Contentious to the bitter end, a plan for three duplexes on Colorado Springs' West Side won city approval Tuesday, despite neighbors' outcry that the development would needlessly expose them to fire and other hazards.
Plans for the six units, which Tara Custom Homes Inc. will build at 543 Robbin Place, passed back and forth between the city's Planning Commission and the City Council for two years.
But Tuesday, a neighborhood appeal of the construction plans was shot down, giving developer Paul Rising the green light to break ground.
"Mr. Rising, you're a --- liar," declared John Osborn, who lives on Cooper Avenue below the Robbin Place hillside. Neighbors repeatedly raised concerns about fire risk, drainage problems and landslides from Rising's property.
The site is accessible only through a public alley between Boulder and Chestnut streets. The alley is only 12 feet wide, though city code requires a 20-foot-wide access to residences.
Firefighters couldn't enter the alley with a fire engine last year, prompting Steve Smith, a fire protection engineer, to say: "Couldn't even access the site from the south. So we have some serious access issues that would need to be addressed before the development would be allowed to be constructed."
But Smith since has assured city officials that fire crews can make do. And before residents can occupy the units, firefighters will return and ensure that their vehicles can enter the alley, said City Planner Lonna Thelen.
Rising said he will rebuild the alley, directing runoff away from surrounding properties and widening the access to ensure that emergency vehicles can enter. In addition, sprinklers will be installed in the duplexes.
"That (widening) would only allow a 6-inch clearance for the fire truck to get in," said Dee Dengler, another appellant and neighbor. "That's not a big clearance."
And sprinklers don't "really mitigate it," she said. "It helps suppress interior fires, but it would not help with a hillside fire back there, a wildfire, as well as with rescue attempts."
In July, the city's Planning Commission granted Rising's project a waiver, a width variance and general approval, so the neighbors appealed the decision to the council.
Hearings repeatedly were postponed until Tuesday, when Osborn told the council that waiving the city code creates risk for those whose homes back onto the alley.
"Why is that acceptable?" he asked.
The sloped property also lies within the landslide susceptibility zone, according to the Colorado Geological Survey.
The hill, with grades up to 55 percent, is similar to nearby areas with recent landslides and "should be considered an area susceptible to future landslide activity." The CGS added the emphasis.
Entech Engineering Inc. advised Rising to install two rows of drilled, 24-inch-diameter pier cassions to at least 35 feet deep to stabilize the site, and Rising has said he will do so.
Rising also reminded the council that he has paid taxes on the property for 14 years, and the duplexes constitute an infill project, a positive for the sprawling city.
Before the council voted on the appeal, Councilman Merv Bennett recused himself because he had been absent for past hearings. That left eight members left to vote.
Councilmen Bill Murray and Don Knight expressed concern about putting residents at risk.
Councilman Dave Geislinger, though, said he trusts city staff when they say the duplexes will be safe.
The council split on the waiver for the alley width. Murray, Knight, Council President Richard Skorman and Councilwoman Yolanda Avila voting to uphold the appeal. Geislinger, Council President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler and Councilmen Andy Pico and Tom Strand voted against it.
The tie vote defaults to the Planning Commission's earlier approval and denies the appeal.
Only Murray and Avila opposed the variance on the site's width, just inches shy of the required 50 feet.
General approval of the appeal also brought a split decision, while the general approval also resulted in a split decision.
Voting for the appeal were Murray, Avila, Pico and Skorman. Voting against: Knight, Geislinger, Gaebler and Strand.
Osborn said he was disappointed but not surprised. He and his wife will consider appealing the decisions once more to the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department.
Rising said once the work is finished, the alley will be improved for all the residents, with whom he hopes to build a positive relationship. He hopes to install the caissons before this winter and break ground in the spring.