Some issues concerning hazard tree removal along county property in the Black Forest were ironed out Tuesday at a work session, but questions remain for the El Paso County commissioners before a contractor is signed on to do the work.
Outspoken Black Forest residents wondered if using Federal Emergency Management Administration money would be cost effective. They and the commissioners also questioned whether the work needs to be done now as many of the trees blackened in the June wildfire near county roads and trails could stand for years to come without posing a danger.
"We need to take care of the safety hazards now," said Jim Reid, the county director of public services.
Reid's staff presented a detailed plan Tuesday at the first of two meetings held to solicit public comment before the commissioners gather to make a decision on Dec. 31. The second meeting will be 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the monthly Black Forest Long-Term Recovery meeting.
Reid's staff highlighted a looming deadline for tree removal to be completed to take advantage of FEMA emergency funds. The deadline is Jan. 26, but the county has received a verbal extension until July 26. Reid said his office expects to have that in writing by mid January.
Long-time Black Forest residents Judy von Ahlefeldt and Robb Willes spoke separately about their concerns. They were the only non-county employees to address the commissioners Tuesday although about a dozen others were in the gallery at Centennial Hall in downtown Colorado Springs.
Ahlefeldt raised the question early about the county's 25 percent obligation if FEMA money is used. She said the county might be able to pay the entire bill to remove an estimated 10,000 trees at the same cost as the FEMA match. FEMA has stringent guidelines that require detailed documentation and procedures for tree removal that could raise costs.
Dennis Hisey, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, shared Ahlefeldt's concerns about the costs. He raised the possibility of waiting a few years until the trees "need to come down" to ensure the county has the money for the job.
"It's a roll of the dice no matter which way we go," Hisey said.
Willes expressed in November that ugly hazard trees are forcing some residents to move away from Black Forest and the eyesores need to come down sooner rather than later. He said Tuesday, however, that an accurate count of hazard trees should be done before committing to the FEMA grants.
Ahlefeldt agreed with Willes' assessment.
"There needs to be really solid numbers," she said. "Whatever was established in October could be different now."
The public services staff brought resolution Tuesday to some questions raised at a Nov. 26 meeting when the commissioners were expected to vote on a contract for True North Emergency Management. The Texas consulting firm won a bid to oversee tree evaluation and manage the removal project. But the commission decision was delayed until the end of December because of a lack of public input.
On Nov. 26, Ahlefeldt and other residents were concerned that work would not go to local laborers and that property owners near the rights-of-way and trail networks would be forced to lose their trees.
Reid's staff presented a plan that would require True North and a to-be-named mitigation contractor to use at least 80 percent local workers.
The presentation also outlined three options for property owners who have hazard trees that could fall on county land or roadways. Owners would be able to allow contractors full or conditional permission to remove trees. Or they could deny access all together. Conditional permission would allow the property owner to decide which trees would be harvested.
Wednesday's meeting will feature the same presentation from the public services department that was given Tuesday and will allow more residents the chance to chime in. The meeting will be held at the El Paso County Charles "Chuck" Brown Transportation and Environmental Complex at 3275 Akers Drive.