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Gazette Premium Content Plan to remove hazardous, burned Black Forest trees stalled again

2 photos photo - The trees being cut down are lying alongside the road in the Black Forest burn area, Friday, June 21, 2013. Junfu Han, The Gazette + caption
The trees being cut down are lying alongside the road in the Black Forest burn area, Friday, June 21, 2013. Junfu Han, The Gazette
By Matt Steiner Published: January 29, 2014

Like the blackened, burned trees that cover El Paso County land in Black Forest, the debate over who will remove those hazards left by the 2013 fire still stands without resolution.

The El Paso County Commission has toiled since November to hammer out and approve contracts for management and labor on the project that would eliminate an estimated 9,500 hazard trees from the sides of roads and county parks. Votes were cast by the commission Tuesday, but the absence of Sallie Clark, who had to catch a flight, and concerns with Federal Emergency Management Association dependency led to 2-2 stalemates on each contract and another delay.

"According to the policy of this board, the issue will be continued until the next time Commissioner (Sallie) Clark is available," county attorney Amy Folsom said after the vote in which Darryl Glenn and Peggy Littleton voted against the contracts.

True North Emergency Management of Texas won a bid in November to monitor, evaluate and manage the hazard tree removal. And Florida-based Ceres Environmental Service Inc. was slated to do the labor. Ceres has agreed to use local subcontractors for at least 85 percent of the work.

The first vote on the True North contract was to take place Nov. 26, but the push for more public input forced decisions on both contracts into 2014.

After comment opportunities at BOCC work sessions and Black Forest Long-Term Recovery meetings in December, county staff tweaked the proposals and received approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a little more than $1 million in assistance. The FEMA money covers 75 percent of the project, while the county would be responsible for the rest, not to exceed $336,393.

That roughly $1.3 million price tag is reduced from the original tally of slightly more than $2 million before the changes. Among those tweaks is the exclusion of potential tree removal in 30-foot-wide easements on private property.

"This option gives us the best value for the dollar," said Max Kirschbaum, operations manager of the county's public services department.

While the exclusion of the easements trimmed costs significantly, it was a sticking point that contributed to at least one commissioner's opposition to the proposal.

Glenn, the District 1 commissioner who represents the Black Forest area, said the board has worked "painstakingly" hard to include property owners in the project. He said they should at least have the option to invite county contractors onto their land to remove hazard trees. The commissioner also insisted on having an "apples-to-apples" comparison that includes a FEMA-free option in which the county pays the entire bill.

Littleton and Amy Lathen also wanted to see a FEMA-free option after members of Black Forest Together reiterated concerns that prices were inflated in the proposal approved by the federal agency.

"I don't feel we have an option B," Lathen said, but she opted to vote in favor of the contracts anyway.

Black Forest residents Robb Willes and Judy von Ahlefeldt have been vocal throughout the contract process.

While von Ahlefeldt advocated Tuesday for scrapping the FEMA involvement, Willes said he "absolutely believes it's important" to seek assistance.

Willes said he's concerned about leaving the 30-foot easements untouched. He said 100-foot-tall, charred trees would eventually topple, potentially leaving multiple county streets impassable.

Lathen proposed dropping the reduced contracts and returning to the original proposal that would include the easement option.

But county administrator Jeff Greene said the newer proposal would be lost and the FEMA application process would have to begin from square one.

The county could potentially lose FEMA assistance for the project, he said.

"It's a gamble. It's a big gamble," said county budget officer Nicola Sapp, noting that under the FEMA agreement, the project needs to be completed by July 26.

Sapp said the easements on private property could become another FEMA-funded project at a later date.

The commission will have to coordinate with Clark before the hazard tree contracts are put on a future agenda. Clark had to catch a flight Tuesday to Washington D.C. to meet Wednesday with FEMA and National Association of Counties officials to discuss disaster recovery issues, she said. Clark was poised to be present for Tuesday's vote, but weather issues delayed Glenn's arrival and pushed the hazard tree items back in the meeting's sequence of events.

It's hard to say how Clark would vote, but she reminded all before leaving the meeting that there are other disaster-related projects in the county that also have to be addressed.

"I think it's time that we need to move on," she said. "At least our rights-of-ways and our parks will be done."

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