Four years after landslides wreaked havoc on hillside neighborhoods in west Colorado Springs, the city has bought out only four of more than two dozen homeowners and demolished only one house, even as it faces a July 16 deadline to spend the entirety of its $5.4 million federal grant or forfeit the remaining money.
The city won another $3.9 million grant in March from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but that also has a spending deadline, March 31, 2020.
The FEMA grants allow the city to buy and demolish the houses, leaving behind open space. By law, the properties can’t be redeveloped, said Mike Hillenburg, chief of FEMA’s hazard mitigation assistance branch.
But the looming deadlines pose a serious concern for those still waiting four years after landslides triggered by record rains in 2015 destabilized their homes.
Originally, 27 homes were assessed as eligible for the buyout. That list has shrunk to 19, of which four have been completed, with five other homeowners approved and 10 hanging in the balance awaiting City Council approval.
Walter and Brenda Catron watched as a slow-moving landslide ripped the deck off their Broadmoor Bluffs Drive home and cracked the foundation of their nest egg in 2015. They planned to live in their dream home “for the duration” or sell it if they needed cash as they aged. Instead, their security crumbled around them.
The City Council approved buyouts of other landslide-damaged homes up the street.
But Catron said he was about 13th on the original buyout list of 27, too low to expect relief from the $5.4 million awarded in 2017 by FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.
In the impact of the 2015 deluge, ground separated from some homes, with cracks, spider-webbed walls and broken foundations the result. Two houses were condemned, and five other families vacated their homes for safety reasons, said Gordon Brenner, the city’s disaster recovery coordinator.
Many have been paying rent or second mortgages while keeping up their mortgages on now-worthless properties. Others mitigated damage and sold their homes after giving up on being compensated.
Adam Keen and his family removed their house at 230 Childe Drive from the list.
“It’s taken forever and not tons of communication,” Keen said. “It was a number of years until we found out that we were basically one of the best (least damaged) houses on the list. We weren’t going to be able to get the money the first time around. I think we can recover more from selling it ...”
Linda Carroll sold her home at 1014 Zodiac Drive for $275,000 in 2017. She bought it in 1986 for $88,000, raised her children there and modernized the house to suit her tastes.
Ultimately, given rising property values, she considers herself as having taken “a pretty big loss. But mentally, I was over living there.”
Carroll is outspoken in her criticism of the city’s handling of the landslide damage.
“Unresponsive and uncaring and inept in getting us through the process. … I was so thrilled when my civil engineer friend said he thought I could safely sell it and forget about it,” she said.
Ross and Nicole Cook bought their house at 1012 Zodiac Drive in 2013 for $295,000 and sold it last year for $341,000.
A third home was sold improperly, a judge ruled. Mahmoud Atalla bought a house at 4780 Broadmoor Bluffs Drive for $506,000 in 2016. He sold it without disclosing that it was in a landslide zone, so 4th Judicial District Judge David A. Gilbert ordered him to repay the buyers, a transaction that hasn’t been finalized.
The Catrons decided to stick it out as long as they could. They were one of 10 families left in the cold after the council approved nine buyouts.
“The city would send out monthly emails saying, ‘We’re trying to find money, we’re trying to find money,” said Catron, 70. “After getting 10 or 12 emails like that, you kind of give up hope.”
But Brenner’s emails took a different tone in April, Catron said. The city had found the additional grant, with new money sparking new hope.
“The worst part of it was not knowing. … You couldn’t make any decisions, couldn’t go buy another house because we needed the money out of this. … Now we know what’s going to happen,” Catron said.
Source of new money
FEMA set aside the additional $3.9 million for the local landslides after flood-remediation projects in Milliken, Jamestown and Boulder County came in under budget, said Micki Trost, spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
William Farkas’ house at 1010 Zodiac Drive was the first to be condemned, in August 2015, as it imploded, forcing him and one of his sons to rent even as he kept paying the mortgage. He has yet to see a buyout, though he topped the original buyout list and got council approval for a buyout.
By contrast, contractor Mark Squire needed only two years to oversee buyouts of nine homes damaged by a Holland Park landslide in 1999.
State and FEMA approval came in April 2000, Squire said by email. One homeowner didn’t want to sell, but the demolition of the other houses was complete by early 2002. And when more money was secured, he extended the project to 2004 to help owners of landslide-wracked houses elsewhere in the city.
The rainfall in 1999 was greater, by 2 inches than the 27.58 inches that soaked the city in 2015. Ultimately, 27 houses hit in 1999 were bought out for about $6.5 million.
After four years, the question in Colorado Springs still looms: Can the city meet its deadlines?
“We are working diligently to complete the acquisition process as quickly as possible,” disaster recovery coordinator Brenner said through a city spokeswoman.
Action comes slowly
Of the nine approved buyouts, the five that haven’t been completed as of mid-May await hazard mitigation assessments, Brenner said. And the additional 10 homes still need demolition bids, among other criteria.
The process has been agonizing for Farkas.
He had installed a three-tiered backyard with a Japanese water feature, wood flooring and granite countertops to sell it. He had just put it on the market when he noticed a crack in a patio. Then he saw a leak inside the house. “I had all that concrete removed, and you could see the spring water rising. I wanted top dollar for the house,” so he took it off the market, investigated and found that the house was shifting.
He tried to tough it out, moving his son into a safer room. He kept his bedroom. But, “You could just hear blocks falling. It gets to you a little bit.”
