2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner
  • Blight to Bright may help reduce Colorado Springs’ condemned, abandoned homes

    Fri, March 14, 2014 by Bill Vogrin with no comments

    Curtis Olson stands in front of a string of condemned houses on East Brookeside Street on March 12, 2014. He hopes his nonprofit organization Blight to Bright will help reduce the number of blighted properties in Colorado Springs by taking ownership and demolishing them or helping owners develop a plan to make the habitable. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

    Curtis Olson stands in front of a string of condemned houses on East Brookeside Street on March 12, 2014. He hopes his nonprofit organization Blight to Bright will help reduce the number of blighted properties in Colorado Springs by taking ownership and demolishing them or helping owners develop a plan to make the habitable. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

    Curtis Olson hates seeing boarded-up homes, like the string of deteriorating bungalows on East Brookside Street near Cheyenne Creek that are targets for street people, drug dealers and vandals.

    Olson, 50, knows that condemned houses are a blight on a neighborhood and erode property values in every direction.

    And Olson is trying to do something about it: he has founded a nonprofit agency, BlightToBright.org, to help rid the city of blighted houses. He’s especially interested in what the industry calls “zombie” properties that sit vacant and allowed to deteriorate because the owner has abandoned them.

    BlightIt’s a nationwide problem. A study released Thursday by RealtyTrac, which compiles housing data nationwide, reported 21 percent of homes in foreclosure nationwide in February had been vacated by the owner, making them what’s known as zombie properties. The data was part of its U.S. Foreclosure Market Report.

    Those sorts of statistics motivate Olson to act before Colorado Springs joins cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and many others under attack by zombie properties.

    To launch his project, Olson is mailing brochures to the owners of the top 100 houses on the city’s list of condemned properties. The brochures offer to help the owners develop a plan to get rid of the houses, most of which are uninhabitable and would cost more to repair than they are worth.

    “These houses are dilapidated magnets for crime,” Olson said. “They are the worst of the worst. They need to be scraped so a new owner can start over.”

    Olson said he’s troubled that Colorado Springs’ strident property rights stance has allowed houses here to stay condemned for years, even decades in some cases. And he’s frustrated that an anti-blight ordinance enacted in 2006 has rarely resulted in the demolition of zombies.

    A condemation notice on an abandoned house on East Brookside Street where a cluster of condemned houses sit. Curtis Olson hopes his nonprofit organization Blight to Bright will help reduce the number of blighted properties in Colorado Springs by taking ownership and demolishing them or helping owners develop a plan to make the habitable. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

    A condemation notice on an abandoned house on East Brookside Street where a cluster of condemned houses sit. Curtis Olson hopes his nonprofit organization Blight to Bright will help reduce the number of blighted properties in Colorado Springs by taking ownership and demolishing them or helping owners develop a plan to make the habitable. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

    In studying the city’s condemned house list, Olson has found several similarities among them: acute physical deterioration and financial distress often coupled with absentee owners.

    “Many are owned by people who live out of state,” Olson said. “They may have inherited the properties and don’t know what they own. Many think they are worth a lot more than they really are.”

    In fact, many condemned properties in Colorado Springs are upside-down financially. Thousands in tax liens, code enforcement fines and penalties, home-owners association fines and other debts have piled up against the properties.

    Or they are so badly damaged by neglect or abuse that it would never pay to repair them.

    “You can’t make any money off them,” Olson said. “So they sit and rot.”

    That’s where Blight To Bright can help, he said.

    It invites owners to donate their blighted properties to the agency in exchange for a tax deduction. Blight To Bright will tackle the legal and financial issues preventing its occupancy.

     Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

    Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

    Or, Olson said, Blight to Bright will buy the property after working with the El Paso County Assessor’s Office to get a realistic value of the condemned house. Such sales probably won’t net much cash, Olson conceded. But it would be an incentive for the owner to act.

    The agency also offers to help the owner develop a plan to reclaim the house from the condemned list with a list of repairs to be completed on a strict timeline.

