Colorado Springs Independent
The politics of landslides-and building on landslides-in Colorado Springs
by Bob Campbell
August 16, 2000:
Until the heavy rains of May 1995, life looked pretty rosy for Ken Garrison and his wife, Ann.
The couple lived in a four-level dream home in Regency Ridge, a ritzy hillside subdivision in the Cheyenne Mountain area of Colorado Springs.
Above them to the west loomed Cheyenne Mountain and the foothills. Below, to the north, the lake and golf course of the Colorado Springs Country Club receded into the green distance--a pricey panorama in an idyllic setting.
Then came May of ' 95. It rained daily May 16-21, dumping 1.85 inches on May 17 alone. As related in a legal deposition, on May 22, Garrison began noticing cracks in his walls and floors, and in the asphalt driveway of his next door neighbor.
At around 10:15 the night of May 28, he heard a "a large pop" and felt the house shudder. He climbed out of bed to investigate, but a cursory tour of the house revealed nothing out of the ordinary.
Garrison found the source of that pop-and-shutter the next morning. The concrete floor of his basement had cracked like a saltine. Within two weeks, the crack was a foot wide, and a crack in his yard expanded into a three-to seven foot cavern. His dining room and living room "began to slant noticeably to the south."
To their dismay, the Garrisons were told by structural and geotechnical engineers they'd called to the scene that their home sits atop a slow-moving deposit of soil - in geologic terms a "landslide" --that was twisting and crumpling their house.
Dismay escalated into anguish when they discovered their homeowners insurance doesn't cover damage from landslides or other soil movements.
"Check over your homeowner's insurance policy," said Garrison in a 1996 interview. You'll find that it doesn't cover any kind of earth movement--earth quake, slope slump, downslope creep, debris flow, whatever you call it. There's not a house in Colorado Springs that's covered for landslide damage."
Things went downhill fast.
By mid-June, the city condemned the house. In the short space of seven weeks, the Garrison's dream home turned into an uninhabitable, uninsured and unsellable nightmare.
Prey for rain
The Garrisons are far from alone in their plight. That same landslide destroyed or seriously damaged six homes on the 4200 block of Regency Drive and vicinity, and it now endangers houses on streets above and below it.
In the nearby Boardmoor area, some of the priciest homes in Colorado Springs sit atop a 200-acre landslide that stretches east from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to across Broadmoor South Golf Course in the upscale Marland Court neighborhood.
Landslide activity there has produced cracked roadways, leaning trees, buckled tennis courts and driveways, bent fences, and windows and doors that no longer shut flush. Two homes have been condemned and at least 12 more are threatened.
But southwestern Colorado Springs is not the sole area where landslides are pleating homes like accordions. David Noe of the Colorado Geologic Survey says that "as many as 5000 homes, many in the $500,000-and up price range, have been built in Colorado Springs on potentially unstable, landslide-susceptible hillsides."
State geologists have identified at least eight such locales throughout town--three in the Cheyenne Mountain area(Penhurst Place, Regency Drive, Marland Court), three in the Garden of the Gods vicinity (Holland Park, Honey Locust, Friendship Lane) one in Rockrimmon(Spring Creek Court) and one in Pinecliff (Haverhill Place).
Donna Fair, who heads the city Office of Emergency Management, says that at least 62 Colorado Springs homeowners have suffered anywhere from $40 million to $88 million in damage from moving soils, but the actual numbers could be far higher. Many victims keep their plight mum out of fear for their property values.
This, however, hasn't deterred the city from continuing to approve developments on known landslide terrain.
As recently as May 23, City Council approved construction of eight luxury homes on Maytag Acres on top of a landslide adjacent to the Marland landslide--this despite cautions by state geologists in a Feb. 15 technical review of the project. "We remind the city," the geologists noted, "that this property is landslide-susceptible area and risks of activation of this dormant landslide, while low, are real."
Such cautions are nothing new. A 1974 study, partly financed by the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, identified landslide sites throughout Colorado Springs and specifically recommended that "building and road construction be prohibited in landslide hazard areas."
It is here, in fact, that our tale lies. The City of Colorado Springs has a long-standing history of reluctance both to heed expert recommendations and to establish and enforce regulations that would have prevented homeowner loss and landslide debacles like those on Regency Drive, but would have imposed regulatory constraints on immensely lucrative hillside development.
That reluctance has diminished somewhat in the past couple of years, particularly on the part of city officials, and notably after another round of 22 landslide casualties following the spring rains of 1999.
"We don't have to keep repeating the mistakes of the past," said Councilwoman Judy Noyes, commenting on the Maytag decision, which she reluctantly approved. "I don't think it's wrong to declare certain areas unfit for human habitation. I know that's not a popular stance in this town, but there are times when we just have to say that maybe this isn't a good idea."
Private property and public safety
Colorado law defines a geologic hazard as "a geologic phenomenon which is so adverse to...construction or land use as to constitute a significant hazard to public health and safety or to property." One of the chief geologic hazards in hill-abundant, mountainside Colorado Springs is landslide:the movement of a mass of rock, earth, or debris down a slope.
