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Lightner Creek Mobile home park residents without running water for 11 days

Landlord suspected of violating state law by failing to provide toilets and alternative water source
Johnnie Staley Sr., who was the manager of Lightner Creek Mobile Home Park until he resigned out of frustration on Tuesday, has not had running water since Feb. 13. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

Residents of the 40-unit Lightner Creek Mobile Home Park have been without running water for 11 days – since Feb. 13. Darlene Mann, owner of the park located at 907 Lightner Creek Road (County Road 207), has been served a cease-and-desist order by the Division of Housing of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs alleging her lack of response violates Colorado’s Mobile Home Park Act.

Assistant Attorney General Torrey Samson, who represents the Mobile Home Park Oversight Program at DOLA, filed a complaint in La Plata County Combined Courts on Tuesday to enforce the cease-and-desist order after Mann failed to comply within 48 hours.

It remains unclear when water service might be restored.

Some drinking water was provided to residents by Feb. 17, according to email correspondence between Christina Postolowski, the program manager with the Mobile Home Park Oversight Program at DOLA, and Mann. But residents say the supply has been insufficient to meet their water needs.

“Our kids have eczema – we have to bathe them,” said Antonio Anderson, who lives in the park with his wife Kacey and their children, ages 5, 4, 2 and 5 months. “They all have eczema but we can’t (bathe them) without water, so now their skin is acting up.”

The Andersons first noticed that their tap water failed to work intermittently during the first two weeks of February. On Feb. 13, it shut off completely.

At 5:57 p.m. that day, Kacey Anderson sent a text message to Johnnie Staley Sr., who was the manager of the park until he resigned out of frustration on Feb. 21, which read: “Hey Johnny (sic). We havent had water all day. Everything OK..?”

Staley responded: “I’m sorry, we having problems with the well. It’s low on water. But it should be working tomorrow. Thank you for your patience.”

According to the cease-and-desist order, Staley notified residents with a note the next day that read: “The water pump and well will be shut off for an undetermined period of time. The well has gone dry and needs time to rebuild. We have called for maintenance on the pump, but there is no way of determining how long it will take for the well to refill to usable levels.”

The same day, Feb. 14, Enforcement Specialist Mandy Mercer with the Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment informed Mann via email that she was required to inform residents of a “Boil Water Advisory” issued because the water system had lost pressure when it was shut off. This is a standard procedure to protect residents from consuming water that could have been contaminated during the period of pressure loss, which is ongoing.

Joey and Amy Haas stand outside their trailer at Lightner Creek Mobile Home Park on Tuesday. The couple has lived there for nine years. Joey Haas had surgery on Monday and cannot move heavy jugs of water around his house. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

Mercer also told Mann that she was required to submit a report regarding a sewage spill that was ongoing at one of the park’s units.

CDPHE is responsible for enforcing all water-quality related regulations, while DOLA is responsible for enforcing the Mobile Home Park Act, which protects tenants’ rights to functioning utility services such as sewer and water.

While enforcement is ongoing, residents remain without water with which to do dishes, flush toilets or wash their laundry.

“I had surgery yesterday. I had to go to the rec center just to take a shower,” said Joey Haas in an expletive-riddled statement standing outside the trailer where he and his wife Amy Haas have lived for nine years.

Too much dirty water, not enough clean water

The park has been plagued with problems stemming from its inadequate wastewater treatment system, which consists of an unlined, untreated sewage lagoon. The system has been out of compliance with state regulations since at least 1989.

A local attorney is under contract to buy the park, however the sale is dependent on the state’s acceptance of plans for a new sewage treatment system. Mann remains fully responsible until the sale is completed.

According to Robert Ludwig, who runs a water consulting firm that tests the park’s sewage outflow, the lack of running clean water, the sewage spill and the inadequate sewage treatment system are all connected.

He said park residents have consumed a significant amount of water in recent months. He speculates that residents were running their taps inside their poorly insulated trailers to prevent pipes from freezing.

A Feb. 13 report to CDPHE noted frozen sewer lines throughout the park.

Ludwig also said running toilets could have contributed to the issue.

Whatever the cause, Ludwig said the overuse of water led to two outcomes: First, the aquifer ran dry, depriving residents of tap water. Second, there was an increase in the volume of water discharged into the wastewater lagoon. Less of this water is absorbed into the frozen ground during the winter months, and so the lagoon’s water level began to rise, causing water to back up into the system.

When Bart Collins removed the cap to an entry point to the sewer near his home, plausibly to prevent sewage from backing up into his home, the raw effluent discharged onto the ground. It was this spill for which CDPHE cited Mann.

