State regulators have signed off on environmental remedies being made to the Gold Hill Mesa property on Colorado Springs’ west side, a major hurdle for landowners who needed the approval to transform the old gold and silver milling site into a neighborhood.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s action will allow Gold Hill Mesa Partners LLC to proceed with developing an initial 167 homes on the first 68 acres of the 210-acre Gold Hill Mesa site, southeast of U.S. Highway 24 and 21st Street. In an Oct. 17 letter to Gold Hill Mesa’s owners, the state agency says it’s satisfied proper mitigation steps have been taken to protect homeowners from potentially harmful contaminants at the site. About 14 million tons of gold, silver, arsenic and lead tailings were left from a turn-of-the-century gold and silver milling operation that closed in 1949. Mitigation steps — part of a voluntary cleanup agreement between Gold Hill Mesa’s owners and the state — included laying down a 4-foot barrier of dirt on top of contaminants, which is designed to cap the materials and prevent contact with homeowners above. The dirt was laid on top of an orange identification barrier, which warns builders and utility crews and homeowners not to dig deeper on the site. “What we have said in our ap- proval is that you’ve put in the I.D. barrier and 4 feet of material above the I.D. barrier, and you’re good to build,” said Mark Walker, a voluntary cleanup project manager with the Public Health and Environment Department. State officials also have accepted a new study by a Colorado State University professor, who says the dirt barrier provides enough protection so that vegetable gardens and fruit trees can be planted. Up to now, Gold Hill Mesa’s developers, who paid for the study, had said they’d bar vegetable gardens and fruit trees for fear their roots would come in contact with contaminated soil. Bob Willard, Gold Hill Mesa Partners president and a businessman who’s worked eight years to secure regulatory approvals to develop the property, said the state’s action is a substantial victory. Lenders and insurance companies have insisted on the state’s stamp of approval before they’d sign off on homes to be built on the site, he said. “It was a major, major relief,” Willard said of the state’s action. Willard said Walker visited the property and used a backhoe to randomly dig up proposed home sites to measure the 4-foot barrier and to test soil. “He had a measuring stick to make sure the depths and soils were correct,” Willard said. The Public Health and Environment Department’s approval applies to the initial group of homesites. Development of other portions of the property will require Gold Hill Mesa’s owners to secure the same approvals for the rest of the 1,400 homes they plan to develop. Gold Hill Mesa is envisioned as a traditional neighborhood — homes with front porches and backyard garages, alleys and parks. A retail center also is planned. The initial group of homes will be built by California-based John Laing Homes, one of the area’s larger builders. Ron Covington, John Laing’s Colorado Springs division president, said model-home construction — two styles of single-family homes and a line of condominiums — will begin next month, and initial sales are expected to take place in early 2007. After homes are built, environmental professionals hired by Gold Hill Mesa Partners must certify construction was done in a manner that did not create a hazard, Walker said. In addition, he said, digging by homeowners — such as for a garden or patio — must be approved by a homeowners association in the Gold Hill Mesa area. The state’s approval carries an implicit OK from the federal Environmental Protection Agency that it has accepted the mitigation steps, Walker said. The federal government’s interest in Gold Hill Mesa has been misreported over the years, said Walker and Jeannine Natterman, a Public Health and Environment Department spokeswoman. Although Gold Hill Mesa has been included on an EPA list of sites with environmental problems, it was never placed on a list of the most dangerous sites because nobody was living there and therefore contaminants didn’t threaten public health, they said. The contaminants are potentially dangerous, but it’s not their presence or the volume that poses a risk; it’s when the materials come in contact with people, they said. By giving permission to build homes on the site, “we’re saying with our approval letter that as long as the 4-foot cap is in place, we don’t see it as hazardous to people’s health,” Walker said. CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0228 or firstname.lastname@example.org