Apr 16, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Avery Colborn | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian
On April 6, Colorado Springs held a general election to decide who would serve on the City Council to represent the city’s six districts for the next four years.
While there were many issues of concern for the candidates who ran to serve on the Colorado Springs City Council, the environment was not one of them — or at least not in the ways it should have been.
The main concerns of candidates this year addressed affordable housing, COVID-19 recovery, local economy, and management of parks and open spaces.
Despite the lack of political enthusiasm regarding larger environmental issues, decisions over sustainable development, climate change resiliency, and the transition away from fossil fuels will become impossible for the city to avoid in the near future.
Here’s how each newly elected City Council member stands on environmental issues, and what that could mean for the next four years in Colorado Springs:
Representing District 1, retired Army veteran Dave Donelson stated on his campaign website that maintaining trails and open spaces is one of his top priorities. While Donelson hopes to “protect and enhance this gift” of trails and open spaces, he only addresses their aesthetic and recreational purposes.
On the topic of potential development near Garden of the Gods, Donelson states that he is “concerned about the impact of development on the view along the foothills, and on wildlife, including bighorn sheep.”
His website does not mention anything about climate change or energy policy.
From District 2, Air Force Academy graduate Randy Helms ran on a platform not at all concerned with the environment. Helms focused on four main issues: public safety and community building, economy, infrastructure, and homelessness and affordable housing.
Nowhere on his campaign website is there mention of plans for environmental protection policy. In an endorsement by the Colorado Springs Gazette, the newspaper’s Editorial Board supported him for exactly that reason.
“He will not advocate social justice policies based on pie-in-the-sky promises to control the climate or create income equality,” the article stated.
Council President and representative from District 3 Richard Skorman (Colorado College class of ’75) stands out as the most outspoken advocate for environmental policy, and is the only one out of all six recently-elected council members who campaigned with the environment as a top issue.
A board member of Colorado Springs Utilities (the city council also serves as the city’s Utilities Board), Skorman advocates for transitions away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy, as well as the closing of the Martin Drake coal-fired Power Plant by 2023 and the Ray Nixon Power Plant near Fountain by 2030, both of which have recently been approved.
The Utilities Board also set plans to achieve 80% carbon reduction by 2030 and set a course for 90% renewable energy generation by 2050.
In a virtual debate hosted by The Gazette and KOAA, Skorman stated that in addition to the volatile prices of fossil fuels, with the state’s plan to dramatically reduce carbon emissions by 2030, the city has little choice as to whether or not to pursue renewables.
Skorman’s campaign website includes information about climate change in the Pikes Peak region, stating: “We are 2.5 degrees hotter than the rest of the state. Our state is always top 10 for heat gain in the country.”
Skorman also advocates for improving the city’s Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) and wildfire response and planning, constructing new homes with sustainable design features, and retrofitting existing buildings for climate reduction practices that other cities have successfully employed.
From District 4, incumbent Yolanda L Avila (CC class of ’85) does not have any information regarding the environment listed on her website, with her listed goals being jobs, small businesses, transportation, public safety, infrastructure, housing, and clean streets.
However, Avila does seem to express a general interest in environmental issues. In a Facebook post, Avila expressed support for reducing the use of plastic bags, stating, “The way to protect our environment is through many different angles… Healthy planet, healthy people!”
Elected to represent District 5, Nancy Henjum places parks and open spaces at the top of her priorities, emphasizing their importance to community enjoyment and well-being. She also recognizes the rapid growth of Colorado Springs, and is concerned about its impact on transportation, housing, water, and open space.
Henjum also told The Gazette that she would prioritize affordable and sustainable energy services, though there was no elaboration as to what specific energy sources she was referring to.
Representing District 6, former Navy Reserve captain and volunteer firefighter Mike O’Malley will support transportation and infrastructure improvements, though he doesn’t specify any energy-related aspects to this plan.
In a survey by Colorado Public Radio, O’Malley expressed support for protecting open spaces.
“It is extremely important that we have a prioritization on the funding for parks and open spaces,” he said. “Our City identity is inextricably linked to the beauty and grandeur of our parks and open spaces and for this reason we need unequivocal support.”
However, on a Feb. 9 vote deciding whether or not to reduce required acreage of parkland that developers must dedicate to the city, O’Malley (who had been appointed to fill an unexpired term in January) voted in favor of scaling back parkland. Councilmembers Avila and Skorman voted against this decision.
While the management of parks and open spaces was a main issue discussed by most of the council members, political decisions regarding larger environmental issues will need to be emphasized if the city wishes to progress in the near future.
Colorado Springs is projected to see an increase of 250,000 residents in the next thirty years, raising the population to about 1.2 million. This increase will have drastic impacts on infrastructure and require even more development to support the already under-housed population.
In addition to the question of how to sustainably develop, this growth raises concerns over significant increases in water and energy demand.
In a city that is already grappling with how to manage higher demands for water and whose main source of electricity is still coal, these problems will only become more complicated as the population increases over the next few years, especially if they are left unattended.
This new group of council members will serve for the next four years and coincide with the Biden Administration, which (hopefully) means that state and local governments will have the opportunity to implement new climate legislation, plans, and targets to significantly reduce carbon emissions in the near future.
The next four years could be a key point in the trajectory of Colorado Springs. Despite the general lack of emphasis on larger environmental policies like renewable energy and sustainable development, there is potential for the City Council to shift towards a more environmental perspective.
Especially as renewable energies are becoming cheaper and creating new job opportunities, it could be possible for the Council to tackle local issues, like affordable housing and local economy, while simultaneously addressing environmental issues.
While a push towards an environmentally-minded Colorado Springs will still require a great deal of public support, with members like Skorman, and potentially the support of Avila and Henjum, the possibility is certainly there.