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Manitou Springs officials consider buying property for flood mitigation

August 20, 2013
photo - Volunteer rescuer Jesse Rochette searches the Fountain Creek flood waters for anyone trapped or stranded as another flash flood washes off the Waldo Canyon burn scar Friday, August 9, 2013. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette
Volunteer rescuer Jesse Rochette searches the Fountain Creek flood waters for anyone trapped or stranded as another flash flood washes off the Waldo Canyon burn scar Friday, August 9, 2013. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette 

MANITOU SPRINGS - After one of the city's worst natural disasters, Manitou Springs officials have begun gauging whether residents would be open to selling their properties at the mouth of Williams Canyon in the name of flood mitigation.

The process - which would be completely voluntary on the part of homeowners - comes as Manitou Springs officials figure out the best way to protect the city from another flood, said Jack Benson, city administrator.

And it's all contingent on whether the city can receive a share of several federal grants, Benson said, because the city has no money to buy properties.

"In general, what we're doing right now is just exploring peoples' interest - if there were money to buy their property, would they participate?" Benson said.

The neighborhood in question near the mouth of Williams Canyon features a quaint, quiet lifestyle that has continued to draw homeowners and renters to this fire- and flood-prone area despite dire warnings of disaster.

In particular, Narrows Road has become a microcosm of the city's struggle to deal with flooding brought by the Waldo Canyon fire.

Normally forgotten in the shadow of nearby Canon Avenue, it largely escaped damage from the city's first flash flood on July 1. But on Aug. 9, the waters raged down this street - taking with it a cottage and its renter.

"Floods are something you don't think you're going have every couple days," said Stephen Smith, who bought a house in 1991 at 7 Narrows Road. "This has been an incredibly wet summer, as you know... But the big thing is that Waldo Canyon fire. I swear, if we didn't have that fire, I think we're OK here."

Benson plans to conduct engineering assessment to determine what mitigations efforts could be installed in the area.

In the meantime, Benson said he wants to find out if people are willing to sell their property.

He stressed that he only wants to acquire properties from homeowners who are willing to sell. Federal Emergency Management Agency grant guidelines also bar cities from buying properties for mitigation purposes using eminent domain.

City officials last week passed out FEMA forms to some residents living on Narrows Road and Canon Avenue near Williams Canyon, asking whether they'd discuss selling their properties to the city.

One Canon Avenue homeowner returned the form to the city - only to retract it for further study, Benson said.

While the effort to possibly purchase properties is in its infancy, the neighborhood has begun to transform after the Aug. 9 flood.

The change is most visible on Narrows Road. The secluded street juts to the west off of Canon Avenue a few hundred yards shy of Williams Canyon. Several houses and a few small cottages line the heavily-wooded street as it crosses a drainage ditch and swings north, parallel to the creek, and slightly uphill.

The street isn't ever the first hit in a flash flood - the very top of Canon Avenue always takes the brunt of floodwaters.

But because Narrows crosses the drainage ditch just a few hundred yards downstream, several homes lie directly in the floodwaters' path.

Most of the renters say they are leaving. And homeowners are mixed about staying.


Taking its canyon back

In April, Patsy Shafer moved into a white cottage on the west side of Narrows Road, the high side - by a few feet.

In a couple weeks, she plans to move out. Many of her neighbors are, too.

It's a startling change for the neighborhood, which never had trouble attracting new tenants despite dire warnings of fire and flooding.

Flood experts repeatedly voiced concerns about flooding from the Waldo Canyon burn scar since last year's fire, which charred 18,247 acres north of Manitou Springs.

Still, new residents - including Shafer - arrived in droves.

Two people purchased houses on Narrows Road since the fire, according to EL Paso County Assessor's Office records. Residents also reported seeing at least two people move into rental properties on the road since the July 1 flood.

Shafer came seeking quiet and peaceful seclusion. Her time there became increasingly turbulent.

At 7 a.m. on July 1 - less than three months after moving in - she said she received a call that her son, Travis Turbyfill, was killed alongside 18 other hotshot firefighters in the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona.

Later that day, a flood came raging down Williams Canyon - barely missing her house, but portending of the violence to come.

On Aug. 9, it rushed against the sandbags she placed at her front door.

"I'm exhausted," she said, standing in mud that used to be her street. "It's all been like a dream.

"I can't wait until fall. My (youngest) son's starting football - we can just concentrate on snow."

She is poised to join a growing exodus of renters.

Dave Manwiller arrived in March 2012 from Joplin, Mo., where a deadly tornado destroyed much of the town. The Manitou Springs neighborhood fit his laid-back demeanor, and he often threw a guitar over his back and walked into town to play.

On Thursday evening, as Gov. John Hickenlooper surveyed the damage of the Aug. 9 flood, Manwiller's daughter helped him move out of a yellow house, one splattered with mud three feet high.

Neither Manwiller or Shafer want to go, but they will.

"It's just a really nice, sweet little place to live," Shafer said. "Now nature's taking its course - taking its canyon back."


Mulling his options

In 1991, Stephen Smith bought his house on Narrows Road for $24,000.

In 1999, 12 inches of rain over three days brought a rush of water down Williams Canyon. Still, that flood was nothing like what he saw on Aug. 9, Smith said.

Near the mouth of Williams Canyon, a Dumpster filled with debris from the July 1 flood rolled down against a house on Canon Avenue, causing floodwater to rush around it, said Ryan Keene, the city's stormwater manager.

About 100 yards downstream, a small skid loader in a drainage ditch became wedged underneath a bridge on Narrows Road, causing water to swell toward homes.

The difference in flood severity came in the fiery transformation of Williams Canyon in June 2012.

After the 1999 flood, engineers fortified parts of the drainage ditch with concrete walls.

The Aug. 9 floodwaters easily overwhelmed it.

"It's very scary," Keene said. "And we are concerned about their safety."

Smith's BMW floated downstream. The mud rushed a few feet high on the side of his house.

His lawyer reviewed waiver that the city handed out last week.

Any homeowners who sign the form agree to discuss selling their properties to the city - which might purchase it if the city gets money from FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Assistance Program.

The program is entirely voluntary, and a homeowner can opt out even after signing the form. Should negotiations fail, the city must use its own funding to purchase land - money that the city doesn't have, Benson said.

Smith is considering his options, and has yet to have any formal discussions with the city.

"I don't know what's going to happen," he said.


Holding her ground

On June 3, Ashley Jacobson closed on her house on Narrows Road.

She doesn't plan to leave.

"I have just the cutest little house," Jacobson said.

She moved here for the feel of this street - the cozy atmosphere of being nuzzled against Williams Canyon. People often play guitar in front of their houses here, competing only with the faint echo of traffic on nearby U.S. 24. Trees grow tall over the street, which leads to a dead end - meaning no thru traffic.

Her house has been lucky - floodwaters rose 1-2 feet on the side of her house, but never seeped in. It destroyed her backyard, but she doesn't mind cleaning it up.

She grew up in South Dakota, choosing this as her first house. She's seen the threat presented by Mother Nature back home.

Plus, she said, she has flood insurance.

"You take the good with the bad," Jacobson said. "...You want to talk about bad, this is nothing.

"It comes with the territory, right?"


Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654

Twitter @jakobrodgers

Facebook Jakob Rodgers

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