The Colorado Springs Planning Commission voted to approve a request Thursday that will pave the way for hundreds of apartments and businesses at the west end of Garden of Gods Road after three hours of passionate opposition from residents and neighbors during a meeting that was dogged by technical problems.
The proposal split the commission 4-3 with those in favor of the new multifamily housing at 2424 Garden of the Gods Road carrying the vote. The developer's representatives will now have to make their case in front of the Colorado Springs City Council in the coming months.
The highly controversial proposal for possibly more than 400 apartments on the site has drawn intense criticism from the Mountain Shadows Community Association and residents who worry that higher housing density would make evacuation during a wildfire more difficult. They also worry that the buildings could block views of the ridgelines and that new residents would put additional pressure on parks, among other concerns. The residents raised more than $11,000 to oppose the project through GoFundMe as of Thursday and collected 6,000 signatures opposed to the project.
Planning Commissioner James McMurray, who voted in favor of the project, acknowledged that the opponents may have a valid point about the risk of evacuation during a wildfire, but it should be examined more holistically.
"It’s really a systemic issues that is much bigger than any single project," he said.
Other commissioners in favor noted the need for more multifamily housing across the city.
Commissioner John Almy was among those who opposed the project. He noted that while individuals don't have a right to their view, the city should protect views. While this project has been billed as infill, it is at the edge of town near open spaces, he said.
"It’s not really infill it's more encroachment," Almy said.
The vote on a rezone of the property was delayed from January after commissioners asked the developer's representative to provide greater detail about the project and an analysis of how the development would impact an evacuation during a wildfire.
Since January, the expected number of apartments planned on the property has been revised down to 420 apartments from the 450, said Andrea Barlow, the developer's representative with N.E.S. a consulting firm. The market-rate apartments are expected to built on two parcels along 30th Street in front of the existing office building, plans show.
The apartments could be some of the first built in the area in 25 years, she said.
"This is something the city desperately needs and supports through its comprehensive plan," Barlow said.
On an 11-acre parcel northeast of Garden of the Gods Road, the developer could build 200,000 square feet of commercial space or 220 apartments, or a combination of commercial space and apartments, her presentation showed.
The buildings within 150 feet of Flying W Ranch Road and Garden of the Gods Road would be limited to two stories to help address concerns about views.
When it comes to evaluating evacuation during a wildfire, no industry standard exists to evaluate the risk and how much delay during a wildfire evacuation is too delay, Engineering Manager for Traffic Operations Todd Frisbie said.
In a fire, police can open up all lanes to allow cars to travel away from a fire, but smooth evacuation relies on residents following directions to leave when asked, Colorado Springs Fire Marshal Brett Lacey said.
"Traffic volume will always create issues and that is a fact," he said.
Barlow pointed out another apartment complex has been approved in the same area without facing the same scrutiny over evacuating during a wildfire, Barlow said.
The impact on views was also a point of contention. Bill Wysong, president of the Mountain Shadows association, said that the renderings provided by the developer did not accurately depict the height of the apartments, pointing out the apartments were shorter than a 32 foot light pole.
Barlow said she stood behind the accuracy of the renderings.
Residents have also called on the developer to put up balloons to show the height of the buildings and that demonstrative exercise never took place.
Many residents who called in to oppose the project related their own harrowing experiences with wildfire evacuation and expected adding the new apartments would add pressure to a existing choke point.
Resident Ron Johnson said if the project was approved it would be a "catastrophic blunder" after the Waldo Canyon Fire.
"We lived through the hell of June 2012. We are incredibly fortunate we didn’t die in our car," he said.
Residents who spoke for about three hours pleaded with the commission to listen to their case.
"Please, please listen to the people isn’t that your job to protect them," Bobbi Price said.
Many residents were also frustrated with the slow start to the public hearing.
The meeting was delayed for more than an hour because more than 250 people called into participate in the call, more than the Microsoft Teams system could handle, planning department officials said.
At the same time, the meeting was initially unavailable via the city's live online web stream.
The planning commissioner Scott Hente asked for residents to drop off the call and submit written comments instead to allow planning commissions to join the call. The commission received 170 emails during the morning from residents and took 40 minute break to review those comments.