2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

    Wed, August 31, 2011 by Bill Vogrin with 1 comment

    Months after being warned to accelerate the pace of repairs, Joseph O'Brien has had 15 windows installed and some paint applied to the house at 715 N. 24th St. But Ken Lewis, city code enforcement administrator, said he hasn't done enough.

    Kevin Sutherland is learning an expensive lesson about property rights in Colorado Springs

    Because Joseph O’Brien has exercised his right to let his house sit and rot since it was condemned in 1973, Sutherland now finds it impossible to sell his own west-side cottage and move into a larger place as he and his wife await the birth of their first child. 

    “It is becoming a nightmare,” Sutherland said. 

    It’s a recurring nightmare, actually, for generations of neighbors of the O’Brien house at 715 N. 24th St., north of West Unitah Street

    O’Brien reigns as the patriarch of blight in the Springs, having presided over the decay of his family home, built in 1905. It is the longest condemned house in the city. By far. Did I mention 1973? 

    It’s hard to explain how it’s been ignored for so long. 

    Warped, stained plywood still covers much of the house, awaiting windows, siding and paint. Weeds and brush surround the condemned house. Neighbors are sick of waiting and say they can’t sell their houses because of the cancerous O’Brien property.


    Neighbors say Joseph O'Brien's rotting family home at 715 N. 24th St. is a shameful eyesore. Doors remain boarded up. Piles of dirt remain to be backfilled against the foundation. The front porch and stairs have been missing for decades.

    Neighbors have complained about it for decades. It was the subject of the very first Side Streets column on July 18, 2002, and several since. 

    Code enforcement officers have served their entire careers and retired with the O’Brien file still active. 

    It was “Exhibit A” when the City Council enacted a blight ordinance in 2006. 

    Still it sits. 

    Weeds and small trees grow tall amid scaffolding that has rusted in place. 

    Bare, warped plywood, stained from years of exposure to sun and rain, surrounds the house. 

    The very first Side Streets, on July 18, 2002, featured the Joseph O'Brien house as one of the worst in the city. Little has changed, even though the house helped inspire the City Council to pass a blight ordinance in 2006.



    Neighbor Kevin Sutherland lives across the street and has this view of the condemned O'Brien house. Sutherland tried for months to sell his house but he said prospective buyers were scared off by the O'Brien house. This photo was taken in November 2010.

     Worse, another O’Brien-owned rental house next door is deteriorating, too. 

    Sutherland said every prospective buyer for his tidy little house across the street walked away when told the story of the O’Brien place.

    “As a homeowner, I want answers,” Sutherland said. “It’s hurting us. The property is an eyesore. 

    “What has happened to all the gusto city officials had to go after these blight kings?” 

    The gusto remains, said Ken Lewis, city code enforcement administrator. But enforcing the blight ordinance is tricky, requiring slow, deliberate steps. 

    This house, at 705 N. 24th St., is one of 10 properties owned by Joseph O'Brien, heir to the O'Brien Printing Co. on Colorado Springs' west side. It sits next door to another O'Brien property that has been condemned since 1973. It's starting to show signs of serious decay.

    And O’Brien has remained out of reach by doing just enough to the house to prevent code enforcers from taking possession of the property. 

    “Since we came down on him, he has put in 15 windows,” Lewis said. “He’s painted some of it. Actually, he’s done more in the last few months than he’s done in 10 years.” 

    But Lewis said it’s still not good enough and he’s poised to issue a summons against O’Brien and start assessing fines under the dilapidated building code. 

    “He needs to step it up,” Lewis said. “At this rate, it’s going to take him 10 years.” 

    Lewis wants the weeds mowed, mounds of dirt backfilled against the foundation, the house painted, doors, windows and a porch installed. 

    That sounds good, but I can’t help wondering if the Sutherland’s baby will grow up, get married move away before the O’Brien house is ever finished.

    Follow this link to a November 2010 blog I wrote about the O’Brien house.



    Sun, February 13, 2011 by Bill Vogrin with no comments

     From the curb, Tom Taylor‘s home looks like any other mini-mansion in Top of Skyway neighborhood in southwest Colorado Springs.

    Tom Taylor's home near Orion Drive in Top of Skyway neighborhood in Colorado Springs seen in an image from Google Earth.

    Take a closer look, however, and you realize Taylor’s home is anything but typical.

    Tom Taylor, shown in December in an interview with KOAA News First 5 video.

    It’s a textbook example of urban blight.

     And, until recently, the 2.5-acre lot surrounding his 4,300-square-foot home was filled with junk

    All types of junk surround the home of Tom Taylor in Top of Skyway neighborhood near Orion Drive. Photo courtsey Colorado Springs Code Enforcement office.

