By Mark Esper
The mounting cost of the proposed Anvil Mountain workforce housing project -- and the need for the project in the first place — was the topic of a heated discussion at the county courthouse Wednesday night, Aug. 26.
Opponents pointed to the big holes left at the site after the cleanup this summer and wondered how the county can afford to fill them.
“This project is going to cost us all a lot,” said Silverton resident Laura Alsup. “I think this was a colossal failure at some level here. I’m not very confident thus far in this project. Your history isn’t good on this.”
Alsup said she figures the county has sunk $720,000 into the project.
County Board Chairman Ernie Kuhlman said “it just got deeper, and deeper and deeper” as the county embarked to clean up the former Walsh Smelter site and convert it to workforce housing.
“You can cry about what’s been done in the past, but what do you do in the future?” Kuhlman asked.
County Administrator Willy Tookey said most of the 13-acre site is now cleaned up to meet residential standards. Those lots will be safer than many in Silverton, he suggested.
“My back yard could be much worse than anything down there,” Tookey said. “I don’t want to test it.”
Greg Swanson, president of the San Juan Development Association board of directors, told the commissioners “thanks for taking this waste site and turning it into housing. I’m sorry it hasn’t worked out smoothly.”
Swanson said “the only way to grow economically is to get jobs and housing.” He pointed to the town’s difficulty in hiring a new town administrator.
He said if affordable housing isn’t available here, the town and county may end up having to raise taxes to attract a workforce.
“The real answer is to go ahead and provide affordable housing.” Swanson said. “That’s what’s going to help our school. We need a viable community with a lot of schoolchildren in it.”
Lisa Branner, co-owner of Venture Snowboards, said at least two of her employees are on the waiting list for workforce housing.
“It’s hard to keep good employees in Silverton. They can’t afford to live here. I’m afraid we’re going to lose them. For us it’s pretty vital.”
Karla Safranski encouraged the county commissioners to “continue on the course you’ve taken.
“We all recognize that if we don’t have a place to put new people we’re in trouble. We don’t have decent housing in this town and we don’t have a big enough inventory of it.”
Safranski said the hardware store she and her husband run can no longer afford to hire fulltime help.
“We need more people in this town” for local businesses to provide basic services, Safranski said. “It’s just 500 of us trying to pay for everything and I don’t think we can do it.”
Judy Graham said that home ownership is “as American as motherhood and apple pie.” She said the county has gone too far to back out of its commitment to more affordable housing.
“To waste that energy at this point would be a real shame,” she said.
Sheriff Sue Kurtz noted the problems her department has had retaining qualified officers.
“I’ve dealt with this a lot. You get good employees and how are you to keep them here? They can’t afford to buy a house and have no hope of that changing.”
Undersheriff Christine Burns, who moved here a few months ago from Longmont, said that at her salary of well over $40,000 a year, she cannot afford to buy a home here.
“People who live here are hard working,” Burns said. “They deserve quality housing that is affordable.”
Cynthia Chertos said with more than half the homes in Silverton now owned by nonresidents, the fabric of the community is at risk.
“Winters are pretty desolate with homes boarded up and the shades pulled. It doesn’t give the feel of a vital community, with young people,” Chertos said.
“My equity is my retirement. If we cant offer that to young people today, we won’t have them here. We will not have a school full of children if we keep selling second homes to retirees, and I think Silverton will die,” Chertos said.
County Assessor Judy Zimmerman told the commissioners that “we’ve got to grow” and attract young people and families. “This is the way to do it.”
Zimmerman said Silverton must insist on “its fair share” of the affordable housing pool.
“Better here than in Durango,” she said. “We’ve got to get a turnaround in housing.”
Retired teacher Janet O’Leary recalled buying a home here on her $16,000 salary in 1980 for $55,000. Home prices in Silverton today, she said, are now out of reach for teachers here.
“You’re not going to find the teachers. When the town crew retires, who’s going to take over? It’s a vicious circle.”
“We have to have some place for these people to live, Ernie,” she told Kuhlman. “We’ve got to do something for the people who are actually going to work for this community.”
Gilbert Archuleta asked “what happens to my equity?"
And he said the project would not be affordable considering the low salaries paid here.
Jim Lindaman said employers such as Venture Snowboards and Montanya Liquors don’t pay enough for their employees to qualify for the housing anyway.
“None of you people have employees that would qualify for this,” he said.
Brice Hoskin responded that “$20,000 down and $800 a month would definitely interest some of my employees.”
School Superintendent Kim White said she certainly sees the need for more affordable housing, including rental units.
Melody Skinner said the housing situation is stifling the town’s ability to grow.
“Where do we put people? We’re so stuck we can’t move forward. Something’s got to give,” Skinner said. “We can’t ban birth control but we have to do something to get the ball rolling.”
San Juan Development Association Director Karen Hoskin noted she has been involved with the Anvil Mountain project for some three years now.
“Yes, the county’s investment looks like about $700,000 now. Laura (Alsup) did her math really well,” Hoskin said. But she said the county stands to recoup $800,000 as the lots are sold, even if the workforce housing lots are sold for just $10,000 each.
“It’s not a giveaway at all. I think that’s critical to know,” Hoskin said.
And Hoskin said county officials have done a good job dealing with the problems that have arisen with the project.
“I believe this group of county commissioners has been phenomenally diligent on this project,” Hoskin said. She said the Environmental Protection Agency, state officials and other consultants were all surprised by the depth of contaminated soil encountered at the former smelter site.
“We think it was trucked onto the site,” Hoskin said. She led a round of applause for the commissioners for cleaning up the site, which she noted is commonly used by Silvertonians for hiking and walking dogs.