Hard water, hard times
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series looking at the conflict between Aspen City Councilman Tim Semrau, a developer, and residents of the Pitkin Iron affordable housing project. An extensive interview with Tim Semrau will run in tomorrow’s Aspen Times.The residents of the Pitkin Iron affordable housing subdivision believe they have a story to tell. And they’ve hired a lawyer, just in case that story has to be told in front of a judge.It’s a story of honest, hardworking locals who four years ago thought their dreams had been answered when they purchased units in a highly touted affordable housing project, Pitkin Iron. Tim Semrau, a reputable developer and soon-to-be Aspen city councilman was building the subdivision, promising riverside homes at an affordable price. The 15-unit project lines the Roaring Fork River, just off Highway 82 below Woody Creek. As the subdivision neared completion, one Pitkin County commissioner called Semrau a “poster boy” for honest and altruistic developers.
But although the homes were beautiful at Pitkin Iron, the homeowners soon found that all was not well. Now the residents say the project was a hollow miracle; its beautiful exterior hid a corrosive, subterraneous force. What engineers call “aggressive water,” water loaded with metal particulates, was eating away at the entire complex. Hard water is safe to drink, but it corrodes pipes and household appliances. Since the discovery of the hard water in the subdivision’s well, life at Pitkin Iron has been what one resident calls “an unmitigated disaster.” It’s been hard water and hard times. And it’s fairly clear where they think the blame lies. The residents have hired an attorney to help negotiate a settlement with Semrau. Once hailed as a savior, the developer has become the villain in the eyes of many of the residents. Charlie Vresilovic, a chef in Aspen, lives with his wife and 3-year-old son in one of the units. He’s a proud homeowner who keeps his home clean and tidy. Despite his best efforts, however, there’s no hiding the 5-gallon jugs of bottled water that are scattered throughout his house. The Vresilovics don’t drink the water, don’t cook with it, don’t even fill their fishbowl with it. They say it tastes terrible and aren’t convinced it’s safe for consumption.”Semrau told everyone he could build affordable housing attractively for less,” Vresilovic said. “At first I didn’t think he went into this trying to dupe anyone or screw anyone over. But as we have more and more experiences with him, I’m not so sure.”After they discovered their water was extremely hard – Vresilovic says five times harder than normal county water – the residents installed a water softening system to replace the hard minerals in the water with salt. Semrau split the cost of the $30,000 system.But the softening system has only created more problems for the residents. The hundreds of pounds of salt that’s added to the water each week has already blocked one of the unit’s leach fields, a draining field used to discard wasted water. Entire septic systems are beginning to fail. Adding to the problem, a state water expert has declared the softening system illegal.
Meridith Daniel, a dancer at Aspen’s Crystal Palace, moved into a single-family home at Pitkin Iron six months ago. She knew about the hard water but thought the water softening system would make life bearable. Now she says she regrets moving to Pitkin Iron every day.”My leach field has failed. So we can’t use our water system properly,” Daniel said. “Over the summer we did all our showering and washing clothes at our neighbor’s house. But I can’t do that in the winter. I’m not going to have my kids running down the street with wet hair. “I bought a house that I could barely afford. Semrau built beautiful houses here but if you don’t have a good water system that’s all pointless.”The residents say all the water problems stem from the location of the subdivision’s well. They argue that Semrau did not receive required state oversight during its construction; if he had, they say, the well would not have been built at its current location. The only solution, according to the homeowners, is to construct an entirely new well, placed across the Roaring Fork River and fed to the subdivision through pipes on a nearby footbridge. Who do they think should pay for the new well and piping? The man responsible for the original well, of course.”All this would never have happened if Semrau had gotten the proper permitting from the state,” Vresilovic said. “We’re not crybabies. But when the developer screws up like that, he should be accountable.”
Ron Erickson, the president of the Pitkin Iron Homeowners Association and the man heading current negotiations with Semrau, says he has a different perspective on the water problems. Erickson says Semrau has been forthcoming about fixing problems at Pitkin Iron since they were first discovered three years ago. “I have a unique view on this,” Erickson said. “Tim [Semrau] has been working with us all along trying to get things solved. There are some differences of opinion between me and other residents. I think Tim’s committed to a reasonable solution.”Erickson agrees with his neighbors that the only acceptable solution is to find a new water supply. And the new well location across the river seems the best option. But he doesn’t necessarily think Semrau should be forced to pay the entire cost of such a well.”I know there are homeowners who feel that Tim is responsible for any costs,” he said. “Although it would be nice to have someone else pay for a new well, I don’t want to wait around until I’m 105. Let’s solve the problem and then figure out who pays for it.”Most of the homeowners don’t agree with Erickson, however. The homeowners’ attorney, Mike Sawyer, said last week that he has been retained in order to make sure Pitkin Iron residents don’t have to pay the full cost of constructing a new well.”These are residents in affordable housing,” Sawyer said. “The developer is responsible for this mess. We need to find a solution that doesn’t bankrupt the residents, keeping in mind that these are normal folks living in affordable housing. I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen.”Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org