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On Unsolid Ground: Risk grows as homes crumble in Colorado Springs landslides

April 27, 2016 Updated: April 29, 2016 at 10:23 pm
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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.

Editor's Note: On Unsolid Ground is a Gazette special report about the landslide hazards in Colorado Springs and what, if anything, is being done about them. This report is the result of a months-long investigation by Gazette reporters that involved requesting and researching open records and data and conducting interviews with victims, city officials and geologists.

Thousands of homes on the west side of Colorado Springs are at risk from newly awakened landslides despite 40 years of warnings from geologists and city regulations created to ensure safe homebuilding.

Landslides have been mapped west of Interstate 25 since 1973 from Broadmoor Bluffs to Rockrimmon. Yet houses continue to be erected in landslide-susceptible areas, even as nearby homes crumble.

About 80 homeowners seek federal emergency relief because of damage or potential damage to their houses. Of those homes, 28 have landslide damage totaling at least $6.4 million, according to the El Paso County Assessor's Office.

This is the city's third request for the federal government to buy out homes knowingly built in landslide-prone areas.

And this round of buyouts represents another reality in Colorado Springs: The culture of building that enables property owners' rights over potential safety hazards, where developers are unchecked and homebuyers are left in the dark.

"I don't know any area where we've seen this repeated cycle like this over the past four decades," said Karen Berry, director of the Colorado Geological Survey. "Some of the first homes were damaged in the '70s."

Sliding earth

One recent day, Jim Millman was pulling weeds in front of his condemned Broadmoor Bluffs home. His house is perched on a large hill with some of the best views in town. Deer and other wildlife frequently wander the neighborhood.

A closer look shows problems, though. Cracks at least 3 inches wide span the length of his driveway. The house is pulling away from its foundation, leaving a gap between the wall and concrete below. Landslides have severed the sewage lines.

The city has condemned the home.

Millman shrugs when asked why he's weeding at a property declared unlivable.

"You do what you can," he said.

Jim Millman stands next to an "X" that marks an area where the floor sinks down in his home, which has been condemned due to landslide, on Wednesday, April 13, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette.  

He and wife Pam bought the house in 2007. They came from the East and couldn't believe the views in Colorado Springs. They have since moved to New York.

They returned in July to prepare the home for a tenant. That was when the house started shifting. Small cracks grew larger. A crater 6 inches wide and 4 feet long opened in the basement. A large "X" was taped on the floor so they wouldn't trip over a 6-inch step that formed under the carpet. Doors and windows wouldn't open. At night, they would lie awake and listen to the creaks and groans as the moving earth tore apart their home.

Along his street are nine houses on the city's list for a federal buyout. Combined, they have lost $3.1 million in value, the El Paso County Assessor's Office estimates. Millman said he and his neighbors had no indication they were buying homes in landslide-susceptible areas.

"None of us went in thinking, 'There's a risk, what the heck?' We didn't have the information," he said.

They didn't know the empty lots across the street had been deemed too dangerous to build on. They didn't know about a 1974 report that predicted the eventual failure of the slope there.

And they didn't know about the ordinance passed in 1996, the year their land was platted, requiring geological hazard reports that they could request.

Fred Wisely, president of the Broadmoor Bluffs Homeowners Association, has lived in the neighborhood since the 1980s. He couldn't believe it when he saw homes being built around him in areas the city once deemed off-limits. Whenever a new home was proposed, his group protested, saying it wasn't safe. But each home ultimately was erected.

"It was pointless to fight," he said. "We knew we weren't going to win."

For years, he feared the neighborhood was one hard rain away from disaster. Last May it happened. Colorado Springs was inundated with 27.58 inches of precipitation, 2 inches less than the record set in 1999 - when 27 houses were bought out for about $6.5 million.

Unrelenting rains like those in 1999 and 2015 saturate clays in ancient shale deposits that cover the region. As the clays expand, slopes slip. The nine Broadmoor Bluffs homes on the buyout list all are perched atop a hill, actually an ancient landslide scarp that was reactivated by the saturation. The homes are being slowly pulled downhill, and homeowners have been told the damage probably will get worse.

A history of building in risky areas

The landslide risk in west Colorado Springs has been documented for decades. A Gazette review of past studies, lawsuits, reports and archived stories shows the hazards were pointed out again and again.

