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ON UNSOLID GROUND: Colorado Springs landslide victims losing patience

April 16, 2017 Updated: April 17, 2017 at 8:58 am
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The home of William Farkas has been condemned due to landslide in the Skyway neighborhood, pictured on Friday, April 8, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette.

Saturated earth in western Colorado Springs took days, weeks and months to form landslides that have ruined about 26 houses, and resolution of the homeowners' woes, likewise, is moving at glacial speed.

"I'm very frustrated because I'm making two mortgage payments, and I don't see any activity," said Linda Carroll, who abandoned her landslide-socked house in Lower Skyway and moved to terra firma on the city's northeast side.

"We haven't had appraisals; we haven't heard any news. We thought we'd be getting payouts in a couple of months. It's so hard to just sit in your property and not know what your future's going to look like or what offers are to be made - or even if you will have an offer."

It's been nearly two years since the landslides occurred, and homeowners were told last year that they could see the buyouts by May. But, Bob Jardon, a homeowner in Broadmoor Bluffs, said, "Don't spend it before you see it."

The homeowners face layers of bureaucracy, from the city's Office of Emergency Management to the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and all the way up to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA ultimately is expected to pay for homeowner buyouts. First the properties must be analyzed for historical significance, inspected, appraised according to federal guidelines and demolished. The land then must be left forever bare, creating swaths of open space.

While the prospect of buyouts is giving many homeowners their sole glimmer of hope, those sums might be much later and lower than the owners expect.

Each buyout through FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program will be based on 75 percent of the "project cost," using the property's predisaster value as of May 2015 - the month that launched 500-year record rains blamed for causing the landslides.

Subtracted from that sum will be the costs of inspections, appraisals, property acquisition, demolitions and other city work.

If a home's predisaster value is $400,000, for example, FEMA will pay 75 percent, or $300,000.

Demolition and other costs could reach another $100,000, and FEMA only pays 75 percent of that. So the homeowner is on the hook for $25,000.

This homeowner then would wind up with $275,000, or 68.75 percent of the predisaster value.

Home prices have escalated significantly over the past two years, though. So the fictional house might have become worth $500,000 if not for the landslide. Thus the owner is receiving barely more than half the value he otherwise would have recognized.

"The homeowners who are being devastated by what's inflicted on us by Mother Nature - we are not only charged for demolition, but also charged by the city for the time they put in to manage this," said Lois Simonton, whose Lower Skyway house sits at the toe of that landslide.

When the money might materialize is anyone's guess.

FEMA Region 8 recently approved the administrative plan submitted by state emergency management officials for the hazard mitigation program.

The state division submitted its funding plan March 15, and it's now under FEMA review.

Once that's approved, "FEMA has to review each and every property that was in the proposal. I don't have a timeline on that," said Micki Trost, strategic communications director for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The state also has requested two available federal awards totaling $6 million, and officials are drafting two grant agreements to be sent to the city once FEMA identifies the project award.

Then, Trost said, "The city has to engage in individual contracts with each homeowner on their own. The goal for DHS is: We make progress every day on finalizing the project, and we are going through the required steps to do that."

When might appraisals be done to get the ball rolling? "Until the city receives the grant agreements, we cannot move forward with the process," said Gordon Brenner, city recovery coordinator.

So the landslide victims wait. Many who had to move out of dangerous houses continue to pay double mortgage, utility, insurance and tax bills each month. Others live in fear that further damage could cause their houses to implode, injuring or killing occupants.

Two owners asked to remain anonymous, fearing that any complaints could prompt their properties to be moved to a lower priority on the list of those people expected to be offered buyouts.

Two houses in Lower Skyway already have been condemned, and their owners have been told that they're high on the list. Badly damaged houses in Broadmoor Bluffs likely are near the top, too.

Meanwhile, the landslides continue to inflict harm.

"You can see it moving every day, with new cracks and so forth," said Jardon, the Broadmoor Bluffs homeowner. "We're just sitting here biding our time and waiting for someone to tell us what's next.

"We offered to do our own appraisal, but it wouldn't be the same as the appraiser the city is going to get. So I've got to wait for their indication that they'll get an appraisal for us. That is supposedly the next step, and it seems to be far away."

Neighbor Dennis Cripps agreed. "Every month when I write a check for the house, I'm reminded very much. It's still moving. All my life, I saved every penny hoping I could travel. I'm not doing that now."

Carroll, despite her move, keeps in touch with her fellow landslide victims in Lower Skyway.

"It has been sad watching my neighbors move into trailer houses, fifth wheels or an extra bedroom in their adult child's basement," she said. "It's frustrating also watching my neighbors worry about their children's safety in their homes, when you don't have the cash to find a safe place and you're waiting to hear something so you can make plans.

"It's just kind of lonely out here," Carroll said. "We feel like we have nowhere to turn."

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