Country Meadows community members weigh their options

Looking more at new owners and better living conditions

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

While Gunnison County commissioners and staff are still trying to help purchase the land at the Country Meadows trailer park north of Gunnison to secure the homes of at least 300 people, the efforts are beginning to pivot and focus on advocating for residents and establishing a relationship with the new prospective owner since the current owner is not cooperating.

Some residents expressed their frustration at the lack of progress during a work session with county commissioners on Wednesday, August 18, but the county says there is little it can do when the current owner, River Walk, LLC has not responded to repeated communication attempts and information requests. The county’s stated hope is that residents will be able to remain on the premises with new owners, and that the recently organized group of residents and other advocates translates into park improvements and better quality of life there.

River Walk, LLC informed residents in late June that it intends to accept an offer on the property for $2.95 million and gave residents the required 90 days notice to make an offer as well. Under a new Colorado law, River Walk is required to give the 90-day notice/ waiting period and to “reasonably consider” an alternate offer to purchase on behalf of the residents.

However, Gunnison County commissioner chair Jonathan Houck explained on Wednesday evening to about 30 attendees that the county no longer believes it can purchase the property on behalf of the residents. The county would need to make an offer by September 23, and the owner has not responded to requests for information or to provide access to the property for appraisal or inspection so the county can secure financing and make a legitimate offer.

Houck explained that since the current owner seems intent on “running out the clock,” the county would still work hard to advocate for the residents and their living conditions, and to find traction with the new owners if possible.

Commissioner Liz Smith spoke to the group of attendees in an emotional moment. “I want you to know that we’ve heard your voices, that you are seen and that what you’ve done to organize yourselves is really tremendous. And I really am hopeful that we can make a difference in the community that you’re living in and also other communities that are struggling with similar issues across the county.”
Smith thanked the residents for bringing the issue to the commissioners, and promised to do all she could “to be your partners here.”

Commissioner Roland Mason said he understood it was hard to hear that the purchase from the county, “Due to the timing, is going to be near impossible.” He said they are putting time and effort in to changing the course of the past and create a better future for the residents. “And you all have taken that first big step, coming together, letting us know what the issues are.” He echoed a sense of being partners to make the situation better.

Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority director Jennifer Kermode said the GVRHA has been involved in the park before in terms of heating programs, and that it could help leverage funds to improve conditions in the park as well. “We’d like to work with you in establishing standard lease agreements so that you have protections from landlord abuse,” she added, and, where appropriate, work with state and local authorities to implement split enforcement procedures, “when the landlord steps out of line.”

Residents did not take the news from the county in stride. Some expressed concern over having drawn attention to themselves by signing petitions to help purchase the property, and some wanted to be sure the county had truly made all possible efforts to make an offer.

One man, identifying himself as a 25-year resident, said he didn’t think the promises of park improvements mattered if they all had to move out. He also expressed disappointment that the new law offering protections to trailer parks “has no teeth in it,” and that the owner having only to do things “in good faith” doesn’t seem to mean much by legal standards.

“I want to know if I get to stay or I have to leave. Until we can establish that, all the other stuff is so secondary. The primary thing is what are we going to do if all 300 and some people have to leave?”

He also questioned whether the commissioners were going to really do anything when “all I’m hearing from you is that ‘we hope.’”
Houck agreed that the law is not an actionable one, and that he too was frustrated about it. “We have learned that right alongside you,” he said.

Then he addressed the other issue, “do you get to stay.”

“If indeed the park sells, we don’t know the intentions of the new person,” said Houck. But he pointed out that if the new owner tries to make a land use change they will have to go through the extensive process with the county.

“It’s an uphill challenge to take a current use with that many people living there and change it to a new use,” he said. If the park sells, the county intends to work with the new owners to ensure a reasonable outcome.

Other residents asked about potential retribution for having participated in the attempt to purchase the property, or whether rent might go up or they might be evicted with little notice.

Houck assured them that they were all seen and valued as county residents and the county wanted to protect them and advocate for them. A collective group, suggested Houck, is a much bigger force for a landlord to contend with than one single tenant.

Other legal questions came up around whether the county could legally demand that the owner provide information, and the process of a land use change if a new owner, reportedly a land prospecting company, did want to change the use of the park.

County deputy attorney Emily Gaebler explained that the county or residents or other interested parties have to provide an offer in order to require a response of the owner. But the county cannot make an offer without securing the financing; financing cannot be secured without the property owner’s cooperation to get access to the property for an inspection and appraisal.

Gaebler also said the county cannot prejudice any future application for a land use change.

Many residents said they do want to continue working with the county to forge a new and better relationship with the potential new owner, and many expressed their appreciation for what commissioners and county staff have done to help them already.

Meanwhile, the state and the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) are investigating the park owners for various public health and safety violations. “The things they are looking into, we are not going to give up looking at and making those issues better,” said Houck. These include road conditions, tree hazards, water drainage issues and more. “We are hoping to establish a new relationship with the new owner to help make improvements at the park.”

Additionally, all parties agreed to remain prepared to act quickly if the current owner does become more cooperative about the county making a purchase offer.

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