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Slip Slidin' Away

Geologic Hazards Ordinance fueling dispute


City Council's recent approval of back-to-back agenda items -- one to approve building more houses on a dormant landslide and the other to pay off homeowners whose dwellings have recently slid into oblivion -- suggests the shaping of a two-headed monster.

Regarding the problem of homes built on landslides, on the one hand we have champions of absolute private property rights and, on the other, those who want development subjected to greater regulatory control.

Council seems to be caught somewhere in the middle, approving, in this case, the interests of both.

On May 23, Council approved a developer's request to build eight luxury homes on property identified as a dormant landslide. The project, Maytag Acres, will be built near the Broadmoor South golf course directly above a development where homes have recently been destroyed by landslide activity. Councilman Richard Skorman was the lone dissenter in an 8-1 vote.

In its very next item of business, the City Council unanimously adopted a Federal Emergency Management Administration program that will allow $4.3 million in federal taxpayer dollars to buy up to 21 homes that are being wrecked by landslides -- including three in the landslide area directly below Maytag Acres.

Critics say this seeming contradiction -- approving development of a known landslide area and then approving a taxpayer buyout of luxury homes wrecked by landslides -- illustrates a glaring need for more stringent regulation of how developers can build on landslide areas.

"There are strong reasons why developers don't want the ordinance strengthened," said John Himmelreich, a local geologist and member of the state Natural Hazards and Mitigation Council. "They are subject to real economic pressures to ignore or downplay hazards and risk management because identification of geologic hazards reduces acreage and costs money [they] would not otherwise spend."

No teeth

According to the Colorado Geologic Survey, as many as 5,000 homes have been built in Colorado Springs on areas prone to landslides. The state agency provides advisory technical reviews of property and development plans.

An increasing number of these homes, mostly along the city's western foothills and many of which are currently selling for $500,000 and more, are buckling like accordions.

Four years ago the City Council passed a Geologic Hazards Ordinance requiring development proposals to include a report from consultants -- usually hired by developers -- that identify geologic hazards, and a plan outlining how the hazards will be mitigated.

But this ordinance, increasingly, is becoming a political hot potato.

One camp -- made primarily of developers, builders, realtors and various agents of the "growth industry" -- favors a development policy driven by a hands-off, "buyer beware" philosophy.

The 1996 ordinance, they contend, more than adequately regulates hillside development. And in the past two years, the local development community has made two attempts to weaken the 1996 Geologic Hazards Ordinance, claiming it should be modified to give more leeway to development.

But an increasing number of independent geotechnical experts believe the ordinance lacks the minimum standards and enforcement teeth needed to ensure safe hillside development and protect homebuyers.

Buyer beware

For decades the city took a hands-off approach in development matters, preferring to label them private issues between developers and consumers.

Former city attorney Jim Colvin expressed this viewpoint in a 1998 lawsuit brought against Gates Land Co. by a Broadmoor Bluffs-area resident whose home was destroyed by a landslide.

Colorado Springs, Colvin noted, strongly opposed 1974 state legislation requiring local governments to identify geologic hazard areas and adopt guidelines for their development, because the city viewed it as "a threat to its home rule powers."

"The city did not consider landslides as a natural disaster concern," he wrote in court documents. In fact, Colvin said the city "did not believe it had any geologic hazards."

That kind of longstanding resistance to regulation still drives the development community throughout the Front Range.

In a March 6, 1998 letter to city planner Quinn Peitz, developers Earl Robertson of Berry & Boyle and Thomas Schmidt of Cog Land & Development (the development arm of The Broadmoor hotel) asked the city to stop using the Colorado Geologic Survey for technical reviews of development proposals.

(The city, it should be noted, does not do technical reviews, and sends approximately 1 out of 10 proposals to the CGS for review. The county, by comparison, sends every development proposal it receives to CGS for review.)

In the letter, developers complained that their consultants "are having their professional judgments and conclusions routinely second-guessed by someone at CGS," and that CGS recommendations against development on certain high-risk properties "have precluded [us from] building on parcels worth millions of dollars."

In a July 29, 1999 letter to Peitz, Jack Wiepking, then the president of the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs, claimed the '96 ordinance "was sparked by an isolated incident" that affected only "a couple of homes in a hillside area." The technical review mandates, he further complained, "bring[s] the state government into the local planning process."

The letter was co-signed by seven of Colorado Springs' major developers.

Current HBA president Steve Willis said that he, too, opposes strengthening the regulatory powers of the ordinance because doing so would subject developers to "further levels of government."

"It's not the government's job to take care of every problem," Willis insisted. "There'll always be people who say the sky is falling and demand more laws, but it's not the job of the government to police every problem under the sun."

David Noe, chief of engineering geology at the Colorado Geological Survey, believes the development community here has enormous power to influence city policy.

"When state geologists recommend against building on landslide areas," he said, "developers scream bloody murder and begin talking to their buddies on city council. It's a big political game with a lot of money at stake."

The HBA is a major player in local politics and the largest single contributor to mayoral and city council election campaigns. In recent years the developers' organization has endorsed and heavily funded the successful campaigns of a majority of the current City Council, including Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace and council members Lionel Rivera, Linda Barley, Leon Young, Bill Guman, Ted Eastburn, Richard Skorman and Jim Null.

Springs backlash

Geologist Himmelreich insists that the 1996 Geologic Hazard Ordinance as it now stands is weak and ineffective.

"The ordinance provides guidelines for assessment, but it doesn't set minimum standards," he said. "It has too many 'should bes' and 'maybes' instead of 'shall bes.' There's way too much wiggle room."

At present, all development proposals are reviewed by the Colorado Springs' senior civil engineer, Robin Kidder, who concedes that the city does no technical reviewing.

"We rely on the expertise of the consultants hired by the developer," he explained. "We don't have a trained geologist on our staff. Our reviews are solely administrative. We check to see whether the proposal includes all the reports required by the ['96] ordinance."

Himmelreich believes the city should follow the county's lead and send every development proposal to CGS for technical review.

Otherwise, he said, developers can "shop around" for consultants who will tailor their geohazard reports to the developer's benefit.

Noe corroborated Himmelreich's "shopping around" allegation. "We see a higher level than normal in the number of reports from Colorado Springs that either don't contain enough information or have analysis and conclusions we don't agree with," he said.

"Quite frankly," he added, "it's been difficult to work with the Colorado Springs development community. There's quite a backlash down there against constraints imposed by the Hazards Ordinance."

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