- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - Rick Sisco’s home in the Skyway neighborhood has been riding a landslide for months. It started as a crack, became a chasm, then a 13-foot cliff.

But because Sisco’s circa-1964 home was built long before Colorado Springs passed its geological hazards ordinance, city officials know very little about the landslide that has ruined Sisco’s property.

It’s part of an estimated $14 million problem now facing the city, involving several older homes in southwest Colorado Springs that have been destroyed or buckled by landslides in the wake of record-setting rains in May. A lack of information is yet another obstacle facing city officials, who are dealing with damaged homes, unstoppable landslides and development concerns.

The city hopes federal aid will cover 75 percent of the $14 million price tag to buy at least 20 homes, but the city and homeowners will pay the remainder.

In the meantime, city officials will also consider updating the geological hazards ordinance, which requires assessments of landslide risk on properties.

While Colorado Springs’ geology is infamous for its landslide potential, the city has not faced a problem of this scale since April 1999, when heavy rains triggered slides and prompted the buyout of 27 homes on the southwest side of town.

Modern landslides in the Pikes Peak region are a consequence of ancient geology. The land that formed Colorado Springs sits on steep and weak shale eroded over millions of years. Because of this, landslides have plagued Colorado Springs since 1959, city records show.

A 1996 landslide prompted the city to pass the first version of the geological hazards ordinance, which required geological assessments for homes in danger zones, such as the Broadmoor Bluffs areas. The ordinance was updated in 1999 and 2011, but older homes like Sisco’s have escaped the city’s scrutiny. Now, nearly two decades after the last rash of landslides, these homes built without geological study are at risk.

“What we know now is that these are very expansive soils,” said Tim Mitros, a city engineer who is helping oversee the landslides for the Office of Emergency Management. “If we would have known that back in the day, we would have required over digs and underdrains. But because (these homes) were built back in the ‘50s, when we didn’t have a geological hazards ordinance, they are being impacted.”

City officials have informally asked the Housing and Building Association to help them evaluate existing codes, HBA President Tim Seibert said. Re-evaluating codes is a natural part of disaster response and one the city and the HBA have worked on before, most recently after the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire, which prompted drastic changes to fire and building codes for homes in wildfire-prone neighborhoods.

But it’s too early to say if the city’s geological hazards ordinance will change, said Bret Waters, director of the Office of Emergency Management.

“I think after every disaster we want to evaluate not just ordinances, but the entire event,” Waters said. “Could that end up with a change in code? We don’t know at this point. We’ve really got to continue to study this - if there needs to be some solution to prevent it in the future.”

The city plans to look at ordinances adopted by other municipalities affected by landslides, Mitros said. A potential ordinance change in Colorado Springs might target empty land platted before the hazards ordinance was passed, Mitros said.

“We do have a lot of building lots on the west side that were platted before 1996,” he said. “Should we look at those differently? I don’t know.”

Seeking federal help

For years, geologists have warned city planners and developers that homes in southwestern neighborhoods could one day be damaged by landslides.

Nonetheless, when Sisco bought his home five years ago, the danger of landslides couldn’t have been further from his mind. The ranch home at 1200 Constellation Drive seemed an ideal place for a retired couple - sitting on a hill surrounded by pines and Gambel oak, with views of downtown and Cheyenne Mountain.

But just after July 4, Sisco noticed a crack cutting across his front yard. By August, his front yard had broken away in a slab that sank an inch per day. By fall, the front of his house was flush with a cliff; below, cracks big enough to swallow a child revealed massive boulders.

Sisco is one of about 40 homeowners who have contacted the city about landslide damage or concerns. He is one of 20 who have asked for a buyout using money from the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which would cover 75 percent of a home’s appraised value and demolition if local agencies and property owners cover the remaining 25 percent.

In November, the city filed a notice of interest for the grant to the state. The actual application for funds will be submitted in May, beginning what could be a years-long process to buy out homes. Sisco expects he will be able to live in his home while he waits for a buyout.

“So far, we’ve been lucky enough to just watch it happen,” he said. “Although I did have a dream the other night that there was a crack in the kitchen floor.”

Sisco’s nightmares have become reality for some of his downhill neighbors. As the landslide on Sisco’s property moves, it has threatened to swallow one home on Zodiac Drive and has destroyed another. That home, 1010 Zodiac Drive, has been condemned and sits empty with shattered windows and walls snapped in half.

Without such pressure forcing him out, Sisco hopes his home can be salvaged. He thinks he could rebuild his front yard and stabilize the slide - with the help of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“I just don’t have a couple of hundred grand to save it,” he said.

When the rains came

When a landslide starts, little can be done to stop it. When it damages a home, owners are often left with little recourse - landslide damages typically are not covered by insurance, and buyouts are usually the cheapest way to deal with the home. Stabilizing the property could cost millions of dollars.

“There is not really anything we can do without an unreasonable cost,” Mitros said.

Circumstances were similar in 1999, when the city had 27 homes to be bought out but very few ways to do it, said Mark Squire, a consultant who was hired by the city to oversee those buyouts. As with the spring rains of 2015, rainfall in 1999 triggered a presidentially declared disaster, but one that did not take into account landslides, which started happening months later.

“There was nothing in the program that accommodated landslides,” Squire said. “There were at least a dozen areas around town, but there was no mechanism to provide any sort of relief.”

Relief came in the form of an unmet needs program from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which covered 75 percent of the $6.6 million the city needed to buy out homes, said Squire. If the city had not opted for a buyout program, it could have cost it $80 million to protect the homes, Squire added.

But with the next round of potential buyouts years away, the city has not determined what other options it has, Waters said. In the meantime, it will host informational meetings for concerned homeowners in mid-February.

Sisco’s home, meanwhile, remains in limbo. His front yard continues to slowly sink away from his home, at the rate of 1 inch per week. His electric lines have been moved out of harm’s way, and his home remains undamaged, although its assessed value has dropped significantly.

“We thought we’d live here until we died,” he said. “And we still may. If I fall off (the edge) one day.”


Information from: The Gazette, https://www.gazette.com

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