    Olson said Colorado Springs risks losing its status as one of the most beautiful places to live if it continues to allow blight to creep in.

    “These houses are scattered all over our neighborhoods,” Olson said.

    He moved his family to the area from Austin, Texas, 13 years ago after a career with Dell Computers.

    He was shocked to learn that houses here can sit condemned for 40 years, as in the case of the Joseph O’Brien house at 715 N. 24th St., near Thorndale Park in the historic Ramona neighborhood on the city’s west side.

    “We’ve got a system that is absolutely broken if somebody is allowed to have a house condemned 40 years,” Olson said. “This house has had 70 code enforcement calls. We are pouring money down the drain by repeatedly sending officers, writing up reports, meeting with the owner.”

    The city, Olson said, would be saving money by being more aggressive, taking those types of houses to court and being done with them.

    This condemned house is among a string of similar abandoned houses on East Brookeside Street, as seen on March 12, 2014. Curtis Olson hopes his nonprofit organization Blight to Bright will help reduce the number of blighted properties in Colorado Springs by taking ownership and demolishing them or helping owners develop a plan to make the habitable. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

    This condemned house is among a string of similar abandoned houses on East Brookeside Street, as seen on March 12, 2014. Curtis Olson hopes his nonprofit organization Blight to Bright will help reduce the number of blighted properties in Colorado Springs by taking ownership and demolishing them or helping owners develop a plan to make the habitable. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

    “Some cities can take these properties, auction them off for $1 on the courthouse steps with the condition they must be razed within three months,” he said.

    Olson rejects those who insist the owners of condemned houses have a sacred property right that allows them to neglect their houses as long as they want.

    “Why do the property rights of the owners of dilapidated houses trump the rights of somebody living next door?” Olson said. “In a neighborhood, you share your property rights with your neighbors. That’s what living in a community is all about.

    “But these people are stomping all over their neighbors’ property rights and getting away with it.”
    Olson has a couple of key supporters who hope he attracts donors, volunteers and condemned houses.

    “He’s really nailed what the problem is,” said Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors & Organization, the umbrella organization for the city’s neighborhoods.

    “And he’s figured out he’s got to change the equation for something to happen,” Munger said. “Of all the solutions to blight that I’ve heard, his is the most likely to make it possible for people who have been hanging on to these properties because they can’t sell them to get rid of them and put them back into the marketplace.”

    Tom Wasinger, the city’s code enforcement administrator, echoed Munger’s assessment of Blight to Bright and welcomes anyone willing to join his effort in reducing the inventory of condemned houses.

    “I view his agency as another tool available to us,” Wasinger said. “We’d recommend him or any other agency willing to take on this problem to an owner at his wit’s end with a condemned house.”

    But Olson faces a huge challenge. He’s got to persuade property owners to turn over blighted houses. And he needs to persuade others in the community to donate cash and services to help him buy and scrape condemned houses. And convince them he’s not running a get-rich-quick scam.

    “He’s got to find the right help,” Munger said. “He’s not going to gain anything personally. That’s not his motivation. He’s just a guy who loves this community and sees this as a problem he can make an impact on.”

    A string of condemned houses sit abandoned on East Brookeside Street on March 12, 2014. Curtis Olson hopes his nonprofit organization Blight to Bright will help reduce the number of blighted properties in Colorado Springs by taking ownership and demolishing them or helping owners develop a plan to make the habitable. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

    A string of condemned houses sit abandoned on East Brookeside Street on March 12, 2014. Curtis Olson hopes his nonprofit organization Blight to Bright will help reduce the number of blighted properties in Colorado Springs by taking ownership and demolishing them or helping owners develop a plan to make the habitable. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

  • Working poor, affordable housing community losing a good friend

    Wed, January 29, 2014 by Bill Vogrin with no comments

    Paul Johnson, executive director of Pikes Peak Habitat for Humanity, is retiring in July after 17 years as the nonprofit agency's first paid executive. During his tenure, Habitat built 100 homes, opened its ReStore recycled building materials business, nearly completed one subdivision project called Woodmen Vistas and launched another in Fountain called Country Living. It's budget grew from less than $100,000 to more than $1 million and it now employs 19 people. Courtesy photo.