  • A 1968 report for one landowner says the east face of Cheyenne Mountain exhibited landslide characteristics. More than half of the homes applying for federal buyouts are on the east face of Cheyenne Mountain.
  • A 1974 federal study recommended "building and road construction be prohibited in landslide hazard areas."
  • Maps made in 1977 show the city's landslide risks, pointing out Broadmoor Bluffs and Skyway Park as problematic.
  • A 1985 study by University of Colorado at Colorado Springs geographers warned of the risks as building ramped up in the foothills.
  •  A 1994 letter from the state geologist asked the city to take "immediate administrative action" to protect potential landslide victims in the Mountain Shadows area. The city responded by saying the issue was a "private matter."
  •  Maps made in 2003 show known landslide areas, all areas in the latest round of buyouts.

Building continues despite reports

A year after three houses on Regency Drive were destroyed by the 1995 Garrison landslide, the city adopted a geological hazards ordinance. It required developers to hire an engineer or geologist to assess potential hazards, including landslides, on building sites. If problems are found, the reports are forwarded to the Colorado Geological Survey, which provides its opinion and recommendations. City planners say they weigh the two reports to decide whether to build.

The success of the ordinance is up for debate. Of the homes on the buyout list, almost 40 percent were built in 1996 or later. The city plans to examine these issues, spokeswoman Jamie Fabos said.

"We do plan to commission a study in order to gain a better understanding of the risks and conditions, so that we can respond appropriately," she wrote in an email to The Gazette.

The city sometimes contradicts itself by approving construction while stating a desire for safety.

For example, the City Council in June 2000 had back-to-back agenda items. One was to approve the $6 million buyout of 27 homes destroyed by landslides. The second was to OK a housing development next to the Broadmoor Mountain Golf Course, directly above some destroyed homes.

LANDSLIDES

'It's not a perfect science'

The reports of developer-hired engineers and those of geologists don't always mesh.

In Broadmoor Bluffs, several geologists' reports have warned against building, especially in the specific area of the current buyout homes.

Steve Kuehster, a senior civil engineer who oversees development review for the city, said the Broadmoor Bluffs slide was "unprecedented," and the city did the best it could when deciding to allow development there from the mid to late 1990s.

"It was an unknown slide," he said. "It's not a perfect science."

Even after it was pointed out that several studies and reports had detailed the hazards exactly where the landslide occurred, he said the city could not have predicted the outcome.

"There are so many different opinions on this," Kuehster said. "There was not a complete agreement between the geologists and the engineers."

State geologists aren't shy about stating their concerns. Several times, they have pointed out an engineer's erroneous assessment or failure to note important factors.

Are their recommendations followed?

"We don't hear back from the city, so I really have no idea whether those recommendations are implemented or not," Berry said. "Some communities, even before a building permit or site plan is approved, they'll send it to us to make sure recommendations are followed. You're (Colorado Springs is) not one of those."



Danger zones

Boulder County hasn't had a subdivision built on its mountains since 1971, said Dale Case, the county's land-use development director.

"With landslides, there's not much you can do with the unstable slopes," he said. "We would be practicing avoidance in those areas ... A lot of times, the person who wants to build the house says they want to take the risk, but that person is not the person who will be there forever. We have an obligation to future residents or first responders that we don’t put them in harm’s way.”

Colorado Springs has no moratorium on development of any area, including those with landslide risk, said Peter Wysocki, the city's planning and development director.

"There's a fine balance between property rights and local government regulatory requirements," he said.

Kuehster said it's not a good idea to restrict whole areas from development, especially when problems may occur only on some plots.

"It's hard to predict what slopes will fail," said Eric Billmeyer an instructor in the geography and environmental studies department at UCCS. "With as much rain as we had last spring, the landslides happened in just a couple of areas. The next time, it could be someplace else."

LANDSLIDES
Rick Sisco stands at the now edge of his property and describes what his yard looked like prior to the landslide. His home is pictured in the Skyway neighborhood on Friday, April 8, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette. 

Although developer-paid experts say building solutions can help, even the best engineering solutions don't always work, said Brian Hildenbrandt, owner of the structural engineering firm Hildenbrandt and Associates Inc., which has helped homeowners fix landslide-damaged properties.

Sometimes the property is not worth the cost of the cure, Hildenbrandt said. Some areas are so bad that even the best solutions won't work. Some Colorado Springs homes are on such precarious sites that he refuses to work there because any repairs won't help if a landslide hits.

Jim Frohbieter, a longtime Colorado Springs geologist, also refuses to work in certain areas.

"We don't work in the Cedar Heights or the Broadmoor areas," he said. "The risk is too high, and we think people who build up there are nuts. You'd think people would get the hint when we refuse, but they don't."

Jonathan White, a retired state geologist, said the city's method of choosing which risks to take often hinges on the influence and pressure of the developer.

"It's human nature. A developer will say, 'We can't build there. But over here, this will be just fine,'" he said. "The developer wants to make a sale. It's a tough call. There needs to be a better way."

