El Nino vs. the Homeowners’ Association

Column by Hal Walter

Climate – February 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

IN THE EARLY DAYS of the New West we didn’t blame El Niño for our weather-related hardships. We were simply too busy digging out from a “hard winter” or “heavy snow year.”

That was back when winter was an old man, not a little boy. Those of us who had lived in this country for any amount of time sought out homes on county-plowed roads, and squirreled away extra food, firewood, and camp-stove fuel because we knew it wasn’t a matter of if — but rather when and how much — it would snow.

Here in Custer County, where the rate of population growth is officially the fourth-highest in the nation, we hadn’t had one of those hard winters in about six years. And in the meantime, in addition to “El Niño,” we’ve added some other terms to our vernacular — terms such as “urban refugee,” “lone eagle,” “trophy home” and “homeowners’ association.”

The homeowners’ association wasn’t really a new concept. It was just new to this part of the rural West. As the real-estate developers hacked sprawling cattle ranches into pricey ranchettes, many promoters neglected to install minor necessities like utilities, and to upgrade the dirt tracks inside these subdivisions to county specs.

The property buyers were left to fend for themselves when it came to drilling for water and installing power and phone lines, and that’s accepted as fairly standard when buying raw land. But many subdivision roads — community property to all who live inside these developments — remain to this day ineligible for public services like summer grading and winter plowing. These are services that purchasers of land, as tax-paying residents, would normally receive if their property faced a county-maintained thoroughfare.

To slither around this problem, some developers formed homeowners’ associations to which property owners in these subdivisions would pay an annual fee or dues, usually several hundred dollars. For this money, the association would maintain and plow the roads, and enforce rules against such property-devaluing activities as hanging laundry out to dry, building smaller energy-efficient homes, and raising poultry.

That sounded just fine to the urban refugees, many of them lone eagles, some of them just wealthy turkeys, who flocked to the country to live out their dreams of mountain life. These odd birds were told how it never snowed much, and even when it did, it melted the next day. They bought their land, paid their homeowners’ association dues and skylined their trophy homes on ridgetops.

Some had heard about the occasional tough winter, or big snow year, from the old-timers, but they just weren’t prepared for El Niño. Late Thanksgiving night, and on into the next day, this devious little scamp set about dumping three to four feet of snow the consistency of wet cement, stranding many new residents in their subdivisions. Suddenly the spacious mountain views were filled with miles and miles of deep, impassable whiteness.

With so much heavy snow, so many subdivisions and so many miles of unmaintained roads, local contractors were swamped. One reported a three-page list of residences waiting to be plowed out. Some subdivision residents were stuck for several days, nearly running out of food. A few, who realized the predicament as being quite real, got tough and used snowshoes to pack provisions into their homes.

Still others, presumably the ones who suddenly understood why we call this “the mountains” and not “the desert,” called the folks at the county roads office and asked to be plowed out. They were told that county crews would plow county roads only, except in the case of life-threatening emergencies. A trip to the Front Range for a Dodge Cummins full of Christmas gifts or a short spin to Westcliffe in the Range Rover for toilet paper didn’t really qualify. There’s a reason we call this “winter,” and not “summer,” too.

But the real hitch was that the first day of calendar winter was still nearly a month away. And with private heavy-equipment operators hiring out for $55 to $75 an hour, the homeowners’ associations, at least the ones lucky enough to be somewhere near the top of the contractors’ waiting lists, were sinking into the fiscal depth hoar at an alarming rate.

It really wouldn’t take long. Some associations had already been hit by heavy summer rains that turned their roads into erosion ditches and filled culverts with silt. The resulting grading and hoeing was costly. Then El Niño stole some more cash from association coffers with the first big snowstorm of the winter, back in October.

One friend of mine lives in a subdivision with seven property owners and an association that takes care of the roads. Everyone pays $400 a year, so the total annual dues pot is $2,800. After spending $1,000 for summertime road grading, and a more dollars for minor snow removal since last January, the association shelled out a whopping $800 for plowing after the Thanksgiving storm. That didn’t leave much for road care for the remainder of the year.

FORTUNATELY for this association — but not necessarily the homeowners — the new year brings a new billing cycle for dues. However, forecasters’ predictions that El Niño won’t really kick in until later in the winter (that’s mid-April in these parts) means these roads could be reduced to two-track ruts this summer when there’s no money left for grading.

There are other stories. In one expansive and expensive subdivision, it is widely rumored that since the homeowner’s association was broke, a homeowner who was not broke paid for plowing after the Thanksgiving blizzard. In several subdivisions, homeowners had to pay to be plowed out again after an intense windstorm redeposited the Thanksgiving snow back onto the roadways. This time some roads were plowed with the added expense of drift furrows upwind.

In one remote enclave of houses, it is told that residents snowshoed to their respective homes for several weeks while saving up for plowing. They finally raised several hundred dollars and had their road plowed the day after Christmas. It was the very next day that the aforementioned windstorm hit and buried the roads once again.

I almost feel sorry for these people, especially when they look at me and say, inquisitively, as if a longtime resident might be able to comfort them with some sort of reassurance: “Gee, I hope this melts off soon.”

But then again, they wanted to live here. And a careful look around tells me that there’s really no good reason for most people to live here.

The opportunities for employment or amusement are all too few. And the lashes of Mother Nature are all too harsh. I remember one year in the late 1980s when the ground atop the Wet Mountains still had three to four feet of snow in May; when the snow did finally melt that year, Hardscrabble Creek ran like the Arkansas River at flood stage. In April of 1992, after another big snow year, I stepped off my back deck onto skis and skated right out over the top wire of my fence.

So, yeah, there’s a distinct possibility this stuff won’t melt off soon.

It’s already been a heavy snow year, and by all predictions it’s only going to get worse. It’ll be interesting next May or June, when springtime comes to the Rockies, to see how many homeowners’ associations — and, truly, how many homeowners themselves — have weathered El Niño.

Hal Walter lives on a county-maintained road and plows his driveway with a big plastic grain-scoop shovel.