[File Photo]

The Arroyo Crossing subdivision on Spanish Valley Drive has new streets with new street signs, utilities stubbed out to lots, and attractive landscaping. What it doesn’t yet have are any of the nearly 300 housing units slated to populate the development, which is owned and managed by the nonprofit Moab Area Community Land Trust.

The infrastructure improvements and utilities at the new subdivision were completed in 2020, and the organization and its partners hoped to start building in the spring. However, legal technicalities and requirements have pushed back the start of construction by several months.

“It’s not stalled; it’s been moving along the whole time—just in the background,” said MACLT board member and co-founder Audrey Graham.

The MACLT became a 501c3 nonprofit in 2014, and in 2017 received a donation of a 41-acre parcel of undeveloped land. The donation presented a huge opportunity and a steep learning curve: the opportunity to provide a large number of attainable housing units, and the uphill climb of establishing durable financial, legal, and insurance policies and agreements.

For example, the board had to negotiate with insurance companies regarding homeowners building on the property, eventually coming to an acceptable arrangement. “We worked that out with our partners,” said Graham. Then another issue arose regarding roads in the subdivision.

On Aug. 3, the Grand County Commission unanimously approved an agreement with the land trust that the county will maintain the roads within Arroyo Crossing for the first five years of the development, after which the county will take over ownership of the roads. County Attorney Christina Sloan explained to the commission that the land trust is trying to balance requirements from multiple agencies.

“They have utilized two different sources of federal funding,” said Sloan on Aug, 3. “That’s creating a matrix of interesting issues for them.” One funding source requires that the land trust own the roads for the first five years; another funding source requires that a local government unit help to maintain the road.

“That has really slowed us down,” said Graham of the road maintenance issue, but she’s glad it’s been resolved. “It looks like it’s going to be an incredible partnership with the county,” she said.

In spite of the challenges, Graham and the rest of the board are optimistic and persistent.

“This is a model that has not been used,” said Graham, who has researched other community land trusts extensively. “The land trust is a very well-known model that has worked wonderfully with homes that are already built,” she said, explaining that there’s little precedent for the MACLT to follow in developing a whole subdivision from the ground up.

“Every time we clear one hurdle, we run into another one. But, we have this incredible partnership with the county, the city, and the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah and Community Rebuilds,” Graham said. She hopes construction may begin by mid-September, but she’s not ready to say for certain.

Community Rebuilds to construct first homes

Community Rebuilds is scheduled to build the first round of homes in Arroyo Crossing. The local nonprofit has built dozens of sustainable, affordable homes in the Moab area using a certain type of loan from the US Department of Agriculture and the help of volunteer interns who donate their labor to construct the houses in exchange for learning sustainable building skills.

In Arroyo Crossing, Community Rebuilds will be using new home designs that combine conventional construction techniques with the group’s usual natural building style. Site preparation, concrete work, and much of the framing and roofing will be subcontracted out, allowing construction to move faster and the group to reach its goal of completing 12 homes a year, the most it has built in one year so far.

Interns for the fall of 2021 arrived Aug. 1, but the delays at Arroyo Crossing meant they couldn’t get started on home-building right away. Instead, the students have been learning tool skills by building unique stand-up desks out of reclaimed materials like pallets and old doors to use in Community Rebuilds offices. Soon, they’ll start working on a new Community Rebuilds office building on the organization’s property. The office will incorporate natural building elements like an earth floor and two straw bale walls. The group plans to have the office building partly finished in time for the Rocky Mountain Natural Building Conference in October, so attendees can view demonstrations of building techniques in progress.

Awaiting a new home

The future owners of the first round of Community Rebuilds homes in Arroyo Crossing are adapting to the uncertain schedule. Matt McEttrick, one of the future Arroyo Crossing homeowners waiting for his build to start, said he recently signed a land lease agreement. In Arroyo Crossing, the homeowners will own their houses, but the land they’re on will be leased from the MACLT, one way the organization ensures that the houses remain affordable in perpetuity.

“That was a pretty big step,” McEttrick said of the land lease, adding that there seems to be momentum building toward starting construction soon.

Homeowners must commit to working 100 hours a month on their homes. McEttrick works full-time for a local nonprofit, but said he has a plan to flex his schedule when the build starts so he can work on his home on Fridays. He doesn’t mind the delay; in fact, in part he’s glad not to be working in the hot temperatures of summer, though he notes he’s lucky to have a position with flexible hours. He has flexibility on the terms of his current housing, as well. McEttrick’s landlord is aware that he plans to move into his new home when it’s completed, and that the timeline for that has been uncertain.

“I’m super lucky,” McEttrick acknowledged. “I have a lease, but it’s one of the least restrictive leases I’ve ever had. There’s just a stipulation to let the owner know 45 days in advance before leaving.”

County collaboration

Not only is the MACLT in uncharted territory, acting as the developer for an entire new affordable subdivision using the land trust model, but they’re doing it as volunteers. Recently Grand County staff have offered to collaborate with the trust to help with administrative tasks and grant funding.

“Grand County is really stepping up and wanting to help more,” said Graham, “and realizing that basically having a volunteer board working on a multimillion-dollar project that the entire community is waiting for is not sustainable.”

County Commission Administrator Chris Baird said that some county staff will assist with answering MACLT phone calls and other administrative duties; the county will also likely offer MACLT a grant, paid for by funding the county will receive through the American Rescue Plan Act, for startup costs associated with hiring an executive director.

The county is also working with the MACLT on a state-level ARPA grant for the design and construction of housing for people with 50% of the area median income or lower, Baird said.

“We’re really fried, trying to run this thing and have full time jobs,” Graham said of the MACLT board. She sometimes receives calls or emails during the workday regarding the land trust development, and scrambles to shift focus to locate answers and documents and then re-engage with her regular job, which is helping children aged 0-3 with developmental delays and their families.

“We have done a heckuva lot of work for years and years without official government support,” said Graham proudly, but a paid executive director, she said, “should allow things to move much more smoothly than people trying to do it on their weekends and in evenings.”

That optimism is shared by others involved with the project.

“I’m optimistic that it’s going to work out,” said McEtttrick. “It seems like everyone’s working hard to make it work, it just hasn’t been done before so some of the details are tricky and require some original solutions.”