Traffic complicated evacuation of Mountain Shadows during the Waldo Canyon Fire.

The final chapter of 2424 Garden of the Gods Road might not yet be written, as Mountain Shadows residents opposed to a City Council-backed apartment complex there consider their next move.

Council voted 5-4 on May 25 to change zoning, adopt a concept plan and grant a major master plan amendment to allow construction of 420 apartments on a portion of the 125-acre tract at the front door of Mountain Shadows.

Nearly 30 residents spoke against the project during a nine-hour hearing, citing public safety, preservation of views, and protection of the area’s bighorn sheep herd.

Most notable, they argued the complex would generate higher traffic volumes on 30th Street and Garden of the Gods Road, of particular concern in light of the harried evacuation of 26,000 people from Mountain Shadows as the Waldo Canyon Fire bore down in June 2012. The fire claimed 347 houses and two lives, and 30th and Garden of the Gods, where the apartments will be built, was not only an evacuation choke point, but also served as the staging area for a frantic fire department that battled the blaze.

But a Council majority — Wayne Williams, Randy Helms, Richard Skorman, Yolanda Avila and Mike O’Malley — supported the proposal from an out-of-town developer to create a mixed-use development, anchored by apartments.

The owner, represented by Andrea Barlow with planning firm N.E.S., modified the original plan to reduce opposition by cutting the height of some buildings and repositioning them. The applicant is Florida-based Vision Properties.

Noting a conversion from industrial/commercial to mixed use will reduce traffic, Barlow said, “I don’t think any of the neighbors’ arguments hold any water and are based on clear resistance to the apartments.”

She noted the proposal meets the city’s criteria for zoning contained in the comprehensive plan, called PlanCOS. “It’s about inclusivity, not exclusivity,” she said.

Barlow asserted, correctly, that Council could not reject the proposal based on the hillside overlay ordinance that neighbors said is supposed to protect views, because there are no specific guidelines for enforcement.

Councilor Wayne Williams said impacts would be less than if the same property were developed under its original zoning, including number of vehicles and height of buildings.

He dismissed concerns that the city notified only 255 people, though thousands live in Mountain Shadows, saying the city met its burden to notify property owners within 1,000 feet. Besides, he said, the media reported on the project several times.

Skorman said the city has invested some $60 million to extend Centennial Boulevard to Interstate 25, which provides another path to safety, and will widen two-lane 30th and 31st streets to better handle emergency traffic.

Councilors opposing the project cited public safety, notably the potential for wildfire in the Wildland Urban Interface where the city abuts forestlands, and a limited number of escape routes.

Dave Donelson, who represents the district in which the project lies, said, “Safety is extremely important to me because of the history and location.”

Council President Tom Strand noted when the owners acquired the property, they knew how it was zoned.

The only avenue for appeal by opponents lies in District Court, unless someone changes their vote at the June 8 second reading for the zone change.

“I think the group wants to digest and decide what the next action is,” Glenn Carlson, who opposed the project, told the Indy. He noted neighbors spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours researching and preparing a presentation for Council and Planning Commission. They were disappointed, he said, and felt overwhelmed by a system they saw as favoring the applicant. Barlow, he noted, as well as others working in the development industry, are former city employees, for example.

Bill Wysong, who led the opposition, said the group was to meet May 27 to discuss but not decide on a path forward. He expressed concern that his group couldn’t find a local advocate; attorneys they approached declined, saying they either work in the “city environment” or do business with the city. Residents ultimately hired an attorney from Boulder.

“More people will have to die before City Council will change their minds,” he said. “That is a sad state of affairs.”

However, Skorman noted Council at some point will consider the project’s development plan where changes could evolve. 

Senior Reporter

Pam Zubeck is a graduate from Emporia State University. She worked at the Tulsa Tribune before coming to Colorado Springs, where she spent 16 years at the Gazette and in 2009 joined Colorado Publishing House.