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Solid gold blight 

Houses planned for old mining tailings site

click to enlarge Gold Hill Mesa developer Bob Willard stands in the folds - of eroded dirt on Gold Hill Mesa, south of Highway 24 on - Colorado Springs west side. Willard is building 1,000 - homes on the old mining tailings. Fruit-bearing trees - and vegetable gardens will be prohibited. - DAN WILCOCK
  • Dan Wilcock
  • Gold Hill Mesa developer Bob Willard stands in the folds of eroded dirt on Gold Hill Mesa, south of Highway 24 on Colorado Springs west side. Willard is building 1,000 homes on the old mining tailings. Fruit-bearing trees and vegetable gardens will be prohibited.

City and state officials say that when the first homes on Gold Hill Mesa are completed next summer, the development project will be a triumph of environmental innovation.

But with arsenic and lead waste still present in the hillside, don't expect the green-thumb crowd to move in atop the remains of the old gold milling operation, south of Highway 24 near 21st Street.

While numerous studies have labeled the development safe to inhabit, backyard gardens and fruit-bearing trees will be prohibited due to potential risk carried by ground contaminants.

All told, the project will consist of 1,000 homes, a community center, retail stores and parks and trails.

Bob Willard, Gold Hill Mesa's developer, has guided the project through seven years of hurdles, including environmental studies that have cost more than $1 million. His work has won the praises of city planning officials and state environmental officers, who see the development as a way to mitigate a nasty environmental scar and increase in-fill.

"From an environmental standpoint and from an in-fill standpoint, we're very excited," says Mark Walker, an environmental protection specialist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Over the next six months, the mottled mound of dirt on the west side of the city will become a terraced grassy hillside, with houses at the crest. Eventually, more homes and businesses will line the slope.

That's a good thing, says Walker. The dense urban development scheme will form a massive cap that hems in contaminants.

"There's no doubt," he says, "that every time it rains, there's [contaminant] runoff into [nearby] Fountain Creek."

The state has initially approved a $2 million low-interest loan to re-landscape the hillside. City officials also have declared the mesa a blighted area, qualifying it as an urban renewal project eligible for bonds to be subsidized by future residents.

"I don't think you could look at that area and not say it's blighted," says Scott Hente, a city councilman and homebuilder.

The city considers the project a "traditional neighborhood development," a new planning designation that fits with Willard's plans for carports, alleyways, a functional porch on every home, and trails that lead to stores and workplaces.

But as for backyard gardening, homeowners should look elsewhere, says James Mayerl, a senior planner for the city.

"This is not an area where vegetable gardens would be a good idea," Mayerl says.

Willard says he's not worried about the rules against gardening. In fact, he says, many residents will be glad that they don't have to take care of their lawns, either.

"The only option would be gardening in containers," says Catherine Moravec, a horticulturalist at Colorado State University's Cooperative Extension in El Paso County. "Gardening is important to some people," she says, "and to some people, it's really not."

-- Dan Wilcock

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