John MacPherson (left) and Mike Grindstaff live on private property owned by Navtec Expeditions owner John Williams. Grindstaff’s trailer is in the background. Credit: Rachel Fixsen

Another group of Moab residents is facing eviction. Grand County is ordering about 16 people to vacate a piece of private property in town where they’ve been living in tents and vehicles in violation of the county’s camping ordinance. They’re all former or current employees of Navtec, a longstanding local guide company and outfitter. The deadline for them to move is June 30.

When the county passed its updated no-camping ordinance in January of 2021 clarifying an existing ban on camping outside of established, permitted campgrounds, officials acknowledged the housing crisis and said they didn’t want to use the rule to cite members of the workforce unable to find stable housing.

Instead, they wanted to focus on illegal overnight rentals. [See “What we mean when we say ‘camping,’” Jan. 28 edition. -ed.] Navtec General Manager Brian Martinez said the county is now acting in direct conflict with that stated intent.

“They did exactly what they said they were not going to do,” Martinez said.

Officials also said enforcement of the no-camping policy would be complaint-based: enforcement officers wouldn’t go looking for violations unless someone filed a complaint. County Code Enforcement Officer Josh Green confirmed that two complaints about the property were anonymously called into his office, prompting the county to take action.

The county isn’t only concerned about cracking down on illegal overnight rentals. Public health officials also want to ensure that waste is properly managed and that people are housed in safe and sanitary conditions. However, in the current housing market, moving people out of substandard living conditions may mean they have nowhere to go.

Moab’s housing and workforce crisis

While there may be camping alternatives on public land for the displaced Navtec guides, the strain of competing for sites and commuting a long way to work may discourage some employees from staying for the rest of the season or returning next year. Many local businesses, as well as government entities, have struggled to recruit and retain employees because those workers can’t find places to live, even if they earn middle incomes.

Affordable housing is especially lacking. Alyssa Rhoads, the administrative assistant for the housing advocacy nonprofit the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah, said the organization has waiting lists of about 130 people for each of the low-income housing properties it manages.

Grand County Commissioner Trisha Hedin represents the county on the Local Homeless Council and reported local homelessness statistics to the commission at their April 19 meeting. 146 individuals are currently seeking homeless services, she said; 88 of those individuals are literally homeless; of those 88, 91% are situationally homeless (as opposed to chronically homeless).

“As we know, there’s been endless amounts of evictions that have led to that situational homelessness,” Hedin said at the meeting.

After several Moab trailer parks have been emptied to make way for new development in recent months, local housing advocates are struggling to help people find places to live.

Conditions on the property

The property sits between the wastewater treatment plant and land owned by The Nature Conservancy. Cars, trucks, and tents are parked in rows in a wide clearing surrounded by trees and brush. On a spring weekday afternoon, there aren’t a lot of people around: one man is packing gear into a rubber raft in the back of a pickup truck; someone else is cooking on a small camp stove perched on a Rubbermaid next to a tent and a hatchback.

Mike Grindstaff is a former Navtec guide and has been living on the property, which he said residents affectionately call “the swamp,” since October. Others have lived there much longer: John MacPherson, who also used to guide river trips for Navtec, has been living there most of the time for over 10 years.

Navtec pays for the regular service of a portable toilet on-site, and there’s a 120-gallon water tank for drinking and washing. Residents usually fill the tank at Navtec. Grindstaff said people either shower at the Moab Recreation and Aquatic Center, less than a mile away, or shower at the Navtec building; some have showers in their trailers.

When he heard about the compliance order, Grindstaff teamed up with some other residents to pool enough money to rent a house. With $6600, they had enough to secure a house for several people—but the landlord ended up renting it out to a family instead.

“We were really disappointed—but we understand,” Grindstaff said. He knows there are a lot of people in need of housing in Moab.

Over the past four or five years, both Grindstaff and Macpherson said they’ve seen the Moab housing situation become dire. Even five years ago, they said, a person could find a room for $600 a month—now, that’s impossible. Grindstaff attributes the dearth of affordable housing to “unchecked greed.”

All the cheap housing, he said, is being bought by developers and flipped to be overnight rentals or unattainable housing units. He’s skeptical of proposals to build new affordable housing, arguing that the costs of construction can never be low enough to keep the units really cheap. He’s in favor of maintaining existing affordable housing, even if it’s in poor condition. With more of that housing disappearing, Grindstaff said workers are getting pushed out.

“There’s nowhere else for us to go,” he said.

