BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. (KDVR) — Of the nearly 1,100 homes that burned down in the Marshall Fire, 157 were lost in the unincorporated areas of Boulder County.
Of those 157 displaced homeowners, more than 70% have yet to apply for a permit to rebuild since the fire on Dec. 30, 2021. One person who has is 71-year Joel Thompson.
“We lost everything we owned. We literally drove away with two cars and three dogs and the clothes on our back,” Thompson said.
Construction workers began the one-year construction process of rebuilding his home in early December, but Thompson doesn’t feel like his case is a success story.
“Torturous, to say the least,” is how he described the process of getting his housing permit.
He first applied for it in June but said Boulder County didn’t approve it until the end of November. As a real estate agent, Thompson said he knew the rebuilding process might be slow, but he thought Boulder County would fast-track the permitting process for Marshall Fire victims.
“One of the last pieces of this home that held us up for 30 days, they wanted to know the color of the sconces on the outside of my house. They want to know the color of the outside light fixtures,” Thompson complained.
‘A little bit behind’ on permitting
As of Dec. 21, Boulder County had approved 28 permits to rebuild, or 18% of the 157 homes that were lost. Another 16 permits are pending.
That means a year after the fire, more than 70% of those displaced homeowners in unincorporated Boulder County have yet to even apply for a permit to rebuild.
“We’ve set a goal of four to five weeks to get permits out the door. We’re not hitting that right now. Honestly, we’re a little bit behind,” said Dale Case, the director of community planning and permitting for Boulder County.
“We’re trying to move things along as quickly as we can and still maintain the safety that we need to maintain through the building codes,” Case added.
Case said unincorporated Boulder County can have more issues than the municipalities of Louisville or Superior because some residents, like Thompson, rely on septic systems. That means approving sewer hookups, for instance, can be more complicated and time-consuming.
“So there’s a host of issues on some properties that make it a little more complicated than if we’re just rebuilding in a subdivision in one of the cities. The unincorporated areas are just a little bit different,” Case said.
Everyone agrees time is of the essence though, because for many residents, their renter’s insurance may soon run out.
“Well, I’d like to get back in my home, and we’re kind of under the gun with State Farm (insurance) paying our rent for one year, and then they’ll decide if they’re going to renew it for another year or how much of a period, depending on where we stand now,” Thompson said.
Underinsurance a big issue for Marshall Fire victims
When asked why she thought so few people had applied for permits to build, Boulder County Commissioner Marta Loachamin replied, “I really believe there’s a piece of the question of what is it really going to cost? How much time is it going to take?”
Loachamin suspects the biggest reason why so many displaced homeowners haven’t applied to rebuild isn’t because of government red tape or permit delays but because homeowners were underinsured.
Thompson admits his insurance payout was only about half of the $1 million he’s spending to rebuild his 2,400-square-foot home.
“So I have a mortgage again, which is kind of sad at this point in my life, but it is what it is,” Thompson said.
Boulder County commissioners recently approved a $4,400 rebate on housing permits for Marshall Fire victims. In Thompson’s case, that means he’ll be reimbursed $4,400 out of the $16,000 he said he spent to obtain his rebuild permit.
The county has offered another $3,500 in tax rebates, so nearly $8,000 total in financial incentives to bring people back.
“That’s how much we want Boulder County residents to stay and be part of our community,” Commissioner Loachamin said.
New codes add to rebuilding costs
“In the big picture things, that’s kind of irrelevant. I mean, will $8,000 help? Every nickel helps, but the answer is still: It’s way too little too late,” Thompson responded.
The 71-year-old said every regulatory delay can mean more money he doesn’t have.
Boulder County is implementing new fire-resistant codes to prevent another Marshall Fire, and Thompson said he will try to do his part,
“We’re going to hopefully put a metal roof on it,” Thompson said of his home — but only if he can afford it.
Case, with the county, said most of the new building codes tend to be cost-neutral, depending on the home.
“I would say at most $2,000, probably, per home,” Case said.
The new codes are intended to make homes safer from wildfires and easier to insure in the future. Thompson said that sounds fine, but it won’t matter if neighbors can’t afford to rebuild, especially if the permitting process takes too long.
“Do what you can to push this along faster for everybody. I feel so bad for everybody around me who still isn’t even in the building process,” Thompson said.
Marshall Fire community meeting planned
Boulder County is hosting a community meeting on Jan. 11 for Marshall Fire victims, their architects and their engineers to identify improvements to the rebuilding process.
It’s going to take place from 6-8 p.m. at the St. Ambrose Episcopal Church-Barcelona House at 7520 S. Boulder Rd. in Boulder. For more information, contact Katie Arrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The county will present information on the rebuilding resources available, including county rebuilding coordinators, permit fee reductions, rebates and incentives.
The meeting is for impacted unincorporated Boulder County residents and their design professionals only.