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Hard water, hard times

Jennifer Davoren
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Charlie Vresilovic offers his thirsty houseguest a glass of chilled tap water – and a warning. The liquid is crystal clear, he notes, but looks can be deceiving.

“It is, according to sources, safe,” Vresilovic says, a note of skepticism in his voice. “Now, taste it.”

The first sip is a shock – brinish, with a slightly metallic aftertaste. Vresilovic shakes his head sadly, recognizing the look of surprise and dismay on his guest’s face.

“Nice, huh?” Vresilovic asks. “That’s salt. That’s what every tap in our building has to be like just so we have the hardness taken out of the water. Nobody down here drinks anything from there.

“Most people don’t even cook with it.”

Water quality isn’t the only problem around the Pitkin Iron affordable housing project, Vresilovic says. And some residents of the three-year-old subdivision are placing the blame on its developer, Tim Semrau.

Semrau, an Aspen city councilman, purchased the 39-acre property in 1998 with the promise of a new housing complex – one that would set an example for future partnerships between public and private entities. Semrau contends he succeeded in that task, but a handful of Pitkin Iron residents aren’t so sure.

“In the rush to build more affordable housing quickly, I think this project got pushed through faster than it should have been,” Vresilovic says.

Persistent problems

Pitkin Iron is comprised of four triplexes containing a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units. It wasn’t quite complete when the first families moved there in January 2001.

“It was hectic, because they were trying to get as many people in here as quickly as they could, as the buildings were being done,” Vresilovic recalls. “We noticed – probably like any other new place – that there were things that had to be taken care of, just a list of things that needed to be done. Being so new, it seemed like there was always something going on that list.”

The early to-do lists were taken care of by on-site project managers, Vresilovic says. However, problems persisted even after Pitkin Iron was officially complete and work crews left the scene.

“We’ve had mechanical failures pretty much all month, every month, since we’ve moved in here,” he says.

Vresilovic blames many of the problems on the development’s water.

“We noticed right away that the water here was hard, very hard – so much so, that you couldn’t lather. You’d stand in the shower for half an hour, you’d think you’d get a bubble – nothing.

“You’d actually feel gross afterwards.”

A water-softening system now helps Pitkin Iron residents lather up – and makes homeowners like Vresilovic foam at the mouth. The softener pumps a large amount of salt into the local water supply, as well as Pitkin Iron’s plumbing. Vresilovic wonders if the extra minerals are corroding his pipes.

“We don’t know what kind of damage that has done,” he says. “We already know it has damaged [floor] joints in the mechanical rooms, because we’ve replaced them.”

Who pays?

The Pitkin Iron Homeowners’ Association is spending quite a bit on repairs and replacements, says Vresilovic, the group’s president.

The association must flush its entire septic system on a regular basis to keep the salt from building up, costing residents an extra $4,000 a year. The group has also replaced its water meters at least five times in the past three years, at great cost to the association, says Vresilovic.

The homeowners’ group shelled out another $2,000 last week when a plumber came to inspect the development’s pump house, says Chad Jenkins, association treasurer.

As a result, “we’re not putting any money into our savings account for emergencies,” he says.

The costliest item around the development is the water softener, a $15,000 device. It requires nearly $6,000 worth of salt each year to be effective, Vresilovic says.

Semrau agreed to pay for half of the water softener, “but he should have paid for the whole thing. It should have been taken care of,” says Vresilovic.

Disclosure has also become a problem around Pitkin Iron, Vresilovic says. Semrau told the homeowners they could work on a $40,000 annual budget that would cover basic repairs and maintenance. That amount was quickly “blown out of the water,” Vresilovic says. Most residents had no idea they would need to spend so much.

“Last year, we probably spent not quite half of our total intake on that pump house. We’re spending huge volumes of cash,” he says.

These problems have led two Pitkin Iron residents to abandon their units. Vresilovic sometimes wishes he could do the same.

“A lot of us, knowing what we know now, probably wouldn’t have bought places down here,” Vresilovic says.

Semrau’s side

Semrau contends that, despite the complaints of a handful of tenants, most Pitkin Iron homeowners are perfectly happy with their decision to move there.

“Two-thirds of the residents are ecstatic,” he says.

One resident in particular, Ron Erickson, says he hasn’t encountered a single problem since buying his unit last December.

“I feel honored and privileged to be living there. I think it’s the nicest complex of deed-restricted housing built in Pitkin County,” he says. “Compared to all the other crap that’s on the market, these are wonderful.”

Erickson agrees that the development suffers from hard water. However, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to his neighbors, he says.

“We have a well, and that well has minerals,” Erickson says. “We knew that in the beginning, the county knew it, environmental health knew it. We knew the water was hard, and that would be a problem.”

And Erickson, for one, doesn’t mind drinking the tap water in his unit.

“It certainly is potable, and there’s nothing wrong with it from a health point of view,” he says.

Those who complain about unexpected costs probably aren’t experienced in the many pitfalls of property ownership, Erickson says.

“A lot of these people never owned properties before and don’t understand that, generally speaking, you’re paying for the maintenance.”

Erickson, who works as a property manager for rental properties, notes that many of these costs “aren’t outrageous.”

Semrau is skeptical that things are as bad as Vresilovic claims. The developer also contends that he is rarely kept up to speed on major malfunctions around Pitkin Iron.

“Since the head of the [homeowners’] association didn’t return my last phone call, the only information I have is from The Aspen Times,” he said last week.

`Gone the distance’

Semrau says that he recently wrapped up one dilemma at the development. The Pitkin Iron water system was never certified by the state – the cause of the development’s many plumbing problems, Vresilovic says – due to a mix-up between the developer and the project engineer. When state officials sent Semrau a letter of violation this summer, he says he sought to fix the problem.

“The application for state certification is 100 percent complete,” Semrau says.

Though Vresilovic wonders if Semrau attempted to ignore the state’s mandate – it took him three months to comply, he notes – Semrau claims the proper paperwork was delayed by county agencies, as it awaited the proper signatures.

Semrau also says he will not fund additional water testing, another large cost for the homeowners.

“All testing has been done for state requirements at my expense. The water is 100 percent safe,” he says. Semrau says he also replaced a number of plumbing pieces to help residents.

Semrau will begin construction on the second phase of Pitkin Iron, a small cluster of free-market homes just across the river from the triplexes, within the next six weeks. He doesn’t expect any problems with this new project – in fact, he believes that he’s overcome every obstacle around Phase I.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’ve not only gone the distance, but gone the distance three times over,” Semrau says.


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