Uphill struggle
Neighborhood opposes developer’s plan to put 19 Habitat homes at base of slope

       A proposed 19-unit development - potentially to house Habitat for Humanity families - has upset nearby residents in a 50-year- old neighborhood north of Uintah Street.
       The desired location of the 2.9-acre Victorian Heights Subdivision is at the base of a roughly 100-foot-high slope, which city and state geologists consider steep enough to require a system of “soldier piers” behind the one single-family and nine duplex buildings that are envisioned on the north side of Wilhelmia and Willamette avenues.
       To position the buildings as far as possible off the slope, they would need to be moved closer to the street, plans show. As a result, included in the request from Monument developer Ted Cox is a variance to allow 5-foot front yard setbacks. The front setbacks are 25 feet in the neighborhood's existing single-family homes on the south side of the street.
       “It's making me claustrophobic as we talk,” said Victor Shepard, a resident of the neighborhood. He described the plan as “reprehensible.”
       “Horrible” was the word used by Betty Andrews, who has lived in her house 24 years. “We've paid taxes to the city all these years, and now we get this outrageous plan,” she told the Westside Pioneer.
       About 30 people showed up at a recent neighborhood meeting on the issue. Also present at the meeting was District 3 County Commis-sioner-elect Sallie Clark, representing the Council of Neighborhood Organi-zations (CONO). She said she came away with several concerns and planned to talk to the developer and property owners about them. She expressed some surprise that the steep-sloped property has a residential zone instead of the more restrictive hillside overlay zone, saying this might have occurred because it is in an older area.
       Among Clark's issues were off-street parking, turnaround capabilities for emergency vehicles, how yard maintenance will be managed and an overall wish “to make sure the project complements the neighborhood.”
       A written statement by Cox to the city states that the project “will improve the existing roadway system by creating a public road and sidewalk and will enhance the neighborhood by creating new homes on existing vacant lots. In addition, in keeping with the City of Colorado Springs' comprehensive plan, this site provides development of an infill site, thus taking advantage of existing infrastructure and limiting urban sprawl.”
       Some neighborhood residents question the rationale of having so many Habitat for Humanity homes at the location. “Habitat is wonderful,” Andrews said. “But we don't need 19 in our backyard.”
       The most Habitat homes in one place in Colorado Springs now is 17, in the Mill Street neighborhood near the downtown, according to Pikes Peak Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Paul Johnson.
       Shepard's opinion is that Habitat homes were needed in the Mill Street area because it was “broken.” However, he said, “Our neighborhood isn't broken. We don't need this kind of fix.”
       Johnson declined to comment on the Victorian Heights project, saying to do so would be premature, but he said his agency has plenty of potential residents should the opportunity arise.
       Habitat homes are built with volunteer labor and donations, and the future residents help with the construction. The idea is to help low-income working families find affordable housing, according to the Pikes Peak Habitat for Humanity website. Half the families are headed by single mothers, and the average number per household is four people, Johnson said.
       A Habitat volunteer himself, Cox told the Westside Pioneer, “I don't think it (the development) would be detrimental to the neighborhood… I prefer to provide a site for families that probably wouldn't have the opportunity to get into homes.”
       Under city law, the project could be approved administratively by Colorado Springs Planning because the zoning would be unchanged. However, Planner Larry Larsen has decided to send the proposal to City Planning Commission. No date has been announced yet; he said this week he does not expect it to be on the commission agenda any sooner than Decem-ber.
       A review letter last week from Larsen to Cox cites a variety of issues the developer still needs to address, but it does not discourage him from proceeding. The letter includes verbiage indicating that his slope stabilizing plan is acceptable.
       One stipulation in the letter is contrary to a key point in the developer's proposal. “All units should be designed to provide for a two-car garage,” Larsen writes. Cox had planned to request a variance allowing him to provide garages only at two of the duplex buildings.
       Asked this week what he thought of the review letter, Cox said he had not yet had time to read it through.
       His efforts to develop the property go back about four years. The geologic study (which defined the plan to stabilize the slope with a series of concrete piers behind the new homes) was provided to Cox by RMG Engineers of Colorado Springs in February 2003. The RMG study also points out that aspects of Cox's earlier plans had to be changed because of slope-stability issues. This included eliminating two units from the plan.
       At the top of the slope are several houses along the south side of King Street. A property owner in that location (who asked not to be named) told the Westside Pioneer that residents along her street are worried about what will happen to their homes if the slope below them is cut into.
       A series of would-be developers have considered building on the sloping property over the years, Andrews said, adding that one of them in the '90s graded without permission and caused some drainage problems that linger to this day. She does not fully trust the RMG study, noting as an example that it does not address a natural spring in the slope area.
       She said the neighbors hope to work with CONO in opposing the development plan.
       Regarding the opposition from the neighborhood, Cox said, “I realize there are different opinions. It's a human response that people would not want to lose areas that haven't been built on.” However, he defended his right as a property owner to try to make money from his property.
       He said the engineering studies have shown the project can go in without adverse harm. “It's a case of science over opinion,” he said.

Westside Pioneer article