Residents paused plans for hundreds of homes in northeast Colorado Springs on Thursday, arguing in front of the Colorado Springs Planning Commission that developers were not required to provide a secondary evacuation route and it could cost lives in a wildfire.
The commission agreed with the residents, voting 4 to 2 to uphold their appeal of the project because a second route out of the neighborhood is not planned. The decision pauses construction plans to build a new neighborhood called Kettle Creek North, which is expected to have 247 homes across about 60 acres north of Powers Boulevard and Old Ranch Road, city documents show. But the fight may not be over.
Developers now have the option to ask the Colorado Spring City Council to review the decision and allow their construction plans to go forward, said Peter Wysocki, director of planning and community development.
Commissioners who voted with the residents agreed that if all traffic from the new neighborhood, the existing North Fork neighborhood, and the two schools in the area had to evacuate south on two roads fairly close together to Old Ranch Road, it could potentially put residents at risk, particularly if Old Ranch Road was blocked.
"I can’t approve it when I think it jeopardizes lives," Commissioner Scott Hente said. Law enforcement and fire officials have good plans to close down roads and require all traffic to flow out of a subdivision during a fire, but when evacuation actually happens residents don't listen well and try to get into closed areas anyway, he said, recalling the Waldo Canyon fire.
Residents Greg Edwards and Richard Sevcik spoke to the commission on behalf of the North Fork HOA Safety First Committee and presented correspondence from the Colorado Springs Fire Department showing the department had asked for another route into the neighborhood, and that the Kettle Creek North neighborhood is outside the standard response times for firefighters to arrive.
The two also showed data from the Colorado State Forest Service stating most of the new neighborhood has a moderate wildfire risk.
The residents also argued that the neighborhood already suffers from traffic congestion, particularly in front of Pine Creek High School in the morning when neighbors trying to leave are headed south on Thunder Mountain Avenue and students, parents and staff driving to the school are headed north and have the right of way to turn left in front of outbound traffic, they said.
"We already have a traffic issue and we keep piling on," Edwards said.
The two called for a road or evacuation route to the north or west to solve the problem.
Fire Marshal Brett Lacey told the commission while his department would have preferred to see a secondary route, less desirable fire evacuation conditions already exist in town. He also noted no standards exist for evaluating or modeling evacuations.
If Pine Creek High School and the new elementary school had to be evacuated, buses would be escorted in by law enforcement and the buildings could be defended, he said.
Options for other routes out of the neighborhood have been explored, and they are challenging, city staff said.
A connection to Powers Boulevard, even just an emergency access route, is not possible because the Colorado Department of Transportation won't allow it, said Todd Frisbie, city engineering manager for traffic operations. CDOT restricts connections to Powers because it is a freeway, he said.
A road north to State Highway 83 or Shoup Road would require a large bridge across a Kettle Creek and the cost of that should be shared with the city, said Chris Lieber, a consultant with NES representing the developer. The developer has no formal plans for a bridge, according to submissions to the city.
The traffic problems are also not created by Kettle Creek North, the next step in a long-term development plan that has received numerous previous approvals from the city, Lieber said.
To ease daily congestion, developers are prepared to pay for a new traffic light in front of Pine Creek High School, he said.
Lieber did not respond to a phone call asking if developers will ask city council to allow them to move forward following the planning commission's vote.
If the developers appeal to the city council, Edwards said residents now have a bit of momentum on their side because of the vote and are proud of the commission for putting residents' safety ahead of builders' interests.
"The headlong rush of the developers to build needs to balanced against the residents and their needs," Edwards said.
The city council previously approved plans for Kettle Creek on a 5 to 4 vote. Since then, three new city council members have been elected.