Dwain and Helen Maxwell had hoped to retire from Phoenix to the starry nights and serenity of windswept Pueblo West. Now, nearly five years after they bought their home, Colorado Springs Utilities wants to plow a 12-foot trench through their backyard for the Southern Delivery System, a 66-inch water pipeline. The conduit will be capable of bringing 18 million gallons a day to Pueblo West and 78 million a day to Colorado Springs. The pipeline's first delivery is slated for 2016.
The project also will bring dust and noise for a year during construction, and encroach on a third of the Maxwells' property, roughly 100 feet of their backyard. After that, the Maxwells, or any subsequent owner, will be barred from building atop the pipeline.
All for $2,200. That's what Utilities says the easements are worth.
No way, argue the Maxwells. They're among a handful of Pueblo West holdouts who have refused to accept what they call paltry payments for easements they say will make the land unusable and diminish their property values.
Their resistance is the latest hurdle for the biggest public works project in the region, perhaps the state. And it shouldn't come as a surprise.
Nobody likes the idea of a road or pipeline cutting through their property, and the 62-mile pipeline must traverse 300 easements or tracts of land between Pueblo Dam and Colorado Springs.
Going to court
So far, Utilities has secured 126 signed agreements of the 170 needed in Pueblo County. That leaves 44, including 13 in Pueblo West, which covers nearly 50 square miles and is home to roughly 32,000 people. While 120 property owners in Pueblo West signed on the dotted line without raising a stink, Maxwell and 11 others refused — and face condemnation of their land after a stalemate in negotiations triggered Colorado Springs City Council last week to authorize court action.
This isn't the first time Springs Utilities has gone to court over SDS. Previous legal bills tally $2.7 million of the $115.5 million spent on SDS as of Dec. 31. Those costs include a dispute over Pueblo County's ability to impose construction guidelines on the project. (Pueblo County won.)
Now Utilities will pay more legal bills for eminent domain — the public taking of private property for a public purpose, for fair compensation — though officials say they'd rather not.
"Our intent is to try to find common ground without going to court," says SDS planning and permitting manager Keith Riley.
But either way, they may have the upper hand.
For instance, on Monday morning Herb Walsh was digging in his heels, since Utilities was refusing to budge from a figure of $2,200 for his property. Walking around his backyard, which covers about two-thirds of his one-acre lot and where his dogs frolic, Walsh said he'll keep his "dustbowl," thank you very much.
"It's our home, where we choose to live," he said. "Half my backyard? That's bullshit."
Walsh said he felt he was lied to about his right to get his own appraisal at Utilities' expense, and vowed to head into court as "a cantankerous old bastard."
But by Tuesday, the 64-year-old said he'd talked to an attorney and been told he'd lose.
His new perspective? "I guess I'll have to take it in the shorts."
He said, he said
The issue Walsh raised, whether homeowners could have an independent appraisal at Utilities' expense, has been a major point of contention. Utilities' 1041 permit granted by Pueblo County requires Utilities "to compensate landowners to have their own appraisal done if they disagree with (Utilities') appraisal," a provision noted to the city in a Feb. 8 letter from Pueblo County commissioners in response to Pueblo West residents' complaints.
Two of those residents were Adam and Candy Underhill, who live two houses down from Walsh on Kirkwood Drive. Utilities denied their request for an appraisal five times between September and February.
On Feb. 21, the Underhills agreed to accept $11,950, which includes Utilities' original $2,200 offer for temporary and permanent easements plus costs for replacement trees, a new fence, training the couple's dogs to observe the new property boundaries, and more. Adam Underhill says he felt pressured to accept when Utilities officials told him their offer would expire after Feb. 21. Riley denies imposing a deadline.
Addressing allegations that Utilities lied to or misled residents about their right to get independent appraisals at Utilities' expense, Riley says when a property is valued at $5,000 or more, an appraisal is necessary. If it's less than $5,000, a valuation is done. (The difference between an appraisal and valuation is the amount of detail.)
"Most of these properties are at about $2,500, so we did valuations," he says.
In doing appraisals and valuations, Utilities is following steps contained in the city's real estate manual and the Federal Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Act. Under those guidelines, damages can be paid only for "compensable" expenses, such as outbuildings, fences and a decrease in market value, but not for inconvenience or dust.
Riley says now that the process is entering condemnation in court, appraisals will be conducted by the city and residents will be allowed to obtain their own appraisals. Walsh reported Tuesday that he received a letter saying as much.
Many homeowners also are convinced their property values will sink with the pipeline under their backyards, though Utilities argues they won't. Most properties already have some sort of utility easement on them, Riley notes.
All that has led to frayed relations between the city and a handful of homeowners.
In fact, Maxwell is convinced all the smiles and nodding heads belie "the biggest tale in the world." He complains they won't listen when he says the project means a subsequent owner can't build a horse barn on his property. Riley says one can't be built anyway without a waiver from the Pueblo West Metropolitan District's architecture committee, which to protect views has never granted a waiver on the back side of lots, where the pipeline will go.
Some homeowners even question the purpose of SDS, wondering why the city needs to pump water to the bankrupt 23,000-acre Banning Lewis Ranch on the Springs' east side. Utilities says the ranch, as yet largely undeveloped, is but one reason for SDS; it also will provide "redundancy" for the city's other transmountain pipeline.
The city hopes to finish condemnation in time to begin construction in that area in June. But the battle still rages with Gary Walker, whose cattle ranch stretches over seven easements "where the pipeline must cross seven miles of land," Utilities spokeswoman Janet Rummel says in an e-mail.
Walker has been uncooperative so far, and told the Pueblo Chieftain last week if he must relinquish his land for SDS, he wants the city to pay to relocate his cattle, among other things.
If and when Utilities drives the line through Pueblo County, the job is only half-done. The city needs 130 parcels in El Paso County but so far has acquired only 43.