Some Pan and Fork residents claim promises were broken in Basalt | AspenTimes.com

Some Pan and Fork residents claim promises were broken in Basalt

Leigh Vogel/The Aspen Times

Some residents of the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park fear the aid being offered by Basalt town government won't allow them to stay in the community and falls far short of promises that allegedly were made.

In a meeting with a reporter from The Aspen Times, four residents of the trailer park said this week they feel like they've been kept in the dark about the town's direction. They were also critical of the Roaring Fork Community Development Corp., a nonprofit organization that initiated the purchase of the trailer park in 2011.

Ralph Vasquez, a 1999 graduate of Basalt High School who spent much of his youth at the Pan and Fork and still makes it his home, said Community Development Corp. officials Colin Laird and Michael McVoy told residents in neighborhood gatherings that they would be given aid to relocate within Basalt. They told trailer-park residents that they would replace all the units being removed with residences elsewhere in the midvalley, he said.

"Now they just mysteriously and conveniently disappear," Vasquez said. "Somebody needs to hold (the Community Development Corp.) and Manaus (Fund) accountable for lying to us." The Manaus Fund, which is affiliated with philanthropist George Stranahan, provides financial support for the Community Development Corp.

Consuela Arias, who is raising her family at the Pan and Fork with husband Ricardo Gonzales, said Laird told her the Community Development Corp. was attempting to find property where Pan and Fork residents could relocate their trailers or haul in different ones. Speaking through an interpreter, she said she was told specifically that the space rent would be similar to the $650 per month rent they were paying at the Pan and Fork.

No replacement units are being provided by the Community Development Corp. or the town, although town officials are offering financial settlement packages to trailer owners and renters and offering them assistance in seeking new accommodations. (See related story for the response of town and Community Development Corp. officials to the allegations by the trailer-park residents.)

Recommended Stories For You

The town is using a payment formula that considers whether a person is a renter or owner, how long they have lived at the Pan and Fork, household size and whether they are removing their trailers. Irma Diaz, a resident there for 18 years, received an offer for $17,000, according to Vasquez, her son.

"What can she do with $17,000? Nothing — pay rent for a couple of years," Vasquez said.

Diaz said she doesn't know where she and her husband will live. They don't have many options, she said. She is particularly distressed that she will be required to leave their house during the winter.

"It's not relocation. It's eviction," Vasquez said.

Diaz and a female neighbor watched earlier this month when the first trailer was removed from the Pan and Fork to make way for Basalt's riverbed- and river-bank restoration project. The town says the project is vital to ease the flood threat of the Roaring Fork River. Diaz said the sight brought them to tears because it signaled they also would have to move soon.

State law requires landlords to give tenants 60 days' notice to move, and in the case of mobile-home-park tenants, they can be required to remove their property. Vasquez scoffed at the idea that the town was going beyond its legal responsibility.

"I appreciate their efforts, but that's not what we were promised," he said.

Promises were made by the Community Development Corp. that the residents would be provided units for relocation, he said, and the town government had a 100 percent replacement-housing ordinance in place when the mobile-home park was purchased.

That ordinance requires that 100 percent of affordable-housing units that are torn down for new development must be replaced elsewhere in Basalt. The rule was adopted in 1999 to preserve Basalt's diversity.

Current elected and staff officials said the ordinance was flawed because it fails to deal with people. It only requires units to be replaced. It doesn't make a property owner assist the specific residents who are being displaced. It was also so expensive that no developer would touch the 38-unit Pan and Fork. The town wants the trailers moved because of the flood threat the site faces. The mobile-home park is located along the banks of the Roaring Fork River, right below its confluence with the Pan and Fork.

Vasquez questions the reality of the flood threat.

"The trailer park's been here for 30 years. There hasn't been a flood," he said.

Without directly suggesting an ulterior motive, he noted that the property is "very valuable."

The town intends to convert about half of the property into a riverside park. The Community Development Corp. has an agreement to sell most of its half of the property to a hotel developer. No land-use approval has been acquired yet.

The town has concentrated on working with the mobile-home park owner closest to the river in Phase 1 of the relocation effort. Trailers are being moved for staging for the river work, scheduled to start this month. While neighborhood meetings were held early on, recent negotiations have been one-on-one.

Arias said she and Gonzales have no idea how much they will be offered for their home of 15 years. They have four children, at least one each in Basalt's elementary, middle and high schools. They want to remain part of the community but don't know if that will be possible.

Arias said they like living at Pan and Fork because of its central location. They are close to the schools, the Catholic church and the bus stops.

Gonzales said many residents would face hardship relocating because of lack of documentation or low income. The stressful time is made worse by the lack of information, he said.

Gonzales said Laird was holding meetings regularly with the residents and telling them about the Community Development Corp.'s plans. That ended three of four months ago.

"We never see his face again," he said.

That coincides with when the town and the Community Development Corp., partners in the trailer-park ownership, shifted their strategy and the town took the central role in relocating the residents.

Vasquez said many residents are "confused and scared." Some renters who normally would be at the Pan and Fork only for a couple of months have stayed longer because of the promise of a payoff from the town, he claimed. Some owners are accepting the town's offer because they don't want to deal with the issue, he added.

Vasquez said he wants "justice" for the longtime residents. It's not enough for the town to say, "Sorry, it didn't work out. Here's some money," he said.

