said. “I trusted my loan officer, and I trusted the city. And that’s maybe where I went wrong.”
She did everything that everyone recommended she do as a first-time home buyer, she said, and she still ended up where she is now.
“I was trying to educate myself and protect myself, but at the end of the day, you work with the professionals in their field,” Riddick said. “And I mean, I thought that’s what I was doing.”
Now, Riddick said, she hopes her story can educate others -- before they find themselves trapped on a road that might not actually exist.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.