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How Black Forest became ripe for historic wildfire damage 

Behind the boom

When John Kennedy was elected president in 1960, Black Forest had only 88 homes, many of them rustic vacation retreats. But as the 20th century progressed, the rural enclave amid towering ponderosa pine north of Colorado Springs drew more residents. And since 2000 development has exploded, with the number of homes nearly doubling in just 13 years.

So when the Black Forest Fire raged in June, the one-time sparsely populated community had 1,603 living spaces, ranging from crude cabins to sprawling luxury homes.

The fire claimed 486 of those homes within the 18,175 acres (about 28 square miles) of "Black Forest proper," as El Paso County Assessor Mark Lowderman calls it. That's an area bounded by Roller Coaster Road and Highway 83 on the west, Bar X Road and Black Forest Road on the east, Walker Road on the north and Shoup Road on the south.

The Independent mapped the homes built in Black Forest proper from 1890 through 2012 as shown in assessor records. Available at tiny.cc/blackforest, it's structured to show the number of single-family residential structures that existed as of 1959, and how that number grew in each of the following decades. It also includes an interactive slider that allows the viewer to sort the homes by square footage.

Propane-propelled

Although Black Forest hasn't exploded with development like, say, Falcon, it has seen a steady march since the 1970s.

"It's been a long process," says Carl Schueler, who was a county planner for 24 years before being hired at the city in 2008. "It's a pattern that's taken decades to occur."

While homeowners obviously have had various motives in choosing Black Forest, one impetus for many in the '70s could have been a natural gas shortage. That's when Colorado Interstate Gas told Colorado Springs its supply was tapering off due to a production decline in the region. The city imposed a moratorium on gas hookups for new construction, which halted new development.

"You just couldn't get a new gas tap. The gas moratorium completely stifled construction in the city limits," Lowderman says. "I would suspect, if you wanted to build a new house, you might go to an area not on natural gas, but on propane. That may have contributed to some of the construction in 1973 to 1976."

During that decade, Black Forest proper — where propane is commonly used as fuel — gained 180 homes, three times the previous decade's 57.

In the 1980s, 248 homes were built, most before a housing bust in the latter part of the decade. When banks relaxed borrowing after that, it sparked a "huge boom that started in 1990 and went for 14 years," Lowderman says, bringing 267 homes in the 1990s, and more in the decade to follow.

Stars aligning

Black Forest development also was affected by changes in county policies, says Schueler.

First, the county's rules called for a minimum of five-acre lots for septic tanks, a policy that kept Black Forest rural, Schueler says. That was changed in 1981 to a minimum of 2.5 acres, and in 1987, a new strategic plan for an area encompassing Black Forest proper — and then some — was adopted that allowed 2.5-acre lots in clusters as long as the subdivision averaged 5 acres per lot. This change allowed developers to set aside significant tracts as open space and to develop in concentrated areas, sparking buyer interest, according to Schueler.

About that same time, another policy change might have heightened Black Forest's appeal. In 1986, county commissioners adopted the 300-year water rule, designed to "promote the public health, safety, and welfare by ensuring that a long-term supply of water, at least 300 years, will be available for all subdivisions," as stated in a 2002 county Water Authority report. In areas out east where underground aquifers weren't as deep, developers had a hard time meeting the rule's requirements.

Not so in Black Forest.

"[The 300-year rule] made it more complicated because sometimes you had to drill deeper, but there's plenty of water under the Black Forest to support those densities," Schueler says. "Water wasn't an impediment. Other places in the county, it gets more difficult."

In the new millennium, all of the above, notably the housing boom, combined with the Pikes Peak region's overall growth to fuel massive development. Since 2000, 762 homes have gone up in Black Forest proper, including dozens in Cathedral Pines.

Because of master planning and mitigation of Cathedral Pines as a whole, Schueler says, the subdivision came through the fire practically unscathed. On the other hand, an area known as Brentwood, a series of rural cabins built in 1929 where the wooded area had been allowed to propagate, lost 61 of 67 units, Lowderman says.

Changes in fire codes, which could influence how homes are rebuilt, are under consideration by the Black Forest Fire Rescue Protection District and Falcon Fire Protection District, but none have been proposed as yet.

zubeck@csindy.com

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