The Colorado Immigrants Right Coalition is listening to the residents and monitoring the proceedings with the town government, according to Sophia Clark, a Rocky Mountain regional organizing fellow with the nonprofit organization. She said coalition representatives are working with residents facing eviction all over Colorado. When asked if the Pan and Fork residents are being treated more fairly than residents elsewhere, Clark responded that the real issue is whether the community is treating them "the right way."

The coalition has concerns about the transparency of the process and accountability, Clark said.

Vasquez said he was speaking out about the Pan and Fork situation in the hopes that someone would intervene and provide land where the Pan and Fork residents can relocate.

"I hope people open their eyes and their hearts and they change something," he said.

Basalt officials say they are doing the best they can at Pan and Fork

Town of Basalt officials believe they have intervened to help Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park residents to the greatest extent possible after the nonprofit that initiated the purchase of the property couldn’t deliver on promises.

Town Manager Mike Scanlon said the town came up with its plan to pay trailer park residents to help them relocate and offset the loss of housing after Roaring Fork Community Development Corp.’s plans didn’t pan out.

“I really think the CDC had good intentions. I just don’t think they knew what they were into,” Scanlon said.

Community Development Corp. President Michael McVoy said he believes the residents are getting the best deal possible from the town, though he denied his organization broke any promises to residents.

Community Development Corp. arranged a deal in the summer of 2011 to buy the Pan and Fork, a 38-unit mobile home park just west of downtown Basalt. It enlisted the town as a partner, with the two entities dividing the purchase price. The town owns the property closest to the Roaring Fork River and will turn it into a park. Community Development Corp. owns the piece closest to Two River Road, which it envisioned as a hotel and commercial development.

McVoy was clear from the time of the purchase that Community Development Corp.’s goal was to help the residents relocate out of the floodplain and into alternative housing in the midvalley.

McVoy said the conceptual plan was for Community Development Corp. to secure land-use approvals, sell the property to a developer and use its funds to create replacement housing for the residents.

Town officials decided that model wasn’t going to work. Instead, the town switched gears and decided to relocate the residents, remove the trailers and alter the Roaring Fork River to make the Pan and Fork site developable.

“That was the town,” McVoy said. “That was not our choice. That was not our decision.

“We essentially got taken out of the equation,” he later added.

Under Community Development Corp.’s model, land would have been sought where Pan and Fork residents could relocate with new trailers or they would have been offered residential units.

“Is this more fair or less fair?” McVoy asked about the town’s approach of financial settlements with residents. Everybody has got a different opinion, he said.

“Personally, we think it’s fair,” McVoy said.

State and federal laws wouldn’t have allowed the vast majority of the trailer to be moved from Pan and Fork to a new trailer park, McVoy said. The mobile homes are too old and contain hazards such as asbestos. So, under that scenario, residents would have to acquire mobile homes new enough to transport to the new site. Some of them couldn’t have afforded that, he said.

Another part of the equation was providing replacement units. There appears to be a misperception among some residents that they were going to receive those units for free, McVoy said. That was never the case. “They were going to have to buy the units,” he said.

Community Development Corp.’s research indicated only eight to 10 of the 35 households in Pan and Fork had the financial resources and the legal status necessary to buy units involving public monies, he said.

Community Development Corp.’s model included compensating the residents to some degree for their loss of housing at Pan and Fork and providing funds either for a deposit on an apartment or a down payment on property. The financial aid probably wouldn’t have been as great as the town is paying the residents, according to McVoy.

He acknowledged that the options might not have been clear to Pan and Fork residents. “No, it wasn’t even clear to us,” McVoy said. “We were not trying to build any false hopes or false expectations.”

Nevertheless, some residents feel betrayed by CDC. (See related story.)

Basalt had no legal obligation to help the residents. Colorado law allows a landlord to give tenants 60 days to vacate. Basalt officials have repeatedly said they felt a moral obligation to help the residents.

Basalt budgeted up to $1 million for the relocation effort. The town is using a formula that includes the length of time in the trailer park, size of the household and whether or not the trailer would be removed by the owner to determine the size of the payment. The first trailer was removed last week. The owner received $22,800, which included $7,500 for removing the trailer himself.

Scanlon said he believes the town is treating the residents as well as it can. Mayor Jacque Whitsitt has made that same comment in recent public meetings.

“We have two masters, the taxpayers and the residents, and we have to watch out for both their interests,” Scanlon said.

He said he understands the frustration by some residents.

“I asked the residents at the first meeting I went to for patience and forgiveness — forgiveness for those promises that were made that the town wasn’t a part of,” he said.

He sought patience from the residents while he and town finance director Judi Tippetts tried to work through the issues with individual owners and renters.

To improve communication with the remaining residents, Scanlon plans a three-part approach in the future. There will be a meeting for all residents of the mobile home park, followed by the owners of the five or six trailers in the next phase of relocation, then individual meetings, he said.

Scanlon said not all the residents of the mobile home park will be pleased with the town’s efforts, in large part because they want special rules for their families. Efforts made by some property owners to claim residency in the mobile home park when they were really renting their property out constitutes fraud, he said. No criminal actions are being pursued.

Basalt taxpayers stand to recoup some of the expense of evicting Pan and Fork residents. McVoy said CDC would reimburse the town for relocation costs once it sells its share of land.

scondon@aspentimes.com