Gold Hill Mesa developers hope a new report validates their assertions that the neighborhood’s 500 homes are in no danger of sinking.
State geologists first raised the alarm last year about the Westside subdivision’s susceptibility to sinking, heaving and flooding. The Colorado Geological Survey ordered further testing on two plots — referred to as Filings 10 and 11 — before giving the green light to a proposed expansion at the site of the former Golden Cycle Mill.
CTL Thompson Inc., a regional geotechnical engineering firm hired by GHM’s developers, is testing soil samples from both plots using a variety of metrics, including moisture content, standard penetration testing and swell potential, said Hayden Fischer, chief technical officer at Bryant Consultants, a Denver firm also hired by the developers for oversight and peer review. Swell potential is the relative change in volume to be expected with changes in the soil’s moisture content.
The report will address issues relating to slope stability, settlement and liquefaction potential of the soils atop the century-old mine tailings pile. Liquefaction occurs when saturated soil loses strength in response to an applied stress, such as seismic activity.
“[State geologists] think liquefaction is warranted here because the tailings are sandlike,” said Stephanie Edwards, vice president and developer representative for Gold Hill Neighborhood LLC, the development’s business entity. “Their concern is if there’s ever seismic activity here, what would happen to the tailings?”
In a report last October, CGS announced its intent to withhold recommendation for approval of a second development phase at Gold Hill Mesa — known as Filing 10 — where 55 single-family lots are planned on nearly 9 acres.
The CGS report called into question the stability of the site’s northeast slope, in addition to existing concerns over settlement and liquefaction, according to an October article in the Colorado Springs Gazette.
“Without further testing, the agency cannot give its consent to moving ahead with the project,” according to the Oct. 19 report written by CGS senior engineering geologist Jonathan Lovekin.
The report echoed concerns Lovekin expressed in recent months about another plot, known as Filing 11, and the development as a whole, according to the Gazette. Approval of home construction in the Filing 11 area was put on hold last April after Lovekin asked that the developer — Gold Hill Mesa — test the plot for its settlement potential, the Gazette reported.
That report referred to a roughly 4-acre parcel along 21st Street for which the developers already had an approved grading plan.
CTL Thompson Inc., is in the process of compiling a comprehensive report of their findings for each plot, said Bill Hoffmann, senior principal engineer. The firm likely will turn over the report for Filing 11 to the city later this month, with Filing 10 to follow “probably a couple weeks after,” Hoffmann said.
“We want to know everything about this property, and we always have sought state-of-the-art testing at the time [of development],” Edwards said. “If we’re asked to do more testing, great — we’re doing it.”
State geologists did not weigh in on each individual development phase at Gold Hill Mesa before city staff approved those filings, Edwards said, although the state agency did a broad proposal in 2004, which served as a basis for the approval of subsequent phases.
CGS evaluated Filings 10 and 11 at Gold Hill Mesa because of an ordinance, passed unanimously by the Colorado Springs City Council in 2017, that requires the city to submit site plans to CGS for review and recommendation.
The ordinance applied to areas in 100-year floodplains, land mapped by the CGS that shows landslide susceptibility or mine subsidence, any hillside or streamside overlay zone, as well as potentially unstable slopes, areas with a history of landfill — documented or not — and “any other geologic hazards which can’t be confirmed through standard building processes.”
Hoffmann said he has concerns about the methodology CGS has used to evaluate consolidation or settlement throughout the entire Gold Hill Mesa neighborhood.
Those concerns are echoed by the Gold Hill Mesa developers, Edwards said.
“[CGS’ report] does not comport with our ground survey data,” she said. “We have turned over every rock to see if there was any validity there and to date, we find nothing.”
Still, Hoffmann said, CTL Thompson has conducted testing that “goes quite a bit beyond what CGS asked for.”
