Dream Island's nightmare

Widely supported river project draws residents' ire

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— When the backhoes and dump trucks started rolling into the Yampa River behind Dream Island, Joe Bullock laid down in front of one.

It was the first sign of discontent from the Dream Island Mobile Home Community's residents as the city began a river-improvement project just behind their homes.

A week later, reportedly fueled by whiskey and sleep depravation, Russell Marmon stood on the bank of the Yampa River. Blurry-eyed, he held up his pistol and shot twice in the direction of the excavation workers and their backhoes.

The next day, Don Woodsmith took a more peaceful approach and held up no trespassing signs on his small wooden deck, which sits a few feet away from the river. He stayed there until a city police officer told him he would be arrested if his protest continued.

To say these Dream Island residents are upset about the river improvements -- improvements that most of the community supports -- is a gross understatement.

They are outraged.

"My concern is the fact that they can put a water park in the front of our houses because we don't have a million dollars. And because they feel like they can do that without any public input," Bullock said.

The constant clanking and clunking of backhoes moving bedrock is just a harbinger of noise to come, Woodsmith said, as he tried to enjoy lunch over the roar of the machinery last week. A pair of binoculars sat on his patio table so he could keep an eye on the construction.

The $58,000 project, which the city hired Miller Excavating to complete, spans from the kayaking D-Hole just downstream from the 13th Street Bridge to the Stockbridge Multi-Modal Transit Center.

It will make a deeper channel in the center of the river and a meandering current. It is intended to create a better environment for the river's inhabitants, as well as fishermen, kayakers and tubers. It's the tubers that Woodsmith and fellow Dream Islander residents are most worried about.

More than 30 Dream Island mobile homes sit on the bank of the Yampa River. Most of them have makeshift wooden decks, and some have docks leading out into the river. Almost all have chairs perched along the banks to catch views of the glistening river and snow-covered mountains behind it.

Woodsmith jokingly refers to his home as "ghetto in the front with a million dollar view in the back." For his wife, Leslie, the scenic river frontage is a little something for the working class of Steamboat to enjoy.

"It is really all we have here at this trailer court. It is the only nice thing about it," Leslie said.

Leslie worries it might slip away. Two years ago, she went to countless City Council meetings and public forums while the city struggled with balancing competing demands on the river.

As the backhoe clamors in the background, it hits home that she and the rest of the Dream Island residents were not heard over the concerns of commercial tubers, fishermen and other interest groups.

"People are really frustrated," she said.

The Good of the Many

It is a balancing act for Steamboat Springs Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services Director Chris Wilson.

The interests of the fly fishermen, commercial tubers, kayakers, wildlife enthusiasts, preservationists and the people who just want to throw a stick into the river for their dog to fetch all float precariously down the Yampa River.

"Lots of groups try to use one area and the challenge is with trying to balance the impact," Wilson said.

Unfortunately for Dream Island, its residents are the ones feeling the largest impact of the broader community's vision for the river.

Wilson said he would have been surprised if the residents were supportive of the changes. And from his experiences dealing with ball fields to river trails, he said those who are impacted the most rarely see the larger picture of the common good.

"Sometimes the good of many is balanced by the impact to a few," Wilson said. "It is part of an urban city where change occurs."

In 2001, the City Council made a controversial decision to ban commercial tubing above the Fifth Street Bridge. Before that ban, commercial tubers typically had traveled from Rotary Park through downtown Steamboat, getting out before the 13th Street Bridge.

The change forced tubers to travel from Fifth Street past the more than 30 Dream Island trailers that line the Yampa River to downstream take-out points.

The council's decision resolved a dispute between the Yampa Valley Fly Fishers and commercial tubers. The fly fishermen worried about the impacts the tubers had on the upper portion of the river.

The summer of 2001 was a trial for commercial tubing; the outfitters saw that trips from Fifth Street downstream did not turn into the economic disaster they had predicted. So, when the council agreed in spring 2002 to extend the ban for two more years, outfitters did not protest much.

The residents of Dream Island did.

More than 17,000 commercial tubers floated by Dream Island the summer of 2001. Don Woodsmith easily recalls the hundreds of people that would pass by his deck every day.

