Sewage problems force evictions
Seven people living in trailers and old sheds on a ramshackle ranch three miles from Aspen have received orders to get out within the next 30 days.Pitkin County ordered the evictions on a ranch it owns along Owl Creek Road, adjacent to the airport. The county claims in the eviction notices that there is a health threat from raw sewage because the septic systems on the property have failed and because some residences lack sewage systems.At the same time it served the eviction notices, the county delivered two portable toilets and a mobile water cistern to serve the property for the next month.The eviction notices caught the ranch tenants off-guard. Many of them found notices tacked to their doors when they returned from work Thursday.”They came and put on all buildings, ‘Move out in 30 days,'” said 86-year-old Lada Vrany, a native of Czechoslovakia who has lived on the ranch since 1958.Vrany leased the ranch from Elizabeth and Walter Paepcke. Mrs. Paepcke sold the property, known as Airport Ranch, to the county government in 1988. Vrany was allowed to stay in the ranch manager’s house and virtually run it as his own. To supplement his income he rents out three ancient trailer houses as well as rooms in some buildings.
The tenants probably pay the cheapest rents in Aspen, with prices ranging from $100 to about $250 per month.”We’re completely screwed,” said Leonard Martin, who moved his own trailer onto the property about three years ago and pays rent for the space.When asked if he could find anything comparable in rent, Martin replied, “Are you high? This is Aspen.”Martin said he has lived in the Aspen area for about 40 years. This is the second time Pitkin County has evicted him. He lived on Wilk Wilkinson’s Smuggler Mountain property when the county evicted residents and tore down Wilkinson’s illegally built home in the 1990s.At the Airport Ranch, the eviction notices stated that residents would get the highest priority for relocating in local government affordable housing units. Martin said coming up with land and security deposits would be next to impossible – even if he did want to live in that type of housing. He likes the seclusion and peacefulness of the ranch.Victor Gouch, another of Vrany’s tenants, is facing eviction from a trailer where he’s lived for nearly 20 years. The trailer doesn’t have plumbing for water or sewer. Gouch said he’s gotten by through using other bathrooms on the property or using facilities in Aspen.Gouch also rents a corn crib that he has converted into a workshop. Behind his trailer is a large area penned off for chickens. He raises a breed called Rhode Island Reds and collects about 3,000 eggs per year. He eats what he wants and gives away or sells the rest. Gouch said he will probably have to kill the chickens when he’s forced to move.
“I’d like to stay right here if I could,” Gouch said.County aviation director Jim Elwood said county officials know there is a human side to the issue and that the evictions are a hardship for tenants used to cheap rent. However, the county must hold itself as a landowner to the same standards it would hold anyone else, he said.If the environmental health department determined a health risk existed on some other landowner’s rental property, the county’s first action would be to remove the residents, Elwood said. It has to treat itself the same way.Elwood said it hasn’t been determined if sewage poses a threat off-site or only to residents of the ranch.”Our next step is to do an environmental survey of the entire ranch,” he said. That will determine the extent of the sewage problem and what remedies are required.Keith Keelan, a painter who rents a trailer, and John Ronay, a construction worker who rents a separate trailer, acknowledged there is a problem with water service on the property. Owl Creek is the domestic water supply. It feeds a cistern that supplies some of the units on the property. The water is often clouded with sediment.They were unaware of any problem with the septic system. Vrany said he also questioned problems with the septic system.
And Keelan and Ronay questioned the county’s approach to the issue. It should address the water and sewer issues and preserve the affordable housing, they said.”Fix it and let us stay,” Keelan said.Elwood and Pitkin County Manager Hilary Smith said the county wasn’t aware of all the residences on the ranch. When asked how that was possible since Pitkin County has owned the land for the last 16 years, Elwood said, “I don’t have a simple answer for you.”He said the county’s dealings have been with Vrany, as the caretaker of the ranch. The residences and “substandard living conditions” were discovered only last week, Elwood said. A complaint spurred an investigation by a codes enforcement officer, and a survey by the environmental health department showed there were problems with raw sewage on the site.The residents have until June 2 to remove their belongings.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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