The 1950s house needs a special demolition due to asbestos, Brenner said, and though the city has a bid, permits still must be put in place.
“I think we’re getting close. I just want to get it done. And so does Bill Farkas.”
But asbestos isn’t the only barrier to the Farkas buyout. After he moved out, he said, authorities accused him of removing flooring and countertops from the condemned house, and said they would withhold $20,000 from his proposed payment. He denied the allegation, saying it was too wrenching to even visit his former home.
Last Tuesday, he took a lie detector test with the Colorado Springs Police Department to clear his name.
“It appears he was truthful in his statements,” said department spokeswoman Natashia Kerr, confirming Farkas’ account of the test.
Farkas said he hopes to have a buyout offer by late May so he can close this chapter of his life, one that’s cost him his marriage and an estimated $200,000 in rent, moving costs and mortgage payments.
His bank gave Farkas until early June before it starts foreclosing on his house, though the property is worthless, he said.
Buyouts consist of up to 75% of the “total project cost,” based on the home’s market value on May 1, 2015, before the heavy rains fell. The project cost includes title searches, appraisals, tests for lead and asbestos, forensic engineering, demolition, and city staff time, meaning that most will get less than 75%.
The four homeowners who completed buyouts express satisfaction, relief and hope that the city will expedite those of their former neighbors.
• Jim and Pamela Millman bought a house at 4890 Broadmoor Bluffs Drive in 2007 for $775,000. Its May 2015 market value was calculated at $697,523. The city appraisal came in at about $675,000, Millman said. They got a $510,414 buyout, a substantial loss.
But, he said, “We had a negotiation and reconciliation with our bank over our mortgage, and it all resolved very positively. Needless to say, it’s a chapter we’re very happy to put behind us. It’s funny, after so much time, it’s hard to gear up the energy to really find that much fault with the city. The more time that goes by, the more the wounds heal. The only positive outlook … maybe they’ve learned from the first go-round what caused the delays. Maybe the following people will benefit.”
• Nanci and Robert Jardon bought their house at 4880 Broadmoor Bluffs Drive in a 2010 foreclosure sale for $520,000. The previous owners “trashed everything,” Jardon said, so they spent more than $200,000 to make the home livable. “They had taken fixtures on the gas stove and twisted them. They did everything but pour concrete in the toilets. It had been appraised in 2006 for over $1 million.”
Their Feb. 2 buyout was $622,763, or 74.8 percent of the city’s appraisal of $825,000, he said. “We feel that yes, we lost money, because we put a couple of hundred thousand in the house. And we continued to pay the mortgage. (But) I’m glad to be not living in a house that’s moving and creaking and cracking and obviously being destroyed.”
Jardon and Dennis Cripps, whose house was first to be bought out and demolished, blame their neighborhood landslide at least partially on a damaged storm drain that the city didn’t fix after a utility pipe burst, causing flooding.
“I feel that the city neglected the repair of that storm drain ... they could see the depression and the cause of the scarps to start,” Jardon said.
Cripps said he noticed grass pulling away from his deck in May 2015, so he followed the crack “all the way down to the box culvert. I assumed at the time that (caused) all the problems, and live trees had fallen into that drain water ditch. ... I believe (the landslide) was associated with stormwater runoff and that box culvert. That’s how the whole landslide got started, I think.”
Sherry Cripps disagreed. “The bottom line is the record rainfall, I think. Stuff happens. You have a 100-year flood. The bad thing on the landslide is that it happened.”
• The Cripps paid $98,000 for 1.5 acres in January 1998, then designed and built their home. “We probably spent $368,000 to $390,000, including the land,” he said. “We put piers in it twice. ... We had just put new Pella windows up before it started cracking.”
The city appraisal was inaccurate, he said, citing wrong square footage, a roof of asbestos shingles instead of concrete tile and other discrepancies. They got their own appraisal, but because it was within 10 percent, the city’s $600,000 appraisal stood.
“The downside is, we not only got to pay for the city appraisal, but we got to pay for the other one too,” Cripps said. “I didn’t make out like a bandit on this. I got around 74%. The city actually kicked in their part for the demolition, which was like $48K.”
Sherry Cripps questions the city’s response to the landslides. “When this whole process started, we were told it would be one to three years. It was three years and 10 months (of paying two mortgages) by the time we closed. If you could do it in one, why would it take three? ... The good news is, hereafter I think the process will be sped up. They did everything consecutively, every bid and stuff like that. ... you can do it concurrently.”
• Richard and Catherine Sisco bought their home at 1200 Constellation Drive in 2010 for $430,000. It’s been the poster child for the landslide, which carved a cliff under their front porch, leaving the house teetering as more and more concrete and a huge pillar collapsed.
Richard Sisco said they got their buyout in mid-April. “The good news, instead of getting 68 cents on the dollar, we got about 72%, a 4% increase. I’m actually extremely happy. The appraisal originally generated was to my satisfaction,” he said, declining to cite numbers.
He’s been in California, caring for his 89-year-old father. Catherine Sisco, who still lives here, did not return a call for comment.
As 15 more homeowners await buyouts, even some who bailed out lament how much time the city has taken.
“I’m extremely sad for my friends and my neighbors who are still in the situation,” Carroll said.
“It’s been four years since the rains started, and it just breaks my heart with what they’ve gone through. And I just feel like the city’s responsible for dragging this out as long as they have.”