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ON UNSOLID GROUND: Colorado Springs landslide victims' buyouts delayed again

September 24, 2017 Updated: September 25, 2017 at 1:56 pm
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The Lower Skyway home of Rick and Kathy Sisco was a showplace until a landslide that started in May 2015 ripped away the earth from beneath the Sisco home. COURTESY PHOTO / TIM MITROS

More than two years after local landslides proved catastrophic for 27 homeowners, the city is preparing to buy those properties using $5.94 million stemming from a federal disaster declaration.

But not so fast. Besides the appraisals, buyouts and demolitions that property owners long have awaited, the city now is adding another step.

It has issued a request for proposals to conduct "forensic engineering," using civil and structural engineers to review how the houses and land were damaged and to what extent.

Bids are due in mid-October. Once a firm is selected and does the work, city officials will reorder the priority list of which homeowners get bought out first.

"There will be some people who do not move forward at this time," said Gordon Brenner, recovery coordinator for the city's Office of Emergency Management, during a Tuesday night meeting with the victims.

The added delay didn't sit well with homeowners, especially William Farkas, whose Zodiac Drive house was flattened beyond recognition by the Lower Skyway landslide.

"There has to be an end point to this," Farkas said. "Six more months - that's a substantial hit to me. That's $30,000."

Farkas, like most of the property owners, is paying two mortgages - one on the house condemned two years ago and another on the property where he's building a house now. He's also been paying rent for more than two years so he and his son would have a place to live.

"It should have been done beforehand," Farkas said of the forensic engineering. "Now it comes down to paying a mortgage for three years on a house I haven't lived in one minute."

"We're going to push as hard as we can," said Deputy Chief of Staff Bret Waters, "based on the requirements we have."

The money awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be used for that forensic work, to appraise and demolish all the properties, to buy out the homeowners and to cover city staff time spent on dealing with the landslides, among other things.

The funds could run out before all the homeowners see any compensation.

But a possible solution was suggested by Tim Mitros, an engineer and former 25-year city employee.

Waters ignored Mitros' raised hand at the Tuesday meeting for some time and then closed the question period - until Farkas forcefully insisted twice, "I want to hear Tim's question."

The homeowners had worked closely with Mitros on their landslide dilemma until he was asked in December to retire from the city.

Since then, he said, he has found that six houses on the list don't appear to be in the active landslide in Lower Skyway.

He asked whether Yeh and Associates Inc., which will study the Cheyenne Mountain landslide complex for the city, could review that possibility.

"I don't think that would be relevant to this instance ..." Waters said.

Mitros then asked whether the city could have the Colorado Geological Survey direct Yeh to use inclinometers to check the movement around those houses.

"Because I think you could potentially take six houses off the list," Mitros said.

If so, the remaining 21 homeowners would stand a higher chance of being compensated for part of their losses.

As it stands now, their home appraisals will be based on values as of May 1, 2015, before the heaviest of the 500-year record rains began to fall that year, triggering the landslides. Colorado Springs properties have made considerable gains in market value since.

Once the appraisals are established, a homeowner can anticipate receiving up to 75 percent of the entire project cost - including appraisals, tests for lead and asbestos in older homes, forensic engineering, demolition, city staff time and the like.

The remaining 25 percent or more is part of their loss.

Once the city offers a buyout, the homeowner will have two weeks to accept it and vacate the premises, said city Grants Manager Jen Vance.

"Give us six weeks to buy a house and move," pleaded Lois Simonton, another Lower Skyway homeowner. "Two weeks after closing?"

Officials said that deadline might be flexible.

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