“We’re doing testing to evaluate the engineering properties of the materials [found in the soil], along with the seismic response of those materials,” Hoffmann said. “Quite frankly, we’re using tests and analyses that weren’t available in 2004 when we did our original work. … We did what was technically available and accepted at that point in time.”
In spite of those advances, “the results aren’t showing anything significantly different from what we had before,” Hoffmann said.
“The results don’t change our conclusions [from] 2004,” he said. “Our intent is for the work we’re doing in Filing 11 and Filing 10 to answer the questions that CGS has.”
Lovekin also requested Gold Hill Neighborhood LLC test the entire site for its liquefaction potential, but developers say that land rights and land ownership will complicate that process.
“The problems are, the equipment we have to use in order to do this field testing is the size of a Mack truck. Are we going to park that in somebody’s front yard and perform that test?” Hoffmann said. “By the way, we don’t own the property, and neither does the developer.”
The developer would need permission to conduct testing on lots that were sold to builders and then to current homeowners, Edwards said.
“Usually a developer prepares the land, we sell it to the builders and the builders then own that [lot],” Edwards said. “Then the builders sell it to the homeowners, so we’re like three degrees of separation. … The property ownership is very tricky.”
City planners and engineers have the ultimate authority on whether to approve construction at both plots, Hoffmann said.
While construction has been halted at the two filings, work can continue on other improved plots, Edwards said.
“I would say [construction on Filings 10 and 11] is not on hold; it’s delayed, because honestly this is still just a part of the normal process,” Edwards said. “It’s just been prolonged by the media involvement and the nature of what [CGS] is asking us to do.”
Developers have been able to do some preliminary grading work on both plots, Edwards said, “but we can’t go vertical until we get the official report.”
Beginning in August, the Gazette published a three-part series about Gold Hill Mesa, reporting in its first installment that city planners and regional building staff allowed development at the Westside subdivision to continue uninterrupted, despite learning more than three years ago that perhaps dozens of homes in the development were slowly sinking, heaving and flooding.
Two days prior to the Sept. 22 publication of the second article, Gold Hill Mesa announced it had hired a law firm to “investigate potential claims against the Gazette arising out of its recent reporting that places Gold Hill Mesa in a false light,” according to a Sept. 20 news release from Gold Hill Neighborhood LLC.
In the release, Reilly Pozner LLP, the Denver trial firm retained by Gold Hill Neighborhood LLC, asserted the Aug. 25 article “contained false and misleading information which was harmful to the GHM development and homeowners in the neighborhood.”
For example, the release stated, the Gazette reported that 24 homes in the neighborhood were being impacted by issues such as sinking, heaving and flooding.
The 24 homes in question were not located within Gold Hill Mesa, according to the release. In 2016, 24 homes were impacted by the landslides on the west side of town, Roger Lovell, a building official with the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department, told the Business Journal in September.
Most of those homes were located in the Broadmoor Bluffs and Skyway neighborhoods, Lovell said.
“Our attorneys are still there in the wings, waiting and watching and gathering damages right now,” Edwards said.
The Gazette published another article Feb. 1 about further testing at GHM, which Edwards called “way more fact based.”
“But it still doesn’t fix that the original premise will live out there in perpetuity, and we continue to be hurt by that every day,” she said. “As long as it lives out there even when people know it’s not true, the stigma associated has created damages and will continue to do so.”
Edwards said last fall that the media attention had stalled progress at GHM’s commercial development adjacent to 21st Street and U.S. 24 on the neighborhood’s northwest side.
“We’ve had to shift a lot of money we’re spending on site preparation in order to respond to [CGS’ requests], so de facto, we’ve had to slow down our progress there,” she said.
“Our commercial tenants … said, ‘It’s not because we have any concerns about the land. … It’s because of the perception and political delays that this has caused.’ So business people are like, ‘Time is money and you guys are now stuck in a quandary to have to do things above and beyond.’”
For GHM resident Marie Baehr, who addressed council members in December about the Gazette’s reporting, the fallout has been primarily psychological.
