By Jonathan Pleasant
Johnson County is facing a legal battle after a lawsuit was filed a few weeks ago by a handful of property owners in the failed Charter Ridge Subdivision at the top of Doe Mountain. As the only portion to actually be subdivided and sold among a much bigger planned development back in the early 2000s, some of the owners of the final five lots are hoping to regain a few of the broken promises made by the original private development group and see infrastructure including public water, power, and a viable county road be put in place.
With a history that goes back nearly 10 years there are many complex details that have led to this point, but the entire problem began around 2006 when major developer Charles Ausburn began presenting his grandiose vision for Doe Mountain. Charter Ridge was initially 12 lots atop one of the most prime locations on the nearly 9,000-acre property and was intended to be the spearhead to help fund the rest of the project.
With nearly three miles of steep and rugged road to be built to access the lots, the cost to get even the initial phase off the ground was going to be substantial. Envisioned as a private, gated community, the road was never intended to be taken over by the county, but as with other smaller developments, Ausburn was required to bring Charter Ridge before the county planning commission to ensure the development was meeting county regulations.
As part of this process, the Planning Commission set a bond based on engineering estimates that Ausburn would have to put up before work could actually begin. With the developer supposedly working on the road, the bond was intended to serve as a sort of insurance to be used to finish the project if necessary. The amount was initially over $400,000 but as things progressed more than $100,000 was returned to Ausburn, despite a lack of approval from the Planning Commission. That left the total bond amount being held by the county at just over $300,000.
Ausburn made repeated appearances at the planning commission meetings, presenting plats of the subdivision and supposedly showing the right of way for the road that was being constructed. By 2007, Ausburn was ready to ask for final approval on the Charter Ridge lots, but already some commissioners had questions about the work that was being conducted as no one had actually seen the much talked about road.
The economy took a down turn and the development had begun to run into financial troubles. Ausburn needed to be able to sell the lots to his investors to be able to further fund the project. As a result, the planning commission narrowly passed a split vote to allow the lots to be recorded based on the fact that the road was supposedly already roughed in. As services provided by separate entities, issues with public water and power were never determined. However, attempts were made by the commission to view the road construction, which were continually put off or deflected.
Eventually a decision was made to call Mr. Ausburn back in to one of the meetings to finally answer the commissions questions about the project. Openly hostile, the meeting only served to confirm the commissions fears that the road was never even started. By then, without even a homeowners association in place and no true dedicated right of way to the properties, Charter Ridges dozen lots had found their way into the hands of private investors.
A shock to everyone involved, Ausburn passed away a short time later leaving a literal mountain of problems and no answers. The development went into bankruptcy and three years transpired with no work done. Several of the Charter Ridge lots were sold in a foreclosure sale conducted by the bank. Some lots were donated or purchased by the state during the formation of the Doe Mountain Recreation Authority, and the number dwindled until only five lots now remain with four property owners, only a couple of which actually owned their properties prior to the default.
During the entire bankruptcy process not one of the property owners or investors stepped forward to make claims regarding the remaining $300,000 bond, and so once the bankruptcy settlement finalized, the planning commission was left with no clear indicator of what to do with the money. The original developers who put up the bond to start with were gone, no work was actually done on the mountain, and no claims had been made in three years.
The commission did seek the opinion of outside legal counsel, as the county attorney eventually declared a conflict of interest in the properties, and the decision was made to express no interest in the monies and turn the bond over to the states comptrollers office, who gladly accepted. With the original mapped right of way nonexistent, access to the remaining Charter Ridge lots was eventually granted by using an existing gravel road with limited county maintenance.
As some of the only private lots remaining on Doe Mountain, a few of the owners have begun to show a renewed interest in the future of their properties. Hiring legal counsel a few months ago, some preliminary investigative work was done and the county commission has had one closed executive session to discus the matter. In the meantime, the Charter Ridge lot owners have formally filed suit both against the county as well as the state. Certainly with such a lengthy and complex issue the road ahead will be a long one, but optimistically the controversies that began nearly a decade ago may finally be put to rest.
By Jonathan Pleasant