Residents of the Panama Pines development in Bayou George are up to their car doors in muddy water.
There are more than 200 miles of unpaved roads in Bay County, and that's just the ones the county owns. There are many more private dirt roads and, when it rains, navigating them can be a nightmare.
"It has gotten to the point where every time it rains now, we've got a muddy mess," Becky Muldowney, who lives on Buckingham Road in Panama Pines, said. She and her friend Chase Johnston say the road is in such bad shape that public safety is a concern.
"We cannot get in and out to go to doctors or the grocery," Muldowney said. Ambulances, fire trucks and school buses also have a hard time getting around on the road, she said.
"This is entirely wrong, it affects school kids," Johnston said. "They have to put plastic bags over their shoes just to get to the bus stops."
Muldowney and Johnston are paying the price of living on a private road not maintained by the county. So is Ralph Heaton, who lives on nearby Muscogee Road.
"Myself and two other individuals got out yesterday with a shovel, a hoe and a front loader and did what we could to make it temporarily passable," Heaton said. "[Water] just came through and eroded the end of where a ditch went up to the road and stopped, and then came on down the road and washed the whole thing out."
According to Shannon Chamberlain, Assessment Coordinator for Bay County Public Works, many of the roads in Panama Pines are owned by Gabe Stewart, III, whose now deceased father developed the area years ago. Long-time homeowners claim they paid the elder Stewart a fee for perpetual road maintenance but aren't getting their money's worth.
"They have shucked their responsibility for the upkeep of these roads and now it's on our back," Muldowney said. "I'm very upset about it."
Bay County has a program allowing property owners to collectively pay to pave private roads. If 60% of the property owners along the road agree to the project, the county will pave the road and give the residents 10 years to pay their portion, which is based on frontage. The county then owns the roads and is responsible for ongoing maintenance.
In Panama Pines, it's not that simple. "There's an extra step in this one because there's a separate owner," Chamberlain said. "The county doesn't take over right of way… that owner would have to give us permission to be able to start one of these projects."
Muldowney said she and other property owners have attempted to contact Stewart without success. Chamberlain said county officials discussed the matter with Stewart a few years ago but she isn't sure whether he would green light the paving project.
According to Heaton, he and his neighbors are willing to pay for paving but Stewart's ownership of the right of way is a barrier. "As far as I'm concerned, we're held hostage by one individual that owns the roads," Heaton said. "I'm sure he has a legal right but sometimes legality is not the only thing that can happen... somebody needs to put pressure on him."
A phone call to Stewart, who lives in Umatilla, was not returned and neither was a call to a Panama City attorney who serves as his registered agent.
Residents of the affected area plan to meet with county officials on Monday, August 26, to discuss their options. The meeting is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. at the Bayou George Community Center.