- J. Adrian Stanley
- Bud Calhoun points to the creek and its eroding banks.
Exit 128 into Fountain and turn left on Crest Drive. Keep going, past the 7-11, past dull rows of aging trailers, and around the curve.
It's sudden — the way the city disappears past that curve. The Riverside Mobile Home Park appears to the right, surrounded by grassy prairie that shines golden in the late afternoon sun. A wooden sign, featuring a painted buck and doe, marks the spot. Weather-worn trailers are lined up beside a row of tidy brown houses.
The largest house has a garden prepped for next year's batch of wildflowers. Bud Calhoun answers the door, his excited black lab, Hannah, by his side. The 83-year-old widower and former owner of a painting company smiles broadly. For a man who is about to lose his home, his neighborhood, and the land he loves to a government buy-out, he is in high spirits.
For 20-odd years, Calhoun has lived in this home along Fountain Creek, where he can easily walk to the neighboring open space to let Hannah run free, watch the birds take flight and the seasons change. He bought the neighboring trailer park in 2007. The previous owner was a friend, and before he passed away Calhoun promised him he'd keep the place open — and the rent low — for the low-income and elderly tenants.
"We're kind of like a family here," Calhoun says.
Perhaps half a block from Calhoun's porch, a cliff is lined by a chain-link fence. Far below, the ribbon of Fountain Creek wends its way south. It's a spectacular view, with mountains hovering in the background.
But the ground here is unsteady. Over the years, floods have continued to break away the cliff. A barn, a row of trailers and other structures have all fallen with it. Calhoun says he was standing in the barn a few minutes before it fell.
"Some serious stuff happened here," he says, staring out at the jagged edge.
Even now, a few trailers sit perilously close to the cliff. The creek eventually could claim all of Riverside.
The danger is urgent enough that El Paso County is taking the unusual step of seeking state funding to buy the trailer park, turn it into open space and help its residents relocate to stable ground.
Calhoun says he'll hate to leave. But he doesn't object to the county's plan, and he knows of no residents in his park who do. (No one reportedly opposed the plan at a recent public meeting.) Better to get out now than wait for the inevitable.
"All indications are that [the county] is going to be very, very fair," Calhoun says.
County spokesperson Baaron Pittenger says Riverside was likely hit hard by the 1999 floods, as well as two 100-year floods over the past few years. These days, the cliff is sheer where the creek bends below the trailer park, making it even more likely that another flood will cause the banks to collapse.
Stormwater issues have plagued El Paso County for decades. A ballot initiative to fund needed projects and create a regional stormwater authority failed to entice voters in 2014. Generally, stormwater projects funded by the county protect government assets; it's rare for the government to buy out homeowners. The county did approve the purchase of four Ute Pass homes earlier this year, using federal funds, after years of delay. The homes were in the path of major flooding. Pittenger says the county tries to step in when the situation warrants.
"It's not something that we do every day, and it's not something that there's an opportunity to do that frequently," he says, "but we think this is something that really qualifies for the state program. The bottom line is this is a safety issue."
County Fire and Flood Project Manager Pete Vujcich says while the county worked with the City of Fountain to fund stabilization of the banks, that work won't guarantee anyone's safety. It's impossible to say when the bank might fail.
At this point, the county will apply to the state for funding through the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program to buy Riverside. The Department of Local Affairs will review the proposal, and it could be approved in four to six months. Between rehabilitation, relocation and property acquisition, the entire project could easily cost $2.5 million.
"We're fairly optimistic it will make it through that process," Pittenger says.
If the plan is approved, residents will be reimbursed for the value of their homes (or the land they sit on), although, Pittenger notes, many of the homes have little value. The county assessor shows most of Riverside's trailers date to the 1950s and '60s, and are valued at less than $2,000, or even less than $1,000. Most are so old that they can't be legally moved, making them impossible to resell for anything other than scrap metal if Riverside closes.
Working with nonprofits or specialists, the state will assign each resident a case manager, who will help find a new home that meets their needs. (The park includes six owned units, 26 rented units and 16 vacant lots.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development will likely cover relocation costs, on a cases-by-case basis, which could include moving costs and years of housing subsidies.
"Tenant occupants may be eligible for a rental assistance payment to supplement the costs of leasing a comparable replacement dwelling, or down payment assistance payment to purchase a replacement dwelling," according to a HUD website. "Owner occupants may be eligible for a price differential payment, mortgage interest differential payment, or incidental payments to supplement the costs of purchasing a comparable replacement dwelling."
Calhoun says he's hoping he can find another home nearby, so that Hannah will still be able to run around these plains. He hopes his neighbors will also end up in a good place. And he believes they will.
"They'll be so much better off," he says, smiling.