    Paul Johnson, executive director of Pikes Peak Habitat for Humanity, is retiring in July after 17 years as the nonprofit agency’s first paid executive.  Courtesy photo.

    The working poor — folks who want to own a home and achieve the American dream but can’t qualify for traditional mortgages — are losing a friend.

    Paul Johnson, 67, executive director of Pikes Peak Habitat for Humanity, last week announced he plans to retire in July after 17 years leading the nonprofit Christian ministry dedicated to eliminating poverty through home ownership.

    A search is underway for his successor and I’m not sure I’d want to follow Johnson, given all he did during his tenure.

    Under Johnson’s leadership, Habitat has been transformed from an all-volunteer group that built a couple houses a year on a budget of less than $100,000 a year.

    Today, it builds upwards of 10 houses a year with a staff of 19 and a budget exceeding $1 million.

    Parade HabitatIn fact, Habitat does much more than create affordable housing. Under Johnson’s leadership, the agency has created entire neighborhoods and it has created jobs.

    In addition, it has tried to change the public’s perception of affordable housing by building homes that have been displayed in the annual Parade of Homes.

    As Habitat’s first paid executive, Johnson partnered with businesses, churches and other groups across the region, raised millions to buy land and materials and even turned Habitat “green” as a leader in the recycling of building materials with its ReStore shop opened in 2004 to provide money to help build new houses. So far, ReStore proceeds have funded 31 houses, Johnson said.

    Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations

    Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations

    “Paul’s done an amazing job,” said Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, the umbrella group for the city’s neighborhoods.

    Munger got to know Johnson as a volunteer on Habitat projects and as leaders in the community.

    “Paul is creative and ambitious in a great way,” Munger said. “He did more than just build houses. He was creating communities.”

    Munger was referring to the work Habitat did, beginning around 1999, in the Mill Street neighborhood south of downtown Colorado Springs where Habitat built 17 homes on 1.5 acres of vacant land, helping trigger a renaissance in the blue-collar region near the Martin Drake Power Plant.

    “He did a great job down here,” said JoAnne Ziegler, an 18-year Mill Street resident. “If Habitat hadn’t come in, I don’t know what would have happened. When they started building houses, I think it encouraged others to improve their properties and start taking better care of their homes.”

    Woodmen VistasJohnson’s boldest move came in 2004 when he partnered with another affordable housing agency, the Rocky Mountain Community Land Trust, to create the Woodmen Vistas subdivision near subdivision near Powers Boulevard and Woodmen Road.

    The two agencies bought 10 acres of land and developed 68 homes, sharing expenses and resources to lower costs.

    “We were able to do things together we wouldn’t have been able to do on our own,” said Bob Koenig, who retired as executive director of the land trust in 2012. “He believes in collaboration. Working together we achieved significant savings. As a result, we were able to significantly increase the number of houses we were doing.”

    Parade RMCLT

    Koenig’s successor, Nate Clyncke, attributes Johnson’s success to his lack of ego.

    “Paul’s priority is serving the community and providing low-income housing and he doesn’t bring an attitude or ego into the transaction,” Clyncke said. “Paul is a humble and unassuming person that works to improve our community over any personal achievement.”

    Johnson came to the region in 1996 when his wife was transferred from her job in the San Francisco Bay area. At age 50, he quit his job as a career hospital administrator and followed her here.

    Unable to find work in the hospital industry, Johnson took his pastor’s advice and applied for the new Habitat executive position.

    “I didn’t know what a roof truss was when I started,” Johnson laughed. “And I had never volunteered with Habitat.”

    But he knew how to raise money from his hospital career.

