Week of June 19, 2006
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Cluster Boxes Replacing Door-to-Door Mail Delivery

Picture book animals are a new set of first-class stamps available from the U.S. Postal Service 

An effort by the U.S. Postal Service to save money in some states by curtailing mail delivery to people’s homes and expanding the use of cluster box units has run into staunch opposition from the nation’s home builders.

The USPS has long insisted on curbside delivery in newer neighborhoods, while maintaining door-to-door delivery only in cities and older suburbs, but some districts recently — including Alabama and Georgia — have been stepping up the pressure to install cluster boxes for single-family housing developments, with one cluster serving owners in up to a one-half mile radius.

The Postal Service has been encouraging developers to install the clusters by providing delivery service to those who do. Ordinarily, postal rules allow mail delivery to be deferred until half of a new development is occupied, forcing early buyers to go to the post office to pick up their mail.

Once a developer agrees to the clusters, it cannot switch to curbside delivery when the neighborhood is built out, and builders perceive the early-delivery incentive as a threat.

“Postal rules say that a mode of delivery can never be changed unless it saves the USPS money.  Once you have a CBU, you’re stuck with them,” said NAHB Regulatory Counsel A.J. Holliday, who is investigating the new policy for NAHB members.

At NAHB’s spring board meeting in Washington, D.C. last month, the association’s directors unanimously approved a resolution urging USPS to maintain curbside delivery in new residential developments and to immediately abandon efforts to eliminate it. The resolution also calls on Congress to help ensure that the Postal Service refrains from discriminating against the occupants of new homes and degrading their delivery service regardless of its cost compared to service to similar existing homes.

USPS has left unresolved the question of who is responsible for finding a safe, well-lighted and accessible location for the clusters — the developer, a home owners association or the postal service itself. And unless a home’s occupants demonstrate that they are physically unable to walk to the neighborhood cluster to collect their mail, home delivery is not offered.

“While customer service is our primary goal, our growth management plan is to provide the most efficient, secure and cost-effective methods of delivery as well,” said a letter from a USPS district manager to Alabama home builders. The letter also noted that “the single most important fact to know about central delivery is that it is not a reduction in service.”

And while the Postal Service has promised to work with developers and local land use planners to choose the best locations for the cluster box units (CBUs), even here questions remain.

“It is unclear who will buy the CBUs and who will provide the land,” Holliday said. “USPS used to provide CBUs, but now the expectation seems to be that the developer will provide the land and buy the CBUs, and they will be placed wherever USPS decides, after whatever consultation it declares to be adequate. Parking and lighting may be assigned in a similar way.  Since lighting is a continuing cost, like mowing and other maintenance, developer-provided CBUs may require formation of a home owners association that can assess the households to pay for these costs.”

The USPS has claimed that the clusters are safer because they are harder to steal from than unlocked curbside mailboxes.

While CBUs have long been the rule for townhouse communities and in parts of the country with more temperate climates, snow and ice can limit access to the units if the locality hasn’t plowed and shoveled. “It remains to be seen whether rain, snow or dark of night will deter the postal patrons from retrieving their mail,” Holliday said.

Meanwhile, the Postal Service is also working hard to change existing door-to-door delivery to curbside service. In the ruined old neighborhoods of New Orleans now being rebuilt, USPS is refusing to deliver to homes that do not have curbside mailboxes, even if they had door-to-door delivery before Hurricane Katrina.  In many of these neighborhoods, the service is refusing to deliver to houses at all and erecting “temporary” CBUs instead.

“Apparently, USPS has decided that New Orleanians with the courage to return do not have enough inconveniences to deal with. Postal regulations require that all the households agree to any change in method of delivery, and USPS has said that the CBUs will come down only if all the residents served by them want them to come down. CBUs could be coming to your city neighborhood, too,” Holliday warned.

For more information, e-mail Calli Schmidt at NAHB, or call her at 800-368-5242 x8132.

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