As Donald “Jake” Jacobs slept, a torrent of water white-capped behind his home during a Jan. 20 storm. Before he woke, the flood had washed away several feet of his yard, leaving his deck and guesthouse hanging precariously over what once was a drainage way, but now looks more like a riverbed.
Neighbors on both sides of Jacobs also discovered the next morning that the instant stream had gobbled six to 10 feet of their yards overnight.
When the water receded, six residents living off Starlight Drive had lost considerable chunks of their properties.
Now they are stuck.
The town of Star Valley, which owns the crossing they believe is causing the problem, will not come near it with a 10-foot pole. The homeowners’ insurance companies have refused to help while raising their rates and they cannot alter the creek bed for fear of litigation.
“They know they have a problem, but they don’t want to talk to us,” Jacobs said of the town.
Councilor George Binney said Jacobs and his neighbors are on their own.
“We washed our hands of it,” he said.
These six residents are not alone. Dozens of homeowners in Star Valley have complained of flooding and watched helplessly as their greatest investment is destroyed a little each year by floodwaters.
Homeowners have few avenues to correct the problem and the town is scratching its head trying to figure out what to do.
If homeowners try to alleviate the problem, they risk making it worse for homeowners downstream and thus, possibly facing a lawsuit.
The town says the only long-term solution is detention basins placed north of town, a multi-million-dollar project now in only the discussion phase.
At a council meeting several months ago, the council decided it wouldn’t try to solve the problems on Starlight Drive since it is private property and the drainage way is owned by the Mountain Brook Estates subdivision.
Fearing a lawsuit if it took out a concrete crossing or shored up the homeowners’ yards, the town has walked away, leaving the homeowners to watch as their yards and possibly their homes are washed away.
“I think they have flood issues because they are built in a flood way,” said Town Manager/Attorney Tim Grier, who advised the council to stay away from any involvement with the residents on Starlight.
Grier said there are too many “legal shackles” to get involved.
“My legal opinion is we can’t (help), whether we want to or not,” he said. “There has always been a sentiment that they would like to help them out, but there is the concern with the Army Corps of Engineers fining us if we mess up the creekbed.”
Dan Bowman, who lives near Jacobs, said if the town is not willing to take over the section of their properties destroyed, they should at least remove a concrete crossing on Hill Place that is reportedly causing the creek to widen every time the creek floods.
Bowman said the solid concrete crossing was put in years ago by a resident who lives on the east side of the drainage way. Although the crossing allows the homeowner easier access to her properties, every time it rains severely, water flowing over it cuts into the bank at a rapid speed.
“The problem is caused by the crossing,” Bowman said.
“For years the town denied that they owned that crossing.” Bowman requested the paperwork and found a dedication form that proves the town owns the crossing.
Grier said he questioned what impact the concrete apron has on flooding.
“I really don’t believe the crossing is the problem,” he said. “The problem is those homes are built in a flood way or floodplain.”
Taking out the crossing is not an option because it would impede access to the homeowner on the east side, he added.
A rough estimate to fix all six properties with new retaining walls came in around $120,000, Bowman said.
“If they would come in and fix the problem, it is going to save a lot more money,” Jacobs said.
With the town out, the six homeowners are left to do what they can to salvage their properties.
“Three years ago we went to the town, but they don’t want to take any responsibility,” Bowman said.
Jacobs, Don Schlundt and Bob Sanchez got loan estimates for fixing their yards, each around $30,000 to $36,000.
Most of the homeowners contacted their insurance companies who informed them they can’t get any aid until their homes actually fall into the drainage way. Until then, their rates were raised.
Jacobs said he is frustrated the town has walked away.
Grier said the town has explored fixing the area, but it is not possible.
“It doesn’t mean we don’t want to help, but we could be exposing ourselves to a huge liability,” he said.
Mayor Bill Rappaport said he even called Sen. John McCain’s office looking for federal aid for the six homeowners.
Several weeks ago, Joan Brown, from the Individual Assistance Disaster Recovery Program of the Arizona Division of Emergency Management and a team surveyed the land. However, none of the homeowners have heard anything from the agency since.
A call to the division Wednesday was not returned as of press time.
Long term, Grier said the only permanent solution is detention basins.
“We are still pursuing that avenue,” he said.
Grier said the major challenge with detention basins is getting land and funding.
“So much of Star Valley is in floodplains and not only in floodplains but in flood ways. The Forest Service is not going to be sympathetic to people building in floodplains and then wanting to use public lands to put in detention basins.”
George Binney, councilor and chairperson of the Floodwater Task Force Commission, said when homes were built decades ago, homeowners did not pay attention to where they were building. Now, they are being washed away.
Binney would like to see the drainage way donated to the town and converted to a trail, but he doesn’t see it happening.