Rifle, Colorado. 20th December, 2011.

When Janet Ketelsleger moved from Idaho to a home near Rifle in 2003, she never had heard of terms such as alluvial soils.

This year, she’s been getting a crash course in geology, thanks to a sinkhole that began opening in May and has encroached to within 30 feet of her home in the Rifle Village South subdivision just west of Rifle.

The situation also has been an exercise in frustration as Ketelsleger has been unable to find any government officials willing to take any responsibility for the problem.

“I’ve been paying enough taxes. You’d think they could come out and fix a hole,” Ketelsleger said.

Garfield County Commissioner John Martin said the county will do what it can to help, but the problem isn’t the county’s because it’s in a private subdivision with private roads.

Waterline repair

The sinkhole formed where a street had been planned but was never built, Ketelsleger said.

“All of us have been told all along that these are county roads and all of the sudden nobody’s claiming them,” she said.

Despite the county’s position, Martin voiced sympathy for Ketelsleger’s plight.

“It’s not a good situation at all,” he said.

Ketelsleger believes part of the problem may be a waterline leak that was recently repaired by the city of Rifle, which provides water to homeowners there. She said the sinkhole lies in a downhill path where the leaking water may have traveled underground, and she worries there may be other undetected leaks contributing to the problem.

But city officials have told her they don’t believe there’s any connection between the leak and the sinkhole. Attempts to contact city officials for comment for this story were unsuccessful.

Ketelsleger’s soil problems are occurring in an area of known geological instability and poor soil.

“In 1983 they were told not to (build there) by the county commissioners simply because it was a bad place to build,” Martin said.

The area is a historic drainage area, part of what’s called an alluvial fan deposit of soil heading north to the nearby Colorado River.

“It just flows toward the river,” Martin said.

What’s developing near Ketelsleger’s home is “not a sinkhole,” Martin said. “It’s called erosion. The cliffs are eroding because of runoff.”

Indeed, the erosion near the home is less of a circular hole than a deep, somewhat triangular depression. Partly a gully, it has claimed much of the corner of her property, which is on a terrace above a water skiing lake below the subdivision.

Ketelsleger said a small drainage leading through the street easement expanded to become the gully in the spring. Smaller holes have formed in and near the eroded area, including one the diameter of a manhole cover and perhaps 8 feet deep.

Home sales disclosure

The question for Ketelsleger is how construction of homes in the area ever was permitted, given the geological concerns.

Martin was one of the county commissioners who in the 1990s approved construction of several homes, including Ketelsleger’s. He said commissioners did so after engineers assured them the area could be made sound, but the home sales were supposed to include a declaration about the soil problems and potential for erosion and collapse.

“It has to be on the title when you sell the property,” he said. “It should have been one of those items that the real estate folks disclosed, that the soil is really poor.”

Said Ketelsleger, “If there was anything in the mortgage papers, it was so skinny and small that we never saw it, and I’ve refinanced since then and they never saw anything.”

She said documents she has found indicated a need for permanent erosion control and preventative maintenance.

“Well, who oversees that?” she said. “Who’s supposed to oversee the regular maintenance if the county approved the subdivision?”

Paying for repair

In a Sept. 17 letter, Steve Campbell, a co-owner of the Lake Toueye Water Ski Club, said the club repaired a large sinkhole in the vicinity of the new one in 2004. He said development of lots and lengthening of a street in the area presumably have increased runoff into the diversion ditch by Ketelsleger’s home.

“We believe the ditch needs to be constructed properly to avoid future run-off and sinkhole problems,” he wrote.

Ketelsleger agrees. The question is who would pay for such repairs. Ketelsleger, who works two jobs, said she can’t even afford an attorney. She said it would be fair for her and other homeowners to pay a special assessment “if the county will just help a little bit.”

Martin said the county can’t bring in equipment on private roads unless there’s a life-and-death emergency, which isn’t the case at Ketelsleger’s home. He said the County Attorney’s Office is doing “due diligence” to determine those who were involved in the engineering and development of the homes in the area, but ultimately Ketelsleger might be left to go after potentially responsible parties in a lawsuit.

“We’ll work with Jan as much as we can, but we don’t have the answers yet,” he said.

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