Shift-sliding Away 

Housing project brought back for closer scrutiny

The city planner in charge calls it "a great project."

And members of the Colorado Springs Planning Commission backed it enthusiastically.

But after a proposed new affordable-housing project flew through the city's planning process with nothing but high praise for the developers, it has been called back for another review after state geologists found the project might include lawsuits just waiting to happen. In other words, future homeowners might very well see their homes cracking and crumbling as the foundation they're built on begins to shift and sink.

The concerns had, in fact, been identified in advance in geological reports commissioned by the developer, but not all of the reports were submitted as part of the city's planning process.

And the review by the Colorado Geological Survey, which has brought the concerns to light and prompted the city to send the development proposal back to the drawing board, would never have occurred were it not for a citizen's appeal of the Planning Commission's approval of the project.

Threatened to sue

The appeal was filed by local geologist John Himmelreich, who authored one of earlier studies that identified concerns with the property.

Himmelreich has long been critical of the city's policy of letting developers commission their own geological studies. The practice enables developers to "shop around" for consultants who are willing to cut corners in order to give positive recommendations on questionable projects, he has alleged.

Meanwhile, the developer behind the project calls Himmelreich's concerns "nonsense" and has threatened to sue him.

The project is the Shadow Mountain subdivision, adjacent to Monument Creek, northwest of Garden of the Gods Road and Nevada Avenue. Southwest Housing Development, a Dallas-based developer, wants to build a 144-unit, multi-family housing complex on the site, which it says will be targeted toward people earning less than 60 percent of the area's median income. The city Planning Commission unanimously approved the project on April 4.

But the problem, according to state geologists, is that the site sits on "suspect" fill in the creek's floodplain -- basically a pile of concrete, steel, tires, piping and debris that was "dumped into the Monument Creek flood plain without control" sometime in the 1980s.

The fill is unstable and likely to shift or sink, which could cause structural damage to houses built on top of it, said geologist T.C. Wait of the Colorado Geological Survey, who visited the site and reviewed planning documents. Flooding in the creek could also destabilize the slope of the fill, Wait pointed out in a May 9 letter to the City.

'A great project'

The concerns had been identified in two geological reports commissioned by Southwest Housing long prior to the planning commission's approval, including the one authored by Himmelreich. However, those reports weren't initially made available to city staff.

Instead, Southwest Housing submitted a more favorable report by local consulting firm CTL/Thompson, which recognized the potential geological hazards but said the development could be made safe through commonly used engineering methods.

City planner Angela White said based on all information available, staff gave the project a glowing recommendation. "We think it's a great project for that area," she said.

But after the project was approved, Himmelreich filed an appeal on April 15, listing geological concerns and alleging that there had been a "lack of disclosure of known information" during the planning process. The matter will come before the City Council later this month.

Himmelreich said he raised objections against the development "based on my previous experience and knowledge of the site, having done a geological hazards study."

The appeal sparked the state review, said Dave Lethbridge, subdivision review manager for the city Engineering Department.

As a result of the concerns subsequently confirmed by the state, Southwest will now have to revise its plans to better address those concerns, Lethbridge said.

Inconsistent advice

On May 8, lawyers for Southwest Housing sent a letter to Himmelreich threatening to sue him, arguing he was contradicting himself in public about the Shadow Mountain Project. In fact, Himmelreich's initial study actually backed the project, argues Bill Fisher, a Southwest Housing representative.

"The majority of John's issues that he raised are inconsistent with his initial analysis for us," Fisher said. "You can't write one thing and than say another publicly."

Himmelreich says he can't respond to Fisher's allegations for legal reasons. However, Wait, of the Geological Survey, disagreed with the developer's assertion that Himmelreich's report actually backed the project. In fact, there was a "marked difference of professional opinion" between the favorable CTL/Thompson report and the previous reports, Wait wrote.

Fisher also said the CTL/Thompson report "fully buttresses our position" that the project is sound. "The idea that we can't build structures on there is nonsense."

But Wait said the CTL/Thompson report "does not adequately convey some of the contentious issues that surround this development." Some of Himmelreich's concerns, she wrote, are "valid."

Lethbridge said it was unfortunate that it took a citizen's appeal for the City to get full information on the Shadow Mountain project. "I don't think it should have been necessary," he said. "I really can't explain it."

Himmelreich says he can. He claims the City's entire review process is flawed. In addition, he notes that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is also in the midst of reviewing whether local authorities have adequately protected floodplains from harmful developments.

"The regulations are weak," Himmelreich said. "Those weak regulations are unenforced, there are too many loopholes in the regulations, the regulations are easily manipulated, and the process and the system is dysfunctional."


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