Officials frustrated Edwards trailer park owners pulled out of water deal
A $4.4M deal to connect Eagle River Village to the local water system, heavily subsidized by Eagle County, fell apart after months of negotiations
Editor’s note: This is part 2 of an ongoing series on water-quality issues in Eagle County. Click here to read part 1.
Susie Davis personally knows just how bad the tap water at Eagle River Village mobile home park can be. The longtime Vail Valley nonprofit leader lived and worked there in the late 1970s and early 1980s, running a small childcare business.
“I think it’s deteriorated over time, but there were seasons where [the water] really had high turbidity,” said Davis, director of community impact for the recently renamed Eagle Valley Community Foundation. “You turned on the water and looked at it and said, ‘I’m not going to drink that.’”
More than a half dozen residents of Eagle River Village on the west end of Edwards, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation from ownership and management, recently told the Vail Daily the well water at the park is undrinkable.
But Davis can attest to the fact the problem has been going on for decades. She used to market her childcare business by telling families she used bottled water because the poor state of the well water was well-known, even back then. Forty years later, many of the estimated 2,000 people living in the park still have to buy expensive bottled water for drinking and cooking.
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That’s why Davis, whose organization runs a free food bank and would rather that park residents spend their money on nutrition, was so disappointed this past spring when a painstakingly crafted deal to connect the trailer park to the local water system fell through.
The framework of the deal
The deal would have required Eagle River Village owner Ascentia, a Littleton, Colorado-based real estate holding company that owns five other parks across the state, to pay $500,000 up front and $365,000 a year for 10 years in a low-interest loan to connect to the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority system. That investment, plus about $600,000 of Ascentia’s existing water rights, represented a little over half the overall $4.4 million cost of connecting to the system.
The other nearly $2 million would have been covered by Eagle County dedicating $1.2 million in water rights from the Eagle Park Reservoir, a $500,000 impact investment from the Community Foundation and $200,000 from the water authority foregoing an annual rate adjustment. The water authority had also agreed to finance $1.4 million in impact fees at 3 percent interest.
In total, the $4.4 million cost of connecting to the UERWA system is comprised of that $1.4 million in impact fees, $2.5 million in water rights and $500,000 in engineering and hookup costs. Residents would have been required to pay an additional fee, which one proposal put as low as $25 a month. Residents say they pay as much as $75 a month for bottled water.
Negotiations on the deal that fell through first started in June of 2018, and in August of last year — according to emails obtained by the Vail Daily — Ascentia Vice President of Asset Management Marko Vukovich agreed the company would spend the $500,000 up front and then pay an additional $300,000 a year for 10 years.
During negotiations, that annual amount increased to $365,000 a year, or an additional $650,000 over 10 years. Asked if those additional costs caused the company to pull out of the deal in April of this year, Vukovich would not say.
‘Needed components did not materialize’
“Last summer representatives from the community approached us with a conceptual proposal to tie into the district water system,” Vukovich said. “After several months of collaboration, the needed components of this concept did not materialize and we were not able to move forward with it.
“The consistent response from our residents was that they were not in favor of tying into district water because of the financial implications associated with a new system,” Vukovich added.
But numerous current residents told the Vail Daily they were not aware of any potential deal to connect to the water system — nor were they surveyed on their willingness to help pay for it.
“If they would have not pulled out of the deal and they would have asked for everyone’s opinion, I think it would have been a good thing to do for the community, because I’m sure I’m not the only one allergic to the water,” said one resident who gets skin rashes from bathing in the water.
“They raise [land lease rates] up every year anyways by like a hundred bucks,” the resident added in reference to monthly rates of around $1,200 to park a mobile home on Ascentia property. Nearly 90 percent of the residents own their trailers but have seen lease rates steadily climb over the years.
Financial analysists familiar with the proposed tie-in deal say Eagle River Village is Ascentia’s flagship property in its seven-state portfolio, grossing more than $5 million a year based on 381 mobile homes paying an average of around $1,200 a month in land leases.
“We did not get far enough along in the tie-in process to warrant notifying our residents. The feedback which we did receive however was primarily unsolicited, yet clear and consistent,” Vukovich said. “The hope was to find an arrangement that would benefit the residents, the county, and the ownership group. Ultimately, we were not able to make that happen.”
State health officials say there have been some minor administrative violations with the well-water system at the park, and one elevated lead finding in 2014 that has since been addressed. Overall, they say the water at the park may have “aesthetic” problems but that it meets state standards under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
State officials say they will again reach out to Ascentia and offer water system “coaching” to try to improve the aesthetic quality of the water at Eagle River Village but that they need the cooperation of the owners. Vukovich said the company is open to the state assistance.
The Vail Daily tried unsuccessfully several times to get a comment on the situation from former Eagle County commissioner and Edwards resident Jill Ryan, who is now executive director of the state agency that oversees water quality — the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The county defers to the state on water-quality regulations.
‘They’re just printing money’
“From a county standpoint … we want every resident in this community to have access to adequate resources to be healthy and thrive, and that’s why we’ve worked so hard with the Community Foundation and others to find a way to bring in some of the best water in the world to that community …” said Chris Lindley, the outgoing director of Eagle County Public Health and Environment.
Lindley expressed frustration that Ascentia pulled out of a deal that included significant public funding for a highly profitable private business.
“Yeah, it’s a massive subsidy,” Lindley said of the deal Ascentia rejected. “They’re just printing money. It’s unbelievable.”
The park houses 7 percent of the county’s overall Eagle River Valley population, and they’re mostly low-income service workers who are critically needed in a county with an unemployment rate under 2 percent.
“It just continues to exacerbate the financial burden that’s already on them for just being up here in this community where housing is so expensive,” Lindley said.
Eagle Valley Community Foundation’s Davis, whose nonprofit runs a food bank warehouse in Gypsum and mobile markets with free food throughout the Vail Valley, considers good drinking water a basic necessity for every resident of Eagle County.
“Should our tax dollars be paying for this? Well, we pay for affordable housing, or we try to,” Davis said. “So this really comes down to this is our civic responsibility to make sure that our service workers, our employment base has potable water. That just seems like a given.”
She, too, is frustrated the deal fell through.
“I know as a private property owner you don’t want somebody to come in and take your water rights away,” Davis said. “At the same time, we’re just talking about having water. This is a first-world country in an incredible resort community, and we can’t guarantee potable water for everybody.”
One former resident of the trailer park had heard about the deal falling through and wasn’t surprised Ascentia pulled out. For many years she felt public officials ignored the situation.
“Now they’re trying to do something,” she said. “It’s just that the owners and the management just want the money and they don’t want to spend the money because they’re used to not doing anything for the residents.”