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Thursday, December 5,2013

The aftermath: How the September floods will affect Lyons residents

For some Lyons residents, there won't be any homes to return to, which might permanently change the town's culture

By David Accomazzo
Photo by David Accomazzo
The silo at Planet Bluegrass

The sound of Danny Shafer’s guitar has drifted through Boulder County venues for decades now, and for years, he made his home base in the River Bend Mobile Home Park in Lyons, where he lived with his wife and their two children.

“We loved where we used to live,” Shafer says, noting that his wife works in Lyons. “We owned it, it was only two blocks away from the school. … We were planning on being there until the kids got out of high school. They’re 8 and 13 right now.”

The September flood wiped out the family’s trailer, along with the entire park’s 32 residences, which sat along the North St. Vrain Creek. The trailer park’s owner, Michael Whipp, has decided not to rebuild the park.

“It’s hard for us. We’re happy to see a lot of our neighbors moving back, and life starting to happen in Lyons again, but it’s sad and strange for us that we can’t be there with them,” Shafer says.

Lyons suffered some of the worst flooding damage in the state. Mayor Julie Van Domelen says the city tallied $50 million in damages to town infrastructure; in addition, 175 homes and 211 structures 211 structures, including 175 homes, took flood damage. At least two-thirds of those homes took “substantial damage,” meaning they lost more than 50 percent of their value in damage.

The rebuilding process is underway, but it looks to be a long, expensive and possibly painful one. At stake is the economic diversity and affordability of Lyons, and with it, its Bohemian character that has lent the town so much charm (and arguably its desirability) over the years. Residents have many concerns about the future of affordable housing in Lyons, as evidenced by a sequence of highly attended meetings on the subject. (A recent snowstorm did little to deter around 30 people from packing the Lyons Town Hall on Dec. 3 to discuss affordable housing.) Yet there still remain questions about just what Lyons will look like after the rebuilding is done — and who will be able to live there.

The past decade has already seen lower-income residents leaving Lyons. According to a Community Foundation report on Boulder County, artists here make an average of $19,000 a year. Census data from 2000 indicates that 23 percent of Lyons households made less than $25,000 a year; the latest Census estimates put that figure at 14 percent. Median rent in Lyons rose from $738 a month to $934 a month in that time (a 26.5 percent increase); the median home price rose from $199,100 to $340,700, a 71 percent increase. (Boulder home values rose 56 percent over that same time, for comparison.)

Lyons faces a couple of housing problems going forward. The town is highly desirable, with its picturesque setting; its proximity to Boulder, Estes Park and Longmont; and its easy access to outdoor recreation. But Lyons has very little free space; most of the town’s 1.2 square miles that can be developed already have been. Between the Boulder County open space that buffers the town to the east, west and south and the steep hills and jagged cliffs that protrude from the landscape, there isn’t much available land within the town.

Real estate prices certainly haven’t taken a hit as a result of the flood, says real estate agent Jill Bryant.

“I think it is doing something different from what people thought it was going to be,” Bryant says. “They thought it was going to scare everybody off, but I’m seeing quite the opposite. Even before we were getting services back, people were putting houses under contract.”

She says that even in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, once everything is rebuilt from scratch, there might be an increase in home prices, since some of those neighborhoods contained very old, not-so-easy-on-the-eye homes.

“A lot of those have just been hodge-podged together with additions,” she says. “[All-new houses] will certainly bring the neighborhood up. … I think that would be perfect for an investor to get something built like that and get it to where they can rent it out.”

Gary McCrumb owns a house in the Confluence neighborhood, and his house is now entirely uninhabitable. A sound engineer who manages the ATLAS Black Box Theater at the University of Colorado Boulder, he also lost more than $10,000 in musical gear in the flood. Right now he’s wading through the layers of bureaucracy — the Federal Emergency Management Agency, city permitting and more — trying to decide whether he should fix up his house as it stands, tear it down and rebuild, or sell. Of course, the town is considering asking the federal government for state funds to buy out properties in the floodplain and convert them into parks. Town staff is putting together proposals for such a program to be put out in early spring. The program would pay homeowners the pre-flood value of the house plus 10 percent.

The possibility of that program being enacted puts McCrumb in a sort of limbo. He says he would take the money tomorrow if offered to him, but if it’s going to be several months before that decision is made, he’s hesitant to start rebuilding.

“One thing I’m really concerned about is that, let’s say I take my insurance money and start to rebuild and put a lot of time and energy and money into it ... and then a year later this 404 program comes in and gives you 10 percent over the pre-flood value of the home,” he says.

In Lyons, many of the properties built in the floodplain were built long before the existing floodplain codes were written, which means that rebuilding the structures up to code is going to be difficult and expensive. In the case of the River Bend Mobile Home Park, owner Whipp thinks it’s too expensive to rebuild.

“[The entire park] is in the floodplain. ... There is a portion that some trailers were on that was in the floodway, which is even more difficult to mitigate for construction purposes,” Whipp says. “I realize there are things you can do, you can build up on pedestals or whatever, and the trailer park could continue to exist in the floodway, if you did the proper mitigation, but a lot of the trailers that were there were really old, not really worth a lot of money. I think the cost of those things, that was going to be a little overwhelming, given the floodway restrictions. And I just made the decision that it was time to do something that was easier to do in the floodplain.”

Another trailer park that was destroyed in the flood is going to be rebuilt. Plans call for reconstructing the Foothills Mobile Home Park, which was “almost completely” destroyed by the flood, according to owner John Baranway. He says he will rebuild the property’s one house, two cabins and 13 trailer sites exactly how they were.

Town residents have been talking about maintaining affordable housing and keeping the musicians, artists and others who lend Lyons its quirk in town. Whipp, along with many other town residents, has been attending meetings concerning the future of affordable housing in Lyons, but it’s too early to tell what, if any, shape that might take.

“I think we all fear that we’ve lost a group of people that contributed a lot to the character of Lyons,” Whipp says. “There are a lot of artists and musicians in Lyons. ... They don’t always have the biggest incomes. They lived in a lot of areas that were in the floodplain.

“There has always been a concern that Lyons could become gentrified,” he says. “I’m involved with the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. ... When I first started going, Telluride properties weren’t that expensive. ... When a community starts down that road, it seems like it’s pretty hard to reverse it. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think Lyons could become more and more expensive … I think Lyons is a very desirable place to be.”

For now, a number of funds have sprung up to help musicians stay in Lyons. Lyons resident and bassist KC Groves started the Lyons Musician Relief Fund shortly after the flood, when she heard stories of her neighbors and friends losing their instruments and homes. The fund has collected and distributed nearly $20,000, she says. Her house escaped relatively unscathed, she says, but she worries for those who weren’t so lucky.

“I think some people have already left,” she says. “Some people say, ‘We’re outta here.’ Some people have moved to Berthoud; some people have moved home to wherever their parents are. … Right now, for people in the Confluence, they’re waiting for word on what to do. ... They don’t know what to do. I can’t imagine how stressful it must be for them.”

Shafer’s family has settled comfortably into a rental in Longmont, though he says they still mourn the loss of their trailer. His music career is doing great, he says. He is playing a bunch of bars and small venues this winter, and he will release an album on Jan. 11 at Swallow Hill’s Tuft Theatre, in Denver. Things are good, all things considered, but they miss their old home.

“We want to be with our community, the people that we’re used to being around,” Shafer says. “People that we call family.”

Correction: This article incorrectly listed the number of structures damaged in Lyons. 211 total structures, including 175 homes, were damaged.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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