Alternating bouts of rain, wind and sun served as the backdrop for Pitkin County commissioners’ Tuesday afternoon site visit with anxious residents of Phillips Trailer Park, a midvalley low-income community that’s facing a major overhaul following the county’s purchase of the property early last year.
The county is looking to improve the standard of living for the park’s hillside residents by building new water and wastewater systems to replace infrastructure that’s said to be at the end of its life. On the other hand, the county may force most or all of the residents on the community’s riverside portion to relocate because they live in a federal government-designated flood plain.
And dozens of other questions remain unanswered, including whether to compensate residents for structures that are unable to be relocated and how much to charge residents for the payback of infrastructure repairs and the ability to own the land beneath their homes.
Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury called the situation “a tricky puzzle” for which commissioners, in concert with residents, consultants and county staff, will have to find the right pieces.
“I’m super-sympathetic to the anxiety that a forced move could present for some people,” McNicholas Kury said.
She said that walking through the entire 40-unit property and speaking with residents will bring greater context to help guide future decisions.
“What makes this kind of messy is the question of what should the [community] look like and how do we sequence the changes,” she said.
Future density is another big concern of both government and residents, given that one of the county’s stated goals is to “maintain rural character” in places where it exists, a difficult task in a region that is in dire need of suitable areas for development of more affordable housing.
At a work session in late March, faced with three different density options, county commissioners appeared to settle on the moderate alternative: not to lower the number of net units, and perhaps adding another 10 or 20 new units. Another option, which did not find favor with the majority, would have allowed development of more than 70 new units as a way of alleviating the county’s housing crunch.
But during the site visit, McNicholas Kury and Commissioner Patti Clapper saw a hillside that is flatter than they originally thought. In other words, there are areas that can accommodate new development.
And so the concept of going above a threshold of 50 or 55 units may still be on the table.
“We have the floor, but we don’t have the ceiling yet,” McNicholas Kury said. She said while she is hesitant to attach a firm number to the number of units that could be accommodated on the property, more units might help reduce the monthly cost to residents, old and new, for infrastructure repairs and lot purchases.
McNicholas Kury added that she didn’t get the feeling that current residents were opposed to greater density. They were more concerned about county timelines and questions relating to the expense of trailer relocations and buying their lots.
Consultants also have said that the system might give riverside residents whose trailers cannot be relocated a first-right refusal to lots on the hillside. But, such a system would mean the added expense of purchasing a new trailer or finding a used structure that’s up to code and can be moved to a hillside site.
Basically, the county is taking a community that was managed and owned by a longtime local family over many decades and creating a new trailer park that will be subject to development codes and affordable-housing rules for residents and tenants alike. Whether some longtime residents will be “grandfathered in” and not made to adhere to new rules is another question yet to be met head on.
Clapper said homes that are threatened by debris-flow corridors that lie above them are also a big concern. The water-and-wastewater systems on both sides of the river have aged to the point where they have to be replaced, but the longtime manager of the property is doing a good job of keeping them functional, she said.
Also, the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority likely will have to be brought into the process to develop a plan for wildfire mitigation, Clapper said.
The commissioners, including Steve Child, probably spoke with about 15 residents during the visit, according to assistant county manager Phylis Mattice. It’s been estimated that the 40-unit property includes about 60 residents in total. Commissioners Greg Poschman and George Newman were unable to make the visit.
“What we heard from the residents was a ‘thank you’ for saving this property from private development,” Clapper said. The county paid $6.5 million for the 65-acre property in early 2018 with the goal of preserving it for affordable housing.
“But we also heard a lot of questions from residents about what’s going to happen,” Clapper said. “You can’t blame them for being anxious.”
Mattice said she believes greater density, above the previously projected 50-55 units, is still part of the discussion. There is a large, open, unused agricultural field on the hillside that might be ripe for new affordable-housing development.
But as Clapper pointed out, there are county rules about preserving former agricultural lands, or at least a percentage of such lands. And that, the officials said, is yet another issue requiring further study.