Some of the guides currently camped at the swamp plan to camp together in the La Sal Mountains over the summer, but they’ll have to compete with tourists as well as other county residents who rely on public land to park the vehicles they live in. Martinez said one female guide backed out of working for Navtec this summer, unwilling to camp in the La Sals after two local women, Crystal Turner and Kylen Schulte, were murdered at their campsite off the Loop Road last summer. Turner and Schulte were also working residents in Grand County and relied on free camping in the mountains. That crime remains unsolved.

Not only is it competitive to get a site in the mountains in the summer, it’s also a long commute into town. Martinez said guides start at 6:30 a.m. at the shop, meaning they’ll have to leave at 6 a.m. or earlier to make it on time. With gas prices rising, the expense of the commute is also significant.

Grindstaff also pointed out that with the regularly serviced portable toilet at the swamp, impacts from campers are properly managed. If those people disperse to public lands or other sites, they may not have a reliable place to use the bathroom.

“It’s just pushing the problem onto federal land,” he said.

Aside from just having a physical place to be, Grindstaff also laments the less tangible loss of the sense of a neighborhood and a place for river enthusiasts to bond. During informal social gatherings, senior guides share stories and ethics valued by the river guide culture, such as caring for the environment.

“It’s a community,” Grindstaff said. “When you push all these people out of here… you destroy that culture. It’s part of Moab that’s being diluted.”

“It’s a community,” Grindstaff said. “When you push all these people out of here… you destroy that culture. It’s part of Moab that’s being diluted.”

Navtec General Manager Brian Martinez in the Navtec front office, next to a case displaying historic photos and artifacts. Credit: Rachel Fixsen
Options for keeping residents housed

The property is zoned rural residential, and belongs to Navtec owner John Williams; Martinez is acting as the property agent in the matter. Martinez has been with Navtec since 2006, starting as a guide, and has been the general manager for several years.

When he received the notice of a code violation in the mail from Green in March, he promptly contacted county officials, as well as the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah, to discuss options for bringing the property into compliance without making people leave.

People have been camping on that property for 17 years, Martinez said. He’s not sure what prompted the anonymous complaints—he speculated that the tents and vehicles might be more visible because some brush was recently cleared.

County code does have a conditional use permit option that allows a business to have up to five RV camp spots on its premises for employee housing, but because the place where Navtec employees are camping is not the business premises, it’s not eligible for that provision. Martinez noted, too, that five spots wouldn’t be enough.

Building infrastructure or connecting the property to utilities would be difficult because it’s technically in a floodplain, which means any infrastructure would have to meet Federal Emergency Management Agency standards.

The property is close to the river and prone to periodic flooding: MacPherson said that in 2011 when Moab experienced significant floods, the road where we were standing at the time, and where cars were parked and tents were pitched, was shoulder-deep underwater.

Navtec History

Navtec has been a Moab fixture for decades, and the Williams family history goes back even farther. John Williams’s grandfather was Moab’s first doctor and was instrumental in promoting tourism in the Moab area and securing the protection of the area that’s now Arches National Park. John Williams’s father, Mitch Williams, started Tag-A-Long Expeditions, a jeep touring and river rafting company that’s still in operation today (now Adrift Adventures).

John Williams started Navtec in 1987. The front office of the company is decorated with old photos and mementos of Moab’s past: a copy of a map of the area made by John Wesley Powell; the flag that flew on the raft of a late, beloved, well-known local river guide; a signed letter from a past president declaring protections for Moab’s natural wonders.

The company struggled during the first couple of years of the pandemic. Trips were canceled and a lot of guides had to bail on the season. Martinez said this is the first year that Navtec has been able to bring on a full staff—about 50 guides—since the pandemic began.

He also said Navtec has raised wages for its guides about 50% over the last year, trying to retain employees and ensure they can afford to be in Moab. Part of that cost is passed on to clients, and part of it comes out of the company’s bottom line. Guides make an average of about $150 per day they work, plus tips, but they’re not necessarily working every day.

The company hasn’t been able to get the funds necessary to buy traditional housing for its staff, Martinez said, and the possibility of doing so is only getting farther away as real estate prices continue to rise.

So far, only one employee has backed out of working this season because of the housing situation. Martinez said the guides are optimistic.

“Everybody’s been so good about it. But it definitely hurts morale,” he said. As the compliance date approaches and the season wears on, he anticipates employees may find it more exhausting to hustle for legal camp spots and commute to and from work.

Martinez has been in communication with county officials, who have offered extensions on the original deadline for compliance and say they’re researching possibilities for the property to be legally used for employee camping—but he’s frustrated that the property is being targeted in the first place.

“Whatever happened to, ‘We never kick people out without resources or help’?” Martinez asked, referring to remarks made by County Attorney Christina Sloan in a Jan. 5 2021 public meeting while discussing the camping ordinance.

In an email to the Moab Sun News, Sloan said the county is working on the issue but could provide no further comment before press time.