While the rain fell outside, the hopes of five Star Valley residents fell as well as they watched the council and its attorney drown a year’s worth of work in a few hours.
The meeting swept away any hope that the town would help these residents after some of their yards were swept away in flood waters last January.
The residents had hoped an engineering firm would find the town had rights to a crossing they believed caused the flooding and would promptly remove it. However, the firm found no evidence the crossing caused the flooding. Furthermore, the town has no stake in the crossing. It is a private road.
Since it is private property, it is a private matter, the council concluded.
Mayor Bill Rappaport said if the town helped these citizens, other residents would expect the same treatment.
“If we set the precedent, we open the door” to the demands of all, he said.
Rappaport said he empathized with the homeowners, especially since he had $65,000 worth of damage done to his home during the flooding.
“Everyone was affected,” he said.
On January 21, 4.7 inches of rain fell in Star Valley in a 24-hour period. That equated to a 50-year storm, said Dan Fitzpatrick, Verde Engineering Group co-owner and engineer.
Roughly, 7,400 cubic feet of water per second went gushing over Starlight Crossing that night. Several feet of Dan Bowman’s, Donald “Jake” Jacobs’ and other residents’ homes along Houston Creek were severely damaged by the flooding.
“Riverine environments, such as Houston Creek, are beautiful settings for homes. Heavy rainfall, however, can quickly turn a babbling brook into a raging river,” Fitzpatrick said.
“The owners were all advised by Gila County over the years that their parcels were located partly within a floodplain and floodway with the resulting restriction on development.”
Flood caused the erosion
Verde Engineering, who was commissioned by the council a month ago to study Starlight Crossing (formerly Hill Place), determined it wasn’t the concrete crossing that caused the erosion, but the flood itself.
“The erosion (to) parcels 7-10 was caused by a large volume of runoff from the 50-year flood event,” the report said.
To emphasize his argument, Fitzgerald said a resident further down the creek experienced such flooding that the corner of his home was left hanging over the creek.
Obviously, the crossing did not cause this, he said.
“The low flow crossing on Hill Place has been performing satisfactorily for approximately 30 years.”
Fitzpatrick said removing the crossing would actually cause more harm than good.
The crossing currently stabilizes the creek upstream and removing it would cause “significant erosion above the crossing as the channel attempts to establish a new flow line.”
Residents argued the crossing caused floodwaters to undercut their yards. Water flowing over the crossing nearly washed away Jacobs’ deck and his guest home. Residents were so convinced that even when the council told them it couldn’t do anything to help them, they persisted. Residents demanded help to repair their yards, giving the council a tongue lashing at a November meeting. It was after this meeting that Town Attorney/Manager Tim Grier asked Fitzgerald to study the crossing and come back with definitive answers.
Who owns the crossing?
Wearing his attorney cap, Grier questioned Fitzgerald on his findings. Holding up the report, Grier asked Fitzgerald to explain if the town owned the crossing and if it did, how could he prove it.
Fitzgerald said he searched county records high and low back to the 1960s. In the end, it could not find one piece of paper that showed the county had accepted Starlight Drive/Hill Place as a street.
“Extensive research did not disclose any evidence that the crossing was accepted for maintenance by Gila County and, subsequently, the town of Star Valley,” the report states.
In 1983, the name of Hill Place was changed to Starlight Drive, however, this resolution did not make the street a county road.
Bowman had argued that the street was deeded over to the county and he had the dedication paperwork to prove it.
Fitzgerald said that paperwork does not show that the road is a county road, however, it does state the road is public and therefore residents have the right to egress and regress.
Town building inspector Joe Janusz said he also looked into the ownership of the crossing and could find no evidence that the county owned it.
After hearing an hour of discussion on the crossing, the council finally had an opportunity to deliver its verdict.
Councilor George Binney said since the crossing and easement are not the town’s property, it is not their legal problem.
“What happened in January was an act of God,” Councilor Vern Leis said. “Each and every one of them was made aware of what they were purchasing.”
Councilor Barbara Hartwell echoed Binney and Leis, saying the town has to back away since it is not a town road.
Streets and Roads Vice-Chair Steven Vincent said he could not believe residents expect the town to dig them out of their own problem.
If a boulder rolled off the hill and hit his home, Vincent said he wouldn’t call the president asking for help.
“I think it is time for property owners to take responsibility for their property,” he said.
With the council rejecting any repairs to the crossing, Fitzgerald said the homeowners could protect their property from further erosion by armoring the west side of the creek with gabion baskets, riprap and grading.
Residents would need to get a permit from Gila County and the Army Corps of Engineers and come up with roughly $95,000 for materials and construction.
Binney said the town is trying to clear the creek from top to bottom, but is still waiting on approval from residents.
Nearly a year ago, the Floodwater Task Force sent out 150 letters to homeowners living on the creek. The letters asked homeowners if the town could enter their land to clear the creek and if they would help. So far, not all letters have been returned.
Next year, the town hopes to start clearing the creek of debris, which would benefit everyone, Binney said. Councilor Paty Henderson said until the town gets together and clears the creek, “we are doomed to visit this issue every time it rains.”