    And he knew fundraising would be the key to transforming the local Habitat, which started in 1986 — 10 years after the Habitat for Humanity International ministry was founded in Americus, Ga., by an Alabama couple who were inspired to leave their business and dedicate their lives to building affordable housing using donated funds, materials and labor. Homes are built and sold to families in need at no profit and no interest.

    In 1997, the local chapter had built just 25 homes in 11 years.

    Habitat Fountain map 1“Since then, we’ve dedicated another 100,” Johnson said, noting that as Woodmen Vistas nears completion of its last four houses, construction is well underway on the new Country Living subdivision in Fountain where 34 homes are planned.

    And, as with every Habitat home, each will be filled with families who invested their own time and energy, as well as a significant down payment, in their new homes. Sweat equity is demanded of every Habitat homeowner, along with classes in home ownership, credit counseling, debt consolidation or any other classes Habitat deems helpful to its prospective family owners.

    In exchange, they get no-interest, 30-year mortgages and modest but clean, safe homes.

    Paul Johnson, executive director of Pikes Peak Habitat for Humanity, is seen at a ground "blessing" ceremony on Aug. 11, 2013, at his agency's Woodmen Vistas subdivision near Powers Boulevard and Woodmen Road. Johnson is retiring in July after 17 years as the nonprofit agency's first paid executive. During his tenure, Habitat built 100 homes, opened its ReStore recycled building materials business, nearly completed one subdivision project called Woodmen Vistas and launched another in Fountain called Country Living. It's budget grew from less than $100,000 to more than $1 million and it now employs 19 people. Courtesy photo.

    Paul Johnson, executive director of Pikes Peak Habitat for Humanity, is seen at a ground “blessing” ceremony on Aug. 11, 2013, at his agency’s Woodmen Vistas subdivision near Powers Boulevard and Woodmen Road.  Courtesy photo.

    Habitat targets folks who earn between 25 percent and 50 percent of the median income for a family of four based on federal poverty guidelines. That translates to about $17,400 up to $35,700.

    “We try to keep their payments to around $500 a month,” Johnson said.

    Looking back, Johnson said he’s enjoyed his 17 years and especially enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that accompanied the traditional ceremonies celebrating completion of each house and occupancy by new owners.

    “I’m going to miss seeing the completion of the houses,” he said.

    Munger said Colorado Springs is going to miss Johnson.

    “He has left a great legacy for his successor,” Munger said. “We owe him a lot.”

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  • Colorado Springs neighborhoods losing their champion

    Thu, September 26, 2013 by Bill Vogrin with no comments

    Ken Lewis, retiring Colorado Springs code enforcement administrator

    Ken Lewis, retiring Colorado Springs code enforcement administrator

    Ken Lewis no longer has one of the worst jobs in Colorado Springs.

    For him, I am happy.

    But I’m sorry for all the neighborhoods that are losing their champion in Lewis, who retires today as code enforcement administrator.

    And I’m sorry for whoever tries to replace Lewis, a man I consider one of the city’s most dedicated public servants working in one of the most thankless jobs around.

    092713 Side Streets 3As code enforcement administrator since 2005, Lewis presided over the city’s complaint desk. He and his 10 officers scoured the city, literally, for graffiti. They patrolled for illegal signs. They cruised alleys and vacant lots for illegal dumping. And then there were the weed complaints. They fielded thousands every summer.

    Imagine a staff of 10 patrolling 200 square miles of city streets for weeds and graffiti and trash.

    And that doesn’t mention the important work Lewis and his staff did patrolling the city’s 500 or so apartment complexes for health and safety violations, looking for bedbugs and roaches and rotting patio decks, for example.

    They protected tenants whose landlords are slow to fix broken furnaces, restore water or repair and clean up after sewage backups.

    Since joining the agency in 2004, he’s lived in the trenches, fighting for our quality of life. It was not unusual for Lewis to show up to do the heavy lifting when, for example, a vacant building like the old Fish Market on West Bijou Street needed to be cleaned of homeless trash and boarded up.

    Lewis, 63, really cared, which is probably why he is burned out and ready to retreat to his farm with his family.

    Lewