November 5, 2021 | NEWS | By Will Funk | Photo by Oliver Kraft
Growing concern over wildfire damage is hampering Colorado Springs’ ability to grapple with its growing demand for housing. In July 2021, the City Council was pressured by citizens living in the neighborhood of Mountain Shadows to overturn their approval of a housing development that would have added 420 apartments to the neighborhood.
The 2012 Waldo Canyon Wildfire, which began north of Manitou Springs before moving down towards Mountain Shadows, destroyed 347 houses and killed two people. A year later, the Black Forest Wildfire killed another two people in north Colorado Springs. Still eight years later, both fires linger in the minds of the inhabitants of Mountain Shadows, and the plan to construct a new development in the area was met with staunch opposition.
The fear of the new development stems from the difficulty that Mountain Shadows community members faced while trying to evacuate. It took evacuees nearly two hours to leave their neighborhood because there is one road in and out of the community, which turned into a life-threatening bottleneck.
The evacuation from Manitou Springs was similarly intense.
“We got in and we drove, and it was freaky. Imagine driving in the dark and looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing a wall of flames and thinking ‘Oh my god, this might be it,’” said Tip Ragan, Professor of History and Planning Commissioner of Manitou Springs. “It was because the wind changed that Manitou was not destroyed. It was just a freak accident that it turned East and North and got close to the Air Force Academy in a very quick order”.
Unlike Manitou Springs, Mountain Shadows residents did not have the time to pack their belongings. The speed of the fire increased after the wind switched direction, burning the 347 houses around Mountain Shadows in under 12 hours.
“Once the fire hit the top of Queens canyon, they thought that they had four to five hours before it hit the city. They had forty-five to fifty minutes”, said Bill Wysong, President of Westside Watch and the Mountain Shadows Neighborhood Association.
Spearheading the movement to get the City Council’s approval of the development overturned was Westside Watch, the community-run organization that sprang up to oppose the development and others like it in October of 2020.
Originally approved by the City Council in May, the development’s proposal to change the zoning of the site from industrial to residential, according to Wysong, failed to take into consideration Article B (1) of the city code, which was designed to prevent harm to citizens.
Wysong, along with other community organizers, petitioned in late June for the City Council to recognize the city code provision in the context of the new development, and in August, the City Council reversed its approval of the project, only after Wysong reminded the Council of the safey considerations that were made at the June meeting.
According to West Side Watch’s mission statement: “Since politicians care about future votes as they run for higher office, uniting our voices seems to be the only shot we have at getting their attention.”
The developers who own the property are currently suing the city on the grounds that no safety evaluation was required prior to the council hearings that took place during the Summer.
If not because of political ambitions, leaders in Colorado Springs do have a pressing obligation to create more housing density in the city. According to Pikes Peak Realtors Association, the median sales price for single family homes has increased by $63,000 over the last year while new listings have decreased.
The result of these statistics is what Teddy Sky-Weiss, a former campaign manager for City Councilman Richard Skorman, has called “an affordable housing crisis.” The housing situation in Colorado Springs is not sustainable given that the city has grown more than 17.5 percent in the last decade and continues to grow by a percentage each year, according to the most recent census data.
Facing climate change related hazards and a growing population will prove extremely difficult for Colorado Springs in the coming years. Not only will forest fires occur more persistently, but new fire-related hazards will also begin to sprout.
“One of the consequences of the fire is that now we’re more prone to flash floods,” said Ragan. “The fire basically melted the ground and turned it into something like asphalt. FEMA got us together and told us there is going to be a lot more catastrophic flooding.”
Additionally, the mega drought that has plagued the Southwest for more than a decade is displacing farmers, potentially causing a population surge in Southwestern cities like Colorado Springs.
“Whether its evacuation for wildfire or flooding or whatever, the emphasis is on public safety. High density development, wherever it is in the city, if it’s at a critical chockepoint where you have no options open to you because you can’t go North, South or West, cannot be approved,” said Wysong.
As environmental hazards continue to wreak havoc on the edges of the city, and the population continues to grow, many are left wondering when Colorado Springs will seek innovative solutions that protect its citizens while accommodating them at the same time.