On Unsolid Ground

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

Part 2: System gaps

On Unsolid Ground

Gaps in system have allowed homebuilding in Colorado Springs landslide zones

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Four upscale houses straddling a slope on Haversham Drive pose a curious contrast beneath the Broadmoor Mountain Golf Course.

The two in the middle were hit by a landslide after relentless rain last May. Their owners are seeking buyouts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The house at the bottom was hit, too. It was hoisted about 6 inches as the soil heaved below.

But owners Jeff and Rose Barker opted for a Small Business Administration disaster loan rather than a FEMA buyout. Their house now is getting the finishing touches on a foundation replacement at a cost of about $250,000.

"I really hope this works. I don't want to be the poster child for stupidity," Jeff Barker said Tuesday.

Towering above all three homes is the hilltop hacienda being erected by Joe Niebur. He's lived in a nearby house for 21 years and said he's never even seen a crack in the drywall. He credits the overdig used for his reinforced foundation, excellent drainage and the fact that he didn't build in the wash or on expansive clays.

A path in the ground has been dug out for Colorado Springs Utilities lines for a home that is currently being built on a landslide area off Haversham Drive on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette.

"If the mountain decides to move, every house in this area is going to get hurt," Niebur said Wednesday. "But I have the right engineers. And if you do the right things, you reduce your chances of having a problem.

"When you count the houses that are bad vs. the houses that are good, it's still a very low percentage."

Therein lies the conundrum for Colorado Springs planning and development officials. No one can predict how Mother Nature might treat any given lot in the city's landslide-prone zones.

The only way for the city to address the randomness of slide problems is by strengthening protections for all residents. But the city's staff and building approval process fall short of safety levels recommended and used by experts elsewhere.

Here are ways the city could improve its protection of residents and property both.

Lack of expertise

"Local governments must ensure that they have the necessary staff, such as geologists and geotechnical engineers, and that the appropriate regulations and procedures are in place - and enforced - when approving landside mitigation plans," says a Colorado expert's report from 2005.

Colorado Springs has neither a geologist nor a geotechnical engineer. "There's never really been a geologist on the city staff," said Steve Kuehster, manager of the city's engineering development review.

In Colorado, the classic case study of how not to handle landslide zone construction came out of Jefferson County in 1998. Three houses were destroyed and two more houses, roads and utilities were damaged on Green Mountain after a developer's engineering reports concluded that the site was safe and county commissioners approved a large subdivision.

Ensuing lawsuits were settled. While the county wasn't blamed in court, its actions and inactions "became the focus of intense and critical media attention and public scrutiny," notes the 2005 report by Karen Berry, director of the Colorado Geological Survey.

That might not be the attention Colorado Springs wants as it works to attract new business.

Berry, who was Jefferson County's geologist when the landslide occurred, concedes that planners and public officials can't be expected to have all "the technical expertise to understand and evaluate fully such risks."

But independent technical review panels can be used to analyze differing opinions from engineers, planners and other experts, she writes.

Continued growth

Since the last landslide buyout in Colorado Springs, there have been 749 new residences built in natural areas. Almost all were built on or near landslide-susceptible zones. Here's how building grew from 2000-2016 in the city areas zoned as "hillside."

Gaps in system have allowed homebuilding in Colorado Springs landslide zones Part 2

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Not enough focus on safety

"Whereas developers balance projected revenues with mitigation costs, public officials must account for public safety and public liability," says the Berry report.

In Colorado Springs, though, once a site has been platted, a developer can build there.

"They have a right to develop whether we agree or not," said Peter Wysocki, the city's planning and development director. "The decision was made by previous elected officials who felt outright prohibition was not an alternative."

In Colorado Springs, with about 80 homeowners applying for FEMA buyouts, dangers are inherent at affected houses in Skyway, Broadmoor Bluffs and other neighborhoods hit by the landslides.

Colorado Springs Utilities sends staff members to those areas every week to check for damage to its infrastructure.

In an April 14 letter to city Chief of Staff Jeff Greene, Berry cited safety concerns with water and gas pipeline failure, among other issues.

Alternative fire protection plans should be devised if such water mains are in or near the landslide areas, and so should plans to quickly shut down gas if a pipeline breaks, she wrote.

A broken drainage line could saturate soils and spur more landslide movement and damage. And all the affected homes should be checked regularly to ensure they are safe for the residents, Berry wrote.

But most important, the Colorado Geological Survey recommended a detailed subsurface investigation to understand current and future risks. That requires installing monitoring instruments that the state geologist doesn't have.

The detailed slope stability study and analysis is a long-term project, she wrote, so it should be started as soon as possible using a geotechnical engineering firm with extensive landslide experience. City officials plan to meet with state geologists next week to discuss that project.

"At this point, we're taking it very seriously; we're focusing on getting the data," Wysocki said. "What comes out of this has yet to be determined."

In Boulder County, landslide-zone construction has been banned since 1971.

Some pre-1970 development in the foothills has experienced landslide and debris issues that damaged and destroyed homes, said Dale Case, the county's director of land use development.

Even a builder who wants to assume the risk cannot. The county won't endanger future homebuyers or first responders, he said.

And Jefferson County permits only passive uses in its landslide zones.

"If you wanted to build in there, you'd have to prove that the hazard could be mitigated or didn't exist," Berry said.