    Junk filled the four-bay garage of Tom Taylor's home near Orion Drive in Top of Skyway neighborhood. Photo courtesy Colorado Springs Code Enforcement office.

    An old SUV sat amid the rubble, filled with junk, outside the home of Tom Taylor near Orion Drive in Top of Skyway neighborhood of Colorado Springs. Photo courtesy the Colorado Springs Code Enforcement office.

    Neighborhing homeowners associations tried to intervene. But Taylor’s home was built before surrounding developments. So covenants governing life in the neighborhood don’t apply to him. The HOAs were impotent.

    Code enforcement officers were called and began trying to get Taylor to comply with city rules. Eventually, summons were issued for four violations of code and he was taken to court.

    That was last July. He entered a plea agreement and he was put on probation and given until Sept. 30 to remove the junk from his lot.

     The deadline passed but the junk remained. The city took him back to court. On Dec. 15, about a dozen neighbors showed up to testify about conditions on the property.

     The judge found Taylor had violated probation, fined him $500 per violation and warned him he could face jail time if the didn’t get things up to code. Each violation carries a possible 90-day jail sentence.

    Junk is visible strewn around the Top of Skyway home of Tom Taylor near Orion Drive in this image from FlashEarth.com.

    Here’s a link to a KOAA NewsFirst 5 video of Taylor and his home.



    Wed, November 10, 2010 by Bill Vogrin with no comments

    How would you like to live across the street from this house?  

    Joseph O'Brien's family home at 715 N. 24th St. has been condemned since 1973. Neighbors are sick of looking at it and suffering depressed property values due to it.

    This house at 715 N. 24th St., on the corner of Dale Street on Colorado Springs‘ west side is owned by Joseph O’Brien of O’Brien Printing. It has been sitting and rotting since it was condemned since 1973.  


    You read that correctly. The house was condemned when Richard Nixon was still in the White House. It has been a blight on the neighborhood ever since. That’s 37 years and counting.  

    It was built in 1905 by O’Brien’s grandmother. His son, Glen, has promised the city repeatedly to repair the house. And he has done considerable work, at times, on the structure.  

    In this photo, you can see the concrete basement he poured after jacking the structure up. Then he built a large addition on the back with the long, slanting roof that overhangs the original peak of the house.  


    You can also see, through the shoulder-high weeds, the rusting scaffolding that has stood for a decade or more since activity lurched to a halt.  

    For the past three years, neighbor Kevin Sutherland has had a front-porch view of the mess. He’s called the city, like many neighbors, wondering why something isn’t done to enforce the city’s 2006 blight ordinance and require O’Brien to repair the house.   


    The south side of the house is not much different. A hand-built ladder leans against the wall.  


    Inside the house, Glen O’Brien has amassed building materials such as doors and wood for his project. But mostly they’ve just sat, gathering dust. O’Brien did upgrade the electrical service to the house. But much more work remains.  

    In 2005, the O’Brien house became “exhibit A” in efforts to get a blight ordinance written into city codes. Those efforts finally succeeded in 2006. 

     But Ken Lewis, code enforcement administrator, said he’s been frustrated in his efforts to get the courts to take seriously the criminal summons his officers write for blight violations. 


    Lewis vows the O’Brien house is going to be repaired now, or else. He has given O’Brien until Friday to start actively repairing it or face a summons, fine and more aggressive action. 

    The O’Briens are an old Colorado Springs family. Joseph O’Brien’s father,  William P. O’Brien, operated O’Brien Typesetting and Printing and amassed many properties in the city. 

    His holdings included a 10-acre parcel he bought in 1962 on South 21st Street now known as the Gold Hill Mesa subdivision.

     The property included the old Golden Cycle Mill office building, the mill smokestack – a westside landmark – and a crusher building. 

    The printing business is on 19th Street, not far from Uintah Gardens Shopping Center. It has suffered the same fate at the house on 24th Street. It is overgrown with weeds and its 10 acres or so includes a collection of junk cars and other things. 


    If this house sounds familiar, you are a longtime Side Streets reader.

    In fact, I featured this house in my very first Side Streets column on July 18, 2002. And I wrote about it again in 2006 as pressure mounted on the city to combat blight in neighborhoods.



    Sun, July 25, 2010 by Bill Vogrin with no comments

    In 2004, I met Jean Raubolt. In 1982, she bought a new house on Silent Rain Drive in a neighborhood sandwiched between Mountain Shadows and what is now Peregrine on the city’s northwest edge.

    She was unhappy with the condition of the neighborhood. She believed it was deteriorating and hurting her property values.

    She wanted to form a neighborhood association to police the area and enforce covenants and city codes for appearance, noise and overall quality of life.

    Raubolt was unable to rally neighbors to join her. So she became a one-woman army dedicated to reporting and filing complaints for every code violation she could find.

