Public Eye 

We've all heard stories about people getting booted from homes or businesses to make way for some supposed public good: a wider interstate, a new park or business zone, or some flood-control project.

But what happens when government officials pressure you into selling your property, then figure out later that they don't need your home after all? Springs native Emmett Killeavy found out the answer to that question the hard way.

"I went by to see if they had dozed my house yet and there were plants in the window," said an irate Killeavy, the former owner of a modest two-story home in south downtown's Mill Street Neighborhood. "I couldn't believe it, someone's living there."

As it turns out, Killeavy is only one of four property owners who sold their houses to Colorado Springs Utilities, under pressure of possible condemnation, only to find later that the publicly owned power company didn't need the homes. CSU is now selling them to other people. "It's kind of a raunchy deal," said Scott Lewis, former owner of a rental house and back cottage at 1010 S. Sierra Madre Street.

The land deals were all part of a now-completed railroad line extension from downtown's Martin Drake power plant through a one-block portion of the Mill Street neighborhood. The original plan called for destroying 22 homes, but after neighborhood protest, CSU engineers found a way to claim only 14.

The greater public good here, by the way, is that the new rail line is expected to save rate-payers up to $1 million a year by allowing CSU to unload coal trains more efficiently.

After buying the lots it needed, however, CSU engineers came up with yet another design that would claim only 10 properties: the former home of Killeavy and three others would be spared. That's a good thing: Better to save an affordable home, and put someone in there, than lose it to the wrecking ball.

But Killeavy wonders why he had to leave if his home wasn't really needed -- and why CSU didn't offer him his old home back. "This was supposed to be for the good of the city, to bring down everybody's utility bill a few dollars," said Killeavy. "Not so someone else could live there."

CSU issues manager Lisa Mills expressed little sympathy for Killeavy, saying he sold his home willingly -- even signing a paper asking CSU to buy his home. "We did a sign-up sheet [so we could] understand who in the area was willing to sell and Mr. Killeavy signed that," she said.

The power company followed a "thorough process" in both purchasing and selling the homes, she said, adding that the homes were offered to the Mill Street Neighborhood Association and to local nonprofits who provide affordable housing before being put up for public bid. (The deadline for bids on 1014 and 1006 S. Sierra Madre is April 12. Former owners of those homes could not be reached for comment.)

CSU never contacted the original property owners, Mills added, since the sales were "willing" and because none of the former owners left forwarding information or asked for right of first refusal if the homes were ever sold. If Killeavy had wanted his home back, he could have bid on it when it went up for sale, others close to the issue have noted.

"It's a totally unfortunate situation," said Jeff Hovermale, secretary of the Mill Street Neighborhood Association. But CSU is trying to make the best of a bad situation by saving homes it no longer needs, he said. "They could have bulldozed the homes, put up a chain-link fence and been done with it," said Hovermale. "But they didn't. They're trying to replace some of the lost housing."

Indeed, CSU plans to build three to five new, affordable homes on a separate, 2.2-acre chunk of land in the neighborhood -- a now vacant spot where several homes once stood, Hovermale noted.

That's not likely to appease Killeavy, who sold his home in the heat of a neighborhood battle over the rail line and a now-scrapped plan to put a massive complex for homeless services in the neighborhood.

Though Killeavy and other property owners were paid handsomely (Killeavy got $150,000 for a house and half-acre lot), he said the sale was far from "willing." Homeowners like him were afraid of losing their investments -- one reason he signed up to sell. "I didn't want to move," said the 40-something car mechanic. "But I knew if I didn't sell, they could take my home anyway."

Malcolm Howard will be contributing to Public Eye while Cara DeGette is on vacation. DeGette's column will return on April 25.


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