Developers left unchecked

Critics say the city's culture leaves developers unchecked. The developer pays for required geologic hazards studies, which might skew the results.

"They are currently building houses in places that they have absolutely no business building houses," Frohbieter said. "They find engineering companies that are willing to say it's OK to build up there."

But the submitted geohazard report is only one part of the process, said Tim Seibert, president of the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs. It's up to the city to get a recommendation from the Colorado Geological Survey and decide, he said.

"Yes, the applicant is required to make the submittal, but then there is a dialogue from different places," Seibert said. "It's not a one-way street where there's a report and you follow it."

In some cases, reports show, developers have commissioned a second geohazard report if they didn't like results of the first.

That happened in Broadmoor Bluffs, says a report by the late geologist John Himmelreich.

"A lot of the problem is the developers," said Hildenbrandt. "When you cherry-pick your engineer, you get the results that you want."

But Seibert said, "At the end of the day, any builder or developer wants to ensure the safety of the home and of the end user. We encourage all of our builders to hire the necessary experts to make that possible."

Critics say developers' political clout also exerts influence.

"The developers put a lot of money into the political machines, and it pays off for them," Frohbieter said.

The HBA has been one of the biggest contributors in city elections. The association's political action committee donated $27,500 to city council and mayoral candidates last year. Representatives from other building companies like Richmond American Homes, Classic Homes, GE Johnson Construction, New Generation Homes, Murphy Constructors and Vantage Homes also contributed tens of thousands of dollars.

Seibert said the donations are the HBA's way to support candidates as any organization might, but city planners, not mayors, decide where to allow construction.

"At the end of the day, the decision of what a geological hazard study says is not a decision of the City Council," he said. "Political contributions are always an item that gets picked on, but this is a conversation between technical experts . I don't think that City Council would want or have the expertise to judge what a geological hazard study says."

White said it's often tough for planners to decide whether it's OK to build in landslide-threatened areas.

"Basically, they have two opinions," he said. "The developers have an engineer that says it's OK to build on. The city is stuck between a rock and a hard place. And if they don't let them build, the developers might sue."

No warning for homeowners

All homeowners applying for the federal buyout and interviewed by The Gazette said they had no clue about any landslide risk before buying their homes. Those who built their houses said the developer didn't warn them. Others said sellers and real estate agents never disclosed the problem.

Wysocki said the city usually notes on the plat document that a geologic hazard report exists. That notation would be somewhere in a homebuyer's stack of closing documents.

"The city makes every possible and feasible attempt to warn developers and homeowners of potential risks," he said.

The note doesn't divulge report results; only the fact one exists. With the plat issued at the closing, the buyer likely won't request the report.

"When you close on a house, they put a pile of stuff in front of you 2 inches thick," Frohbieter said. "Most people sign all of the stuff without reading, throw it in a folder and take it home."

Even if the buyer stops to analyze the plat document at closing, most won't see the note. Such notes rarely showed up on plat documents of the buyout applicant homes because plats of those areas were recorded before the city's geologic hazard ordinance was signed in May 1996.

The plat for the affected area of Broadmoor Bluffs was recorded in September 1996, though, and still did not contain the note.

Wisely said sellers and Realtors also withhold information though they're required by law to disclose known problems. He said some homeowners in his neighborhood were well aware of geohazard risks but sold their homes for top dollar.

"There's a wink-wink situation where the homeowner knows but they don't know, and the Realtor knows but they don't know," Wisely said. "The person who really gets hurt is the next buyer."

Those homeowners pay the financial consequences though they're the least at fault, White said.

"The city feels pressure by the developing community, and the consultants feel pressure by the developing community because they know where their bread is buttered," White said. "Everybody knows there is potential risk out there except for the person buying the house."

No easy solutions

Millman said he's not sure what he will do with his Broadmoor Bluffs home.

A note that reads "door does not open" is pictured in the home of Jim Millman, which has been condemned due to landslide, on Wednesday, April 13, 2016. Many of the doors in Millman's home either cannot be closed or are stuck shut from the shifting ground. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette.  

He's paying a mortgage on worthless property he can't rent out. Before the landslide, the home was valued at about $700,000. Now, Millman said, a private assessor values it at negative $40,000. The land is worth about $5,000, but it would cost about $45,000 to tear down the home and clean up the lot. Insurance he had been paying for years won't cover the cost. He and his wife were happy when the city condemned the house, figuring the designation might help them get more money in the buyout.

"We even had a toast," he joked.

Millman admits he was naive about the dangers of landslides. No one warned him, and he assumed everything would be fine.

"You buy a home, and you're confident that you're - excuse the pun - on solid ground."

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