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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

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Thousands of homes on the west side of Colorado Springs are at risk from newly awakened landslides despite 40 years of warnings from geologists and city regulations created to ensure safe homebuilding.

Landslides have been mapped west of Interstate 25 since 1973 from Broadmoor Bluffs to Rockrimmon. Yet houses continue to be erected in landslide-susceptible areas, even as nearby homes crumble.

About 80 homeowners seek federal emergency relief because of damage or potential damage to their houses. Of those homes, 28 have landslide damage totaling at least $6.4 million, according to the El Paso County Assessor's Office.

This is the city's third request for the federal government to buy out homes knowingly built in landslide-prone areas.

And this round of buyouts represents another reality in Colorado Springs: The culture of building that enables property owners' rights over potential safety hazards, where developers are unchecked and homebuyers are left in the dark.

"I don't know any area where we've seen this repeated cycle like this over the past four decades," said Karen Berry, director of the Colorado Geological Survey. "Some of the first homes were damaged in the '70s."

Sliding earth

One recent day, Jim Millman was pulling weeds in front of his condemned Broadmoor Bluffs home. His house is perched on a large hill with some of the best views in town. Deer and other wildlife frequently wander the neighborhood.

A closer look shows problems, though. Cracks at least 3 inches wide span the length of his driveway. The house is pulling away from its foundation, leaving a gap between the wall and concrete below. Landslides have severed the sewage lines.

The city has condemned the home.

Millman shrugs when asked why he's weeding at a property declared unlivable.

"You do what you can," he said.

Jim Millman stands next to an "X"

Jim Millman stands next to an "X" that marks an area where the floor sinks down in his home, which has been condemned due to landslide, on Wednesday, April 13, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette. 

He and wife Pam bought the house in 2007. They came from the East and couldn't believe the views in Colorado Springs. They have since moved to New York.

They returned in July to prepare the home for a tenant. That was when the house started shifting. Small cracks grew larger. A crater 6 inches wide and 4 feet long opened in the basement. A large "X" was taped on the floor so they wouldn't trip over a 6-inch step that formed under the carpet. Doors and windows wouldn't open. At night, they would lie awake and listen to the creaks and groans as the moving earth tore apart their home.

Along his street are nine houses on the city's list for a federal buyout. Combined, they have lost $3.1 million in value, the El Paso County Assessor's Office estimates. Millman said he and his neighbors had no indication they were buying homes in landslide-susceptible areas.

"None of us went in thinking, 'There's a risk, what the heck?' We didn't have the information," he said.

They didn't know the empty lots across the street had been deemed too dangerous to build on. They didn't know about a 1974 report that predicted the eventual failure of the slope there.

And they didn't know about the ordinance passed in 1996, the year their land was platted, requiring geological hazard reports that they could request.

Fred Wisely, president of the Broadmoor Bluffs Homeowners Association, has lived in the neighborhood since the 1980s. He couldn't believe it when he saw homes being built around him in areas the city once deemed off-limits. Whenever a new home was proposed, his group protested, saying it wasn't safe. But each home ultimately was erected.

"It was pointless to fight," he said. "We knew we weren't going to win."

For years, he feared the neighborhood was one hard rain away from disaster. Last May it happened. Colorado Springs was inundated with 27.58 inches of precipitation, 2 inches less than the record set in 1999 - when 27 houses were bought out for about $6.5 million.

Unrelenting rains like those in 1999 and 2015 saturate clays in ancient shale deposits that cover the region. As the clays expand, slopes slip. The nine Broadmoor Bluffs homes on the buyout list all are perched atop a hill, actually an ancient landslide scarp that was reactivated by the saturation. The homes are being slowly pulled downhill, and homeowners have been told the damage probably will get worse.

A history of building in risky areas

The landslide risk in west Colorado Springs has been documented for decades. A Gazette review of past studies, lawsuits, reports and archived stories shows the hazards were pointed out again and again.

  • A 1968 report for one landowner says the east face of Cheyenne Mountain exhibited landslide characteristics. More than half of the homes applying for federal buyouts are on the east face of Cheyenne Mountain.
  • A 1974 federal study recommended "building and road construction be prohibited in landslide hazard areas."
  • Maps made in 1977 show the city's landslide risks, pointing out Broadmoor Bluffs and Skyway Park as problematic.
  • A 1985 study by University of Colorado at Colorado Springs geographers warned of the risks as building ramped up in the foothills.
  • A 1994 letter from the state geologist asked the city to take "immediate administrative action" to protect potential landslide victims in the Mountain Shadows area. The city responded by saying the issue was a "private matter."
  • Maps made in 2003 show known landslide areas, all areas in the latest round of buyouts.

Building continues despite reports

A year after three houses on Regency Drive were destroyed by the 1995 Garrison landslide, the city adopted a geological hazards ordinance. It required developers to hire an engineer or geologist to assess potential hazards, including landslides, on building sites. If problems are found, the reports are forwarded to the Colorado Geological Survey, which provides its opinion and recommendations. City planners say they weigh the two reports to decide whether to build.

The success of the ordinance is up for debate. Of the homes on the buyout list, almost 40 percent were built in 1996 or later. The city plans to examine these issues, spokeswoman Jamie Fabos said.

"We do plan to commission a study in order to gain a better understanding of the risks and conditions, so that we can respond appropriately," she wrote in an email to The Gazette.

The city sometimes contradicts itself by approving construction while stating a desire for safety.

For example, the City Council in June 2000 had back-to-back agenda items. One was to approve the $6 million buyout of 27 homes destroyed by landslides. The second was to OK a housing development next to the Broadmoor Mountain Golf Course, directly above some destroyed homes.

Landslide Neighborhoods

'It's not a perfect science'

The reports of developer-hired engineers and those of geologists don't always mesh.

In Broadmoor Bluffs, several geologists' reports have warned against building, especially in the specific area of the current buyout homes.

Steve Kuehster, a senior civil engineer who oversees development review for the city, said the Broadmoor Bluffs slide was "unprecedented," and the city did the best it could when deciding to allow development there from the mid to late 1990s.

"It was an unknown slide," he said. "It's not a perfect science."

Even after it was pointed out that several studies and reports had detailed the hazards exactly where the landslide occurred, he said the city could not have predicted the outcome.

"There are so many different opinions on this," Kuehster said. "There was not a complete agreement between the geologists and the engineers."

State geologists aren't shy about stating their concerns. Several times, they have pointed out an engineer's erroneous assessment or failure to note important factors.

Are their recommendations followed?

"We don't hear back from the city, so I really have no idea whether those recommendations are implemented or not," Berry said. "Some communities, even before a building permit or site plan is approved, they'll send it to us to make sure recommendations are followed. You're (Colorado Springs is) not one of those."

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