No wall between Gold Hill, Villa de Mesa – that’s the problem
Planning Commission scolds developer, still approves project requests; City Council next
An incomplete wall arose as an issue, but ultimately did not stand in the way of the Colorado Springs Planning Commission approving seven requests by the Gold Hill Mesa development group July 21.
The decision still needs to be ratified by City Council. Ryan Tefertiller of the city's Land Use Review Division said the matter is “tentatively scheduled” for the Aug. 23 meeting.
If approved there, the changes will allow Gold Hill to begin developing 20 residential lots as part of a new Filing 3 just south of the 40-year-old Villa de Mesa subdivision; aligning a permanent access from South 21st Street; and moving forward with minor updates to existing plans for the rest of the 210-acre residential/ commercial project east of 21st.
But it's something Gold Hill Mesa is not building - the remainder of a half-constructed wall around Villa de Mesa - that caused a little heartburn for several Planning Commission members. Of these, only Diane Butlak and Mike Ham voted that opinion, and that was just on the 20-lot development plan, which kept the board from being unanimous on all seven requests.
Butlak said she believed there is city precedent requiring developers to build walls to protect existing neighborhoods before proceeding with their projects.
Contacted after the meeting, Gold Hill Mesa lead developer Bob Willard said he believes she is wrong, that such a rule only applies to purely commercial projects, and that technically in his case only a fence is required - and reiterated past pledges to complete the eastern and northern sides of the six-foot-high precast concrete wall once he develops beside them.
The commission votes were in line with the recommendations from a city planner, Ryan Tefertiller.
The wall concern was raised by Villa de Mesa residents, who believe that Gold Hill has dragged its feet on a promise to finish the wall around their 1970s-built townhome enclave in a timely manner. Some residents contend that the developer was formally bound to do it more speedily, in conjunction with legal swaps of several properties about five years ago. A 2004 document, provided to the Westside Pioneer, cites the wall as an “element of the above-referenced land exchange” and adds the comment that “time is of the essence.”
Willard denied making any legal agreement to build the wall or even promising a completion date. Initially, he said, he had asked Villa de Mesa to be part of the development. When the association declined, as he recalled the history, he volunteered to build a wall around it. “Essentially half of it is ours, so we wanted to make it nice,” he said.
He provided a document of his own to the Pioneer, showing that the land swaps had been almost equal in size (Gold Hill coming out about a quarter-acre ahead).
Those land deals - which gave Villa de Mesa a rectangular shape - made the wall design less complicated, freed up marketable lots for Villa de Mesa and simplified planning for his development, Willard explained.
As for timing, a September 2006 Westside Pioneer article reported completion of the southern wall and most of the western wall (including a security gate toward which Gold Hill contributed $30,000), along with Willard's plans to build the northern and eastern wall sections once the development “moves down the hill, and the elevations are better known.”
A similar strategy is spelled out on Note 17 in the plans approved July 21 by Planning Commission.
About half of Villa de Mesa's 25 households were represented at Planning Commission, estimated Jim Shearer, president of the Villa de Mesa Homeowners Association, after the meeting.
He and Brian Murphy, the association's attorney, argued the residents' case before the board. Even if Gold Hill has never agreed to an absolute time frame, Murphy said, “Every contract needs to be fulfilled in reasonable time. We think a reasonable time has passed.”
He and Shearer also questioned how binding or specific Note 17 is. “I don't know if it will ever take place,” Murphy told the commission.
Tefertiller's position, clarified in an e-mail afterward, is that the note will “solidify the city's role in making sure that Villa De Mesa gets a wall at some point. That being said, I don't believe (and neither did Planning Commission per their comments during the hearing) that the city is the proper entity to enforce the private agreement between Villa De Mesa and Gold Hill Mesa regarding the wall construction.”
Willard said that five years ago he had thought the project would go a lot faster, that homes and even businesses would already be built on all sides of Villa de Mesa and thus the wall would be in by now.
The problem, he said, was the economy going sour. In 2007, his builder, John Laing Homes, started having money problems and by 2008 had filed for bankruptcy. Now, in the midst of a continuing recession, Willard said developers like him can't get the kind of financing that used to be possible. The only way he can afford to build more homes is by selling them, and the current rate of sales is about four a month.
He said the first part of the wall (including the gate) cost the development about $130,000. He estimated the cost to finish it will be $100,000 to $200,000. (The difference in price is whether Villa de Mesa wants its wall on the plateau - where its houses are - or farther north, along an uneven grade, where the actual property line is. Building on an uneven grade would be considerably more expensive, Willard said. Villa de Mesa has not yet taken an official position on the north wall's location, Shearer told the Pioneer.)
Another point of Shearer's is that economy or not, Gold Hill Mesa should have respected its obligations and budgeted money toward the work. Even now, commented Planning Commission Vice Chair Albert Gonzales, the developer ought to be paying into a performance bond, which would prove good faith even if the wall can't go up right away.
“I urge them to get it done,” added Chairman Dan Cleveland.
Although some comments at the meeting indicated that Villa de Mesa needs the wall for sound and dust protection, Shearer said afterward that such issues aren't the main reason for wanting the wall. It helps somewhat in those regards, he said, but its most desirable aspect is that it “identifies Villa de Mesa as a unique community.”
Willard said he holds no ill will toward Villa de Mesa, despite the recent dispute. “I know some of those people. I know some of the sons of some of those people,” he said. “They're nice people.”
At the meeting, he suggested that if Villa de Mesa residents wants the wall built sooner, they could do it with their own money, and Gold Hill Mesa would put up collateral as a commitment that they would be paid back. So far, he has not been taken up on this offer.
Villa de Mesa residents were also displeased this year to learn of a Gold Hill Mesa drainage engineering error affecting the 20 homes in Filing 3 along the new Gold Hill Mesa Drive next to the south wall. The error, committed a few years ago but only recently discovered, means the road will have to be built 18 inches higher than prior plans had anticipated. The domino effect is that any two-story homes will be 18 inches higher, thus violating a “viewshed” agreement Gold Hill had previously made with Villa de Mesa. As compensation, Gold Hill Mesa offered to build at least 5 of the 20 homes only one-story high and to place them in a “staggered” manner. Villa de Mesa has accepted this compromise, and it is part of the Filing 3 development plan approved by Planning Commission.
Westside Pioneer article