The explosive population growth of recent decades has triggered an intense ideological and economic struggle over how much and in what way to regulate development on geographically hazardous terrain.
On one side of this debate are champions of the absolute private property rights. This camp --primarily developers, builders, realtors, and various agents of the "growth industry"--passionately opposes any attempt to strengthen regulation of hillside development.
On the other side are state geologists and public safety and consumer protection advocates. This camp has pushed long and hard for more thorough and stringent regulation to ensure safe hillside development and protection of homeowners.
These camps, of course, are not diametrically opposed, but Colorado Springs has historically downplayed the "public health and safety" part of the equation in favor of a pro-growth orientation that favors private property rights. When it hasn't sided with developers outright, the city has taken a hands-off laissez-faire, buyer beware stance, claiming the problem to be a private sector matter between developers, builders, and homebuyers.
David Noe, chief of engineering geology at the Colorado Geologic Survey, the state agency tasked with evaluating the accuracy and adequacy of developmental proposals for projects in geographically hazardous areas, is familiar with the city of Colorado Springs' position.
The agency rarely crossed paths with Colorado Springs until 1996, when the city passed the Geologic Hazards Ordinance in the wake of the Regency Ridge landslide debacle.
That ordinance requires a soils analysis and geologic hazards study of every building site, and a design plan for mitigation of any hazards. The city has no one on staff qualified to do technical reviews, and sends about one in ten of the proposals it receives up to CGS to do this review.
Noe praises the passage of the Geologic Hazards Ordinance as "a major step forward for protecting Colorado Springs homebuyers from Regency Ridge-type tragedies." It has created friction, however, between his office and the Springs development community. "It put developers accustomed to a lot of power and latitude into a unfamiliar position," he explained. "For the first time, the soils and engineering studies written up by their consultants were subjected to the close scrutiny of independent experts."
Noe says the CGS gets pretty good cooperation from most Colorado communities.
But with Colorado Springs, it's a different story.
"There's been quite a backlash down there against the Geologic Hazards Ordinance," said Noe. "That community, frankly, has been difficult to deal with."
Noe likens the attitude of the Springs development community to "a kid who completes his math assignment but doesn't want it to be graded. and then complains that he's being second-guessed if the teacher disagrees with his solution to a problem."
This seems an apt analogy for a March 6, 1998 letter to head city planner Quinn Peitz that was signed by a group of frontline local developers including representatives from Berry & Boyle, Cog Land & Development (the development arm of the Broadmoor hotel), Elite Properties (Houck Estate, The Reserve), Gates Land Company, La Plata (Briargate), and Nor'wood and Schuck Communities (Cedar Heights, Mountain Shadows, Stratton Estates).
These developers asked Peitz to stop using Colorado Springs Survey for technical reviewing because their privately hired soils and geotechnical consultants "are having their professional judgement and conclusions routinely second-guessed by someone at CGS." The state agency's recommendations against development on certain high-risk properties, they complained, "have precluded [us from] building on parcels worth millions of dollars."
Noe says there's another side to this "second guessing" however. "Developers from that community frequently use engineers with little or no geologic training to study very complicated geologic situations," he said. "We get a higher than normal number of reports from Colorado Springs that either don't contain enough information or have analysis or conclusions we don't agree with."
"But when we find problems with some of these reports from the Springs," Noe continued "they dig in their heels and fight suggestions or calls for new information. The developers and consultants argue that we don't know what we are talking about, and we try to reiterate why we think our objections are important, and it doesn't go anywhere. It's been very argumentative down there."
Noe contends the city chain of command needs to buy more fully into the Geologic Hazards Ordinance from bottom to top. CGS needs the backing of city planning and engineering, which needs the backing of head planner Peitz and head engineer Gary Haynes. Peitz and Haynes, meanwhile need the backing of City Manager Jim Mullen who needs the backing of City Council.
Noe attributes the Springs muddle in large part to a fundamental clash of orientations between private property rights and public safety. Colorado law holds landslides to be a significant hazard to public health and safety," but Colorado Springs has tended to emphasize private property rights and view regulatory constraint as a threat to those rights.
"That's a big issue throughout Colorado, not just Colorado Springs," he said. "Colorado Springs has tended to emphasize private property rights and view regulatory constraint as a threat to those rights.
That's a big issue throughout Colorado, not just Colorado Springs," he said. "Colorado Springs, though, seems inordinately afraid of lawsuits. I suspect it has a lot to do with the power of the development community in that town."
"The landslide epidemic of 1995, however, forced policy makers up there to take a closer look at the public safety side of the equation," Noe concluded. "Ignoring geologic hazards won't make them go away. You simply can't let development occur in a manner that will be harmful to tenants down the line."
To be continued...
Newcomers to the City of Asheville and Buncombe County should take a close look at the Buncombe County landslide map. This map shows mountain slopes at grave risk of landslides. Much of this mountainous terrain is currently under development for residential and resort sales. The City of Asheville and Buncombe County do not have a Geologic Hazards Ordinance and there is no requirement for a soils analysis and site specific study for the county's hazardous land.