A dead potted plant dangles from the ceiling of a derelict trailer in Naturita, a former uranium-mining town in western Colorado, its spindly tendrils reaching toward a large broken window. It is easy to imagine that someone once hung it there to give the room a cozy touch. I navigate around piles of old clothing and cassette tapes, Cheerios and uncooked pasta crunching underfoot. John Riley, the mayor of Naturita, stands by the door and picks up an empty Corona bottle. A few drops of stale beer trickle down his arm.
This mobile home is one of several abandoned after the nearby uranium mines closed in the early 1980s, spurring a mass exodus. Riley, who has lived here 53 years, has witnessed many such booms and busts. “It was a lifetime experience for most of them,” he said about the local workers. “And then to be out of work, and not being able to pay their bills — one by one, they left.”
Squatters and neighborhood kids have helped nudge these abandoned trailers ever closer to total squalor, but the process is accelerating. Years of harsh weather have ripped away the cheap siding; pieces of insulation blow throughout the neighborhood. As one resident noted, things have deteriorated to such a point that “even the squatters are not interested” anymore.
That’s why in 2014, Riley, an older man with yellowish-white hair and a pocket full of pens, ran for mayor. “I wanted to get these things out of here and get things cleaned up a bit,” he said. Not only are these “zombie trailers” a public health hazard, a breeding ground for rodents and other pests; their unsightliness impedes the town’s budding tourism economy. But even though most everyone wants them gone, removing them has proved far more difficult than Riley or anyone else could have anticipated.
Abandoned properties are a common issue across the West, exacerbated by the extraction economy’s periodic busts. County commissioners in New Mexico, for example, began talks last February to address the problem of uninhabited mobile homes attracting “children, pets and even packrats.” In Douglas County, Oregon, a study was conducted to test ways to handle the blight.
In Naturita, the first hurdle — figuring out who owns the property — is difficult to clear. Many of these mobile homes were abandoned so long ago that their ownership details are murky, and it is very difficult, legally, to dispose of private property without the owner’s consent. Town officials have tried to reach owners, but “we are just kind of playing a waiting game,” said Mike Mortensen, a town councilman. To save the town the legal headache of dealing with property rights, Naturita passed a resolution that would fine abandoned-trailer-owners $50 a day, but the town hasn’t been able to hire an ordinance officer to enforce it.
Financing the removals is another barrier. Naturita has struggled since the mines closed. Even if officials managed to secure titles and legally remove the properties, it would cost up to $6,500 for each trailer — a burden that would fall to the town.
Property taxes present their own catch-22. Owners pay higher taxes for vacant properties than they do for those that have “improved residential structures” like mobile homes. If a property owner removes a trailer, her property taxes could jump significantly. Montrose County Assessor Brad Hughes says it can be hard to tell whether a property should be classified as abandoned. “There is a really fine line as to what is considered usable and having utility and could be rented.”
And so the zombie trailers remain, as defiant as ever. Still more properties have been abandoned in the last decade. According to Deana Sheriff, an economic development recovery coordinator who works with the West End Economic Development Corporation (WEEDC), a Naturita-based nonprofit, there are 17 abandoned properties in town alone. That number jumps to 35 when the surrounding area is included, and there are likely more that have yet to be identified.
Sheriff said there is growing urgency to resolve the issue. Naturita will face another economic downturn when the nearby Tri-State power plant and accompanying New Horizon coal mine shut down in 2022. But opportunities are on the horizon, including hemp production and rebranding the area as a tourism and recreation destination. There are already plans for a new brewery and a “glamping site” that would accommodate 30 upscale tepees on a plateau overlooking town.
In the meantime, WEEDC is applying for grants from The Telluride Foundation and the Paradox Trust, two nearby economic development organizations, to pay for the trailer removals. Naturita is also looking to partner with the neighboring town of Nucla to hire a code enforcement officer. “It is a fairly complicated problem,” Sheriff said. “But I hope that we can have some kind of answer in the next six months.”
This article was first published on hcn.org.