A few weeks ago, Janet Ketelsleger watched rain fall outside her Rifle Village South home. While the moisture was welcomed by her lawn and gardens, it ran down her driveway and into a large sinkhole, making it even larger and her back yard smaller.
That sinkhole has been Ketelsleger’s nightmare since shortly after she and her two children moved into the home at 15 Shotgun Drive in 2003.
Ketelsleger has approached the Garfield County Commissioners several times, talked to county managers, county attorneys, and road and bridge officials. She said county records dating back to 1987 show county officials knew of the unstable soils in the area, which they said then could lead to sinkholes. In 1997, Ketelsleger said, the county approved the addition of several homes, including hers, followed shortly after by her sinkhole and others.
“The county has unlimited resources and I have none,” an upset Ketelsleger said during a visit on Friday, May 2. “This is their fault, they need to fix it.”
Rifle Village South was originally developed by Larry Bradley in the 1960s, and a local improvement district was formed to pay for streets when homes were finally built in the 1980s and ‘90s. However, the common areas of the subdivision have since disappeared from the county’s tax rolls, and ownership is unclear.
Most of the sinkholes have appeared around the intersection of Shotgun and Colt drives, which is in front of Ketelsleger’s home. That’s where both streets drain, down a ditch that leads to Ketelsleger’s sinkhole, according to a survey by HP Geotech of Glenwood Springs, then down over a ridge toward Lake Toueye, a recreational amenity of the Lake Toueye Water Ski Club.
When the streets in front of Ketelsleger’s home were added, the drainage saturated the soils and led to the sinkhole, she said.
Some legal help
In recent years, Ketelsleger looked for legal help, but as an administrative assistant for Garfield School District Re-2, Ketelsleger was told by Alpine Legal Services that she makes too much money for that group to help her. She talked to three attorneys who told her a lawsuit would likely cost $50,000 or more, with no guarantee she would win. She finally found an attorney, Brad Bickerton, who works in the Vail Valley, willing to help her take the next step, for a reasonable fee.
“As long as the county stonewalls on this, they win,” Bickerton said of the county’s refusal to help or explain why to Ketelsleger’s satisfaction.
Bickerton said his initial role will be to contact the county attorney, Frank Hutfless, “So we have an attorney contacting an attorney to try to work to resolve things, instead of just Janet.”
However, the goal is avoid any legal action, Bickerton added.
“Because there are hardships in doing that on either side,” he said.
The county considers the land with the ditch and sinkhole to be private property, and Hutfless wrote in an April 2013 email to Ketelsleger that he had personally visited the site, examined county documents and concluded the county is not responsible for her soil erosion and drainage issues.
“I am sorry that we will probably continue to disagree about my findings and conclusions on this issue,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, in light of these findings and conclusions, I am closing the file on this matter and do not intend to give it further legal attention.”
In May 2013, Hutfless, in response to an inquiry from Ketelsleger about the documents he reviewed, wrote that he looked at the plat and discussed the matter with road and bridge personnel.
“I don’t recall what other documents I may have looked at,” Hutfless wrote. “I don’t intend to examine into (sic) this matter further.”
Ketelsleger said county commissioner meeting minutes, dated Dec. 10, 1984, warned of “caving danger” in Rifle Village South and a 1987 letter warned residents to not go near what is now Ketelsleger’s yard, “because it was too dangerous.”
Bickerton said he is “baffled” about why there was apparently no follow up to that 1987 letter, warning of a public danger.
The ditch was apparently lined with plastic at some point, Ketelsleger said, but that was quickly washed out. She also noted a letter, dated June 12, 1998, stated, “the liner was leaking and a culvert should be installed.” No culvert was ever installed, she said.
Forming a local improvement district to address the issue would be unfair to her and her neighbors, Ketelsleger said, since many are not the original owners.
Ketelsleger has contacted contractors to get estimates on how much it could cost to repair and fill the sinkhole but does not have any dollar figure yet. A surveyor is to visit in the next week to tell her how much of her property has been lost to the erosion caused by the sinkhole.
“I can’t let this go too much longer,” Ketelsleger said. “But what do I do? I can’t sell it; who’s going to want to buy this?”