An inspector from San Juan Basin Public Health visited the park Feb. 14 on CDPHE’s behalf and was unable to determine the actual size of the spill.

SJBPH Environmental Health Director Brian Devine told La Plata County commissioners during board discussion time Wednesday that the spill was “pretty substantial.”

The inspector noted that a plumber had recently scoped the line and found an obstruction downstream of the spill site, which also could have prompted Collins to remove the cap of the clean out.

“It shouldn’t need to be said, but this type of violation is precisely why this facility remains under an active notice of violation/cease and desist order/clean-up order,” Mercer wrote in an email to Mann.

CDPHE has been lenient with Mann, opting not to fine her in the interest of keeping the park open and protecting its residents. However, DOLA is taking action.

Court involvement over Mobile Home Park Act violations

The cease and desist letter says that DOLA first received a complaint that water services had been shut off.

Under the Mobile Home Park Act, “A landlord shall ensure that ... running water and reasonable amounts of water are furnished at all times to each utility pedestal or pad space.” The one potentially applicable exception is if the landlord provides reasonable prior notice and the service disruption last no longer than 24 hours.

Mann provided no advanced notice and the disruption has gone on for 11 days.

In the event of a disruption, the law says that the landlord is responsible for providing and paying for alternative sources of potable water and maintaining portable toilets. As of Wednesday, Mann had not provided portable toilets and homeowners say they did not have adequate alternative sources of potable water.

Mann did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Johnnie Staley Jr., who was the park’s manager at one point, said his wife ordered portable toilets on Monday, but that Mann called and canceled the order. Staley Jr. said she refused to pay the roughly $800 bill.

“This is the final straw,” he said.

Portable toilets were finally delivered Thursday afternoon, residents say.

Given Mann’s failure to comply with the cease-and-desist order within 48 hours, as is required by law, and continued failure to do so even six days later, the state filed a complaint on Feb. 21 in La Plata County Combined Courts seeking injunctive relief.

In a written statement to The Durango Herald, Postolowski, the DOLA program manager who is named as a plaintiff on the complaint, said the state does not assess penalties in connection with noncompliance of a cease-and-desist order.

“However, if a court issued a temporary restraining order or injunction against the landlord, and the landlord did not comply with that court order, the court could find the landlord in contempt of court, which could carry civil or criminal penalties,” Postolowski said.

A cost to residents who have had enough

When asked if he lived in the park, Joey Haas offered an emphatic “unfortunately!”

“All Darlene has done since we’ve been here is jack up the rent,” Amy Haas said.

Residents say they have racked up costs because of Mann’s mishandling of the situation. Under Colorado law, she is likely responsible for reimbursing residents for those expenses. According to the Mobile Home Park Act, landlords who fail to repair utilities “shall reimburse residents for ... any expenses that they reasonably incur as a result.”

“I shouldn’t be having to go to the laundromat when I have a perfectly functioning washer and dryer in my house. I shouldn’t be having to go to the rec center and buy a day pass just to take a shower,” Joey Haas said.

The Andersons said they have spent close to a month’s worth of rent – $1,350 – on bottled water and trips to the laundromat. Their four young children are not yet fully toilet trained, and the family has an endless supply of dirty laundry as a result.

“We can’t flush our toilets unless we buy 3 gallons of water,” Kacey Anderson said. “... I haven’t really washed dishes. We’ve been air-drying everything and using paper plates because it’s just too many kids to keep up with, too many dishes from just one meal.”

Antonio Anderson demonstrates that he has no running water in his trailer in Lightner Creek Mobile Home Park, where he lives with his wife and four young children. He estimates they have spent over $1,350 on laundry and water since their taps ran dry on Feb. 13. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

The Andersons are in the process of moving, but their departure has been delayed for three weeks because Mann has not returned their deposit.

Staley Sr., who was one of several people to hold the position of park manager in recent years, said he could not longer tolerate working with Mann.

“She pays me $1,000 a month, and that’s nowhere near enough to work seven days per week, 24 hours per day,” he said. “And I’m not going to not answer my phone when people like (the Haas family) call me.”

Residents are grateful to Staley Sr. for the work he has done on their behalf.

Now, Mann stands alone to face the court and the multiple state agencies attempting to enforce the laws that protect the rights of her tenants.

“In my words, this is a slumlord-type of situation for this whole park,” La Plata County Commissioner Matt Salka said in board discussion time Wednesday after he was informed of the situation.


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