"What we have here is seven days a week, seven hours a day where no one else can use the river for the two months of the year when everybody wants to be outside," Woodsmith said. "It is like they are completely pirating the river."

He remembers the hollering, and when he told one group to quiet down, all he got was the finger, he said. He took a picture of the tubers and brought it to the City Council. It did little good, he said.

"We felt like they were just patting us on the head," Woodsmith said. "When they got in a corner, they gave us not-in-my-back-yard rhetoric. Well, it is not in our backyard, it is our yard."

Bullock fears the tubers will leave trash behind, people will start lounging in the slow pools on the sides of the river and that no one will respect the residents and the environment.

Park ride or healthy river?

When the backhoes and trucks showed up across the river a few weeks ago, old wounds were reopened for Dream Island residents.

Salt was added when they found out the river improvements would mean that tubers would move more slowly through the Dream Island area. And the council's promise to revisit the commercial tubing ban next year seemed feeble as residents watched $58,000 worth of improvements take place in front of them.

"It is aesthetically ugly," Dream Island resident and business owner Jay Mogil said. "It is transforming a natural, beautiful river into an adventure theme ride."

But Wilson said the river improvements are for much more than creating a better tubing experience. Even if the council decides in 2004 not to extend tubing to that section of the river, Wilson said the improvements are worthwhile.

The city is paying $48,000 for the improvements, and Miller Excavating is donating $10,000 in labor and equipment.

By creating a series of rock vanes, "J-hooks" and rock clusters, the city's intent is to build a healthier river. The improvements should create a better environment for fish, build a deep channel for kayakers and tubers to float through and stabilize the riverbanks, Wilson said.

"They tell us it's a better river for all those reasons," Wilson said.

The Army Corps of Engineers approved the project, and Basin Hydrology designed the improvements.

Mike Neumann, who works with the city's open space and river programs, said he has received a steady stream of phone calls from Dream Island residents since work began.

The trailer park homeowners have expressed concerns that the rock vanes, which are essentially rock walls sticking upstream into the river, will increase the chance of flooding and create stagnant pools for the fish.

That won't happen, Neumann said.

"The entire effect of the vanes is to redirect the current out toward the river channel. It deepens the channel and creates what is called a meandering current instead of a similar uniform current," he said.

Plus, he said, the vanes will also pull tubers into the middle of the river, away from the banks and the Dream Island homes.

Neumann said one of the key components of the plan is to stabilize the banks. Unlike old methods of placing vanes downstream, the upstream vanes prevent erosion of the river banks. The river improvement project was not intended to stop flooding, Neumann said.

"Flooding does happen on occasion. It continues to happen. This won't prevent flooding, but it does direct the water away from the banks," Neumann said.

Many of the residents are skeptical. Mogil said he sees the water swirl up past the vanes and onto the banks at night.

Mogil believes one winter with a 400-inch snow fall and a week of high temperatures in the spring is all it will take to cause a flood that will wipe out the homes in what he said is one of the city's last bastions of affordable housing.

More than 30 trailers line the bank of the Yampa and almost 80 mobile homes are in the Dream Island trailer park.

Mogil spent two years creating rock pools behind his trailer to improve the fishing habitat. By the end of the summer, he said, close to 500 fish could be found there. Since construction began, he hasn't seen any wildlife in the area, he added.

The next to go?

Adding to Dream Island residents' mistrust of the city's motives is what they saw happen to residents in the Trailer Haven mobile home park last summer, Mogil said.

Last summer, almost a dozen trailers were forced off of land behind the Steamboat Springs Post Office so that the Steamboat Springs Health and Recreation Association could turn the lot into tennis courts.

Like Trailer Haven, the Dream Island residents do not own the land beneath their trailers. Woodsmith pays $415 in monthly rent to the park's owner, Colorado Real Estate Investment Company.

Tim Wood, who oversees Dream Island for the company, said he was unaware of the resident's protests. He gave the city permission to access the river through Dream Island.

Underneath some of Dream Island residents' concerns about the bulldozers, tubers and preserving the river is the nagging feeling they could be the next trailer park to go.

"They are going to make Dream Island into another Trailer Haven," Bullock said.

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