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On Unsolid Ground

Why Colorado Springs residents are losing their homes to landslides despite decades of warnings

Part 1: Known risks

On Unsolid Ground

Risk grows as homes crumble in Colorado Springs landslides Part 3

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.

"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."

Jim Millman 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.

Landslides - A note that reads "door does not open"
Caption +

A note that reads "door does not open" is pictured in the home of Jim Millman, which has been condemned due to landslide, in the Broadmoor Bluffs neighborhood 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.

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No easy solutions

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

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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