    She was known to walk the neighborhood, pen and pad in hand, writing down violations she then reported to Colorado Springs Police, or the Code Enforcement agency, or the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region.

    Neighbors told me they hid from Raubolt, avoiding using their front yards or porches to avoid her wrath. Some told me they moved to escape her harassment.

    Then came Bridget Weyer, who moved in next door in February 2007.

    Soon, she was the subject of complaints about her dog, her daughter’s drumming, right in a 2008 photo, and music at a barbecue she hosted.

    Here’s a link to a previous column and a blog I wrote about the conflict.

    Weyer ended up in court three times over Raubolt’s complaints. Two were dismissed but the third stuck and she was fined $70. Weyer considered moving until the complaints suddenly stopped.

    Raubolt died last August. Weyer said it’s sad, but the neighborhood is all “peace and tranquility” ever since.

    It’s a different story on North Foote Avenue where neighbors have been dealing with a condemned house since 1998.

    They had grown hopeful, recently, that the house was finally going to be repaired and occupied. The work started after a column I wrote in April. The owner, Ruth “Fire” Hendricks had come to me, begging me to write about how the city had wrongly condemned the place. Alternately angry and tearful, she told me how her hateful neighbors wouldn’t help.

    Of course, the city and neighbors told a much different story. City Code Enforcement Administrator Ken Lewis said Hendricks as refusing to cooperate with his officers. He said they had tried for years to help her.

    In fact, Lewis said his officers had volunteers and materials lined up to start work on the place, if she would only cooperate.

    Hendricks was enraged by my column. But in a short time a contractor began work on the house and the roof was replaced. A large trash container was brought to the house and some of the moldy junk inside was pitched until Hendricks intervened.

    Then everything stopped. Hendricks died May 15, leaving the house in limbo. (One of her daughters, Julia Groves, angrily claimed the stress from my column killed her.)

    Neighbors are glad its collapsing roof has been repaired and broken windows fixed. But they fear it could sit even longer as probate court sorts out Hendricks’ estate. Here’s a link to my earlier blog on the house.

    Lewis said the city will stay on the case and, if necessary, will make any urgent repairs and mow weeds, bill the estate and even lien the property if necessary.


  • GARBAGE drama

    Wed, April 29, 2009 by Bill Vogrin with 9 comments


    The roll-off container is gone from Mikado Drive. The landlords and Bestway have settled their dispute and the container was picked up Wednesday afternoon.

    Landlord Don Houger says he agreed to pay half the $361 tab because he added to the roll-off container load with trash he hauled out of the house.

    Houger said the tenant ruined carpets, punched holes in walls, left rotting food in the refrigerator and caused considerable damage in the house before she left.

    “Bestway was real nice about it,” Houger said. “We got it all settled. It’s all taken care of.”

    Now he said it’s time to get to work repairing the damage.


    The folks at Bestway Disposal seemingly lost their minds for a moment last week.

    mikadobestway They had delivered a roll-off container to a house in Rockrimmon on Mikado Drive and the woman customer loaded it with garbage, tires, furniture and other trash.

    She paid with a bad check and left in the middle of the night. Classy.

    Bestway wanted its money and went after the landlords, Don and Jean Houger, for payment of the deadbeat tenant’s debt. They declined to pay so Bestway took its container and left.

    Problem is, they left the trash in the driveway.


    A nice, big, stinking, leaking nasty pile of garbage. 


    Imagine how the neighbors felt when they saw the mess, knowing their children would be coming home from school and the abundant wildlife in the Rockrimmon neighborhood would be coming out at night to investigate.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Here’s a look at the neighborhood from www.FlashEarth.com:



    Bestway’s Phil Kiemel said the company had no choice but to dump and run.

    “We did the logical thing,” Kiemel said.


                    Too bad Ken Lewis, code enforcement administrator for Colorado Springs, didn’t agree with Kiemel’s logic. He said what Bestway did was a crime punished by a $500 fine and 90 days in jail.

    Before the day was over, Bestway had a crew of five, a new roll-off container and a truck on the scene, cleaning up the mess.


     In these photos, supplied by Bestway, crews clean the driveway before replacing the roll-off container and the trash. 


     Sounds like a happy ending, right? Not yet.

    The neighbors are stuck looking at the roll-off container which now is full of trash because the Hougers have filled it with garbage they hauled out of their rental house.

    The Hougers agree they should pay part of the bill, since they added to its load. But they are balking at paying the full bill saying they aren’t responsible for the tenant’s debts.

    Meanwhile, neighbors live with the mess. And they say it’s an example of the dangers of having rental properties in the neighborhood. They doubt the Hougers — who have numerous rental properties in the city — would stand for the mess if they had to live with it.