“We’re here long term — just like the stock market, if you don’t sell, it doesn’t impact you immediately,” Baehr said. “What we’re concerned for are the military people who do need to sell.”
Baehr and her husband moved to their home in Gold Hill Mesa 2½ years ago after having previously lived in the Peregrine neighborhood near Rockrimmon. They settled on the subdivision after extensive research, which Baehr, a former Realtor, jokingly dubbed “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”
“Peregrine is right next to Mountain Shadows, and [the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire] came into our neighborhood and we were evacuated,” Baehr said. “We looked at everything, and [Gold Hill Mesa] was the best place without having airplanes flying over our heads or a lot of car noise and the fear of fire after being evacuated and leaving through an orange haze to escape.”
Baehr said she has seen nothing to support the claims reported in the Gazette, and called Gold Hill Mesa “everything we’ve ever dreamed of.”
“If you look at the actual buildings, at the homes where they say it’s happening, there’s no evidence of that whatsoever. If there was evidence, the foundations would be cracked,” Baehr said. “I’ve seen a lot of cracked foundations [in other places] and I haven’t seen one since I’ve lived here.
“[Gold Hill Mesa] is such a friendly, wonderful neighborhood,” Baehr added. “There is no way we would have moved here if there were any issues.”
Gold Hill Mesa, Gazette collaborate on forum
Four months after announcing its intent to explore legal action against the Colorado Springs Gazette, Gold Hill Neighborhood LLC helped sponsor the publication’s Community Conversation forum on responsible growth.
The forum — hosted Jan. 29 by the Gazette and KKTV at Studio Bee — brought together city leaders, neighborhood organizers and developers to discuss plans to accommodate the Springs’ rapidly growing population.
Stephanie Edwards, VP and developer representative for Gold Hill Neighborhood LLC — the Gold Hill Mesa development’s business entity — spoke about the developer’s commitment to smart growth.
Edwards may have seemed an unlikely choice for the event, given that GHM is still actively assessing its legal options against the Gazette.
In September, Gold Hill Neighborhood LLC announced it had hired Denver trial firm Reilly Pozner LLP to “investigate potential claims against the Gazette arising out of its recent reporting that places Gold Hill Mesa in a false light.” The decision stemmed from the Gazette’s three-part series about the Westside subdivision that it reported is sitting atop shifting soils.
As of February, Edwards said, attorneys were still “gathering damages” related to potential litigation against the Gazette. No formal suit has been filed, she said.
Potential litigation “never entered into our thinking” when the Gazette approached GHM about being a paid sponsor of the event, Editor Vince Bzdek told the Business Journal.
“We hosted a community event about responsible growth in the city, and our sales and marketing team approached logical partners,” Bzdek said via email. “Gold Hill Mesa has been a significant development in the city and they had plenty to offer to the conversation.”
Edwards said she consulted with Gold Hill Neighborhood’s attorneys before accepting the Gazette’s offer. GHM ultimately opted to participate, viewing the forum “as an opportunity to be a part of an important community conversation, regardless of who was hosting,” Edwards said.
“Since Gold Hill Mesa has been a forerunner in Smart Growth in Colorado Springs as a New Urbanism redevelopment for nearly two decades, this subject deeply aligns with our mission,” she said.
The Gazette reported in its first installment, published in August, that city planners and regional building staff allowed development at GHM to continue uninterrupted, despite learning more than three years ago that perhaps dozens of homes in the development were slowly sinking, heaving and flooding.
Reilly Pozner LLC asserted in a news release that the Aug. 25 article “contained false and misleading information which was harmful to the GHM development and homeowners in the neighborhood.”
That assertion has not changed, Edwards said.
“Our participation in any community conversation about responsible growth, where Gold Hill Mesa has been a local leader for many years, doesn’t lessen our concern about the damaging impacts to our development or to our neighborhood resulting from the clearly erroneous premise that led the Gazette’s series about GHM,” Edwards said.