Lessons not learned

In Jefferson County, one commissioner lamented the hard lessons learned after the '98 slide. "This makes me realize people's lives are in my hands . and every decision we make becomes more important and more difficult."

Colorado Springs now is in its third round of buyouts for landslide-damaged homes.

The first round came after the Garrison landslide hit Regency Drive in May 1995. Three houses were destroyed, condemned and demolished, and those home sites now are open space barred from future building.

Four years later, record springtime rains triggered several landslides, and the city got $6.5 million to buy and destroy 27 homes.

Since then, at least 749 homes have been built in the hillside overlay zone, according to data from El Paso County's assessor.

Geologist Jim Frohbieter said he was astounded that the 1999 buyouts didn't prompt a halt or stronger restrictions on construction in those areas.

"The first buyout, they might not have known as much about the issues beforehand," he said. "But then they continued to allow building in those areas and are again asking to be bought out? I have a real problem with that."

Gaps in the permit process

The city requires geological hazard reports to be conducted on any landslide-prone property where construction is proposed. The content and scrutiny of those reports is questionable, though.

While developers can shop for an engineer or geologist to write the report they prefer, state geologists vet those documents. They advise the city on whether the reports need more information or fail to adequately identify the hazard or the needed mitigation measures.

But the system has gaps.

The plan is distributed to seven city agencies, Kuehster said.

"We work with the developer on what the Colorado Geological Survey recommended," he said. "We try to get collaboration between the CGS and the geotechnical engineer.

"It can take two or three tries. Sometimes there's a little difference of agreement. The developers hired the engineer; the (state) geologists are pointing out hazards. Sometimes there can be a difference of professional opinion."

But usually, the Colorado Geological Survey doesn't hear back from the city on whether their guidance was heeded. Further, the city then gives the green light to the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department to issue the building permit - without ever seeing the geohazard report.

The building department requires a soils analysis and foundation design report, and the agency inspects various phases of the construction.

But do special requirements for the landslide area not get passed on to the Regional Building Department? "That's probably a fair statement," said Roger Lovell, who heads the builing department.

"It's not up to the city to say what kind of foundation to use; it's up to the engineer," Lovell said. "When they put their seal on the letter, they put their license on the line.

"The city's looking at it from the 30,000-foot level. Is the lot developable? When it's time for permitting and construction to start, that's when we're going to get down into the details. We're not looking at the whole coloring book; we're looking at the specific page that's being colored."

Details to mitigate landslide risks, though, appear to get lost in the shuffle between the city, Colorado Geological Survey and Regional Building Department.

"It needs to be handled earlier on than when we get involved," Lovell said, "because some lots are just not suitable for development."

Inadequate disclosure of risks

Homebuyers and homeowners appear to be oblivious to landslide hazards, despite a state law requiring developers or builders to give a buyer, at least 14 days before closing, a summary of soil and hazard analyses and recommendations.

"I've represented thousands of homeowners. Not one was told about it," said Scott Sullan, the plaintiffs' lawyer in the Green Mountain case. "All of this should be disclosed to homeowners before they buy."

"I was a little surprised," said Berry, "by how many people said they had no idea about the landslide risks. So they're not aware of the existing mapping.

"It doesn't sound like it's being disclosed either by previous homeowners or by brokers. So I do think we need to continually educate people about risks of geohazards."

Even prospective home buyers who know about the geohazards would have a tough time finding the reports. First they need to visit land.elpasoco.com, insert the street name, and follow the cue to get and save the property's legal description and filing number, needed on the city website.

But don't go to the city's current website, coloradosprings.gov. Instead, visit springsgov.com/subdivview. Then type in the subdivision name, choose "Geohazard reports" and click on the correct filing number.

Don't count on getting the latest information, though. A search for one of the Haversham houses turned up only geohazard information from 2005, though the latest is from 2014.

"The reports are publicly available but not easily," said local structural engineer Brian Hildenbrandt. "That would be a simple change."

Speaking of Haversham

Some of Joe Niebur's neighbors question whether the city should have let him build the hilltop house above three other houses with landslide damage.

The lot was platted in 1994, though, so current city policies mandate permitting it. Two extensive geologic hazard and soil evaluations were conducted on the property, too, since 2005.

Rather than join the buyout program, Jeff Barker has decided to repair the landslide damage in his home. His home is pictured off Haversham Drive on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette.

Rather than join the buyout program, Jeff Barker has decided to repair the landslide damage in his home. His home is pictured off Haversham Drive on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette.

Niebur's confidence about the construction contrasts with Jeff Barker's nervousness about his investment.

But both are determined to stay put.

Niebur, who builds golf courses, plans to live in the new house with its priceless views of the city and mountains. His engineering team prescribed a 5-foot overdig and a reinforced, concrete foundation.

Barker, a defense attorney, was taken by surprise when the north side of his house suddenly was elevated by the landslide last summer.

"Was I told that this was on an ancient landslide? No," he said.

But he also wasn't willing to wait for a shot at a FEMA buyout, partly because he'd lose money and largely because he didn't think he had enough time before the house crumbled.

Hildenbrandt, whose firm handled his new foundation, designed a "floating" foundation on helicle screw piers of galvanized steel extending 30 to 40 feet deep into the ground.

"The bottom of the pier has a bearing plate that provides support," the engineer said.

"They love the house. They love the area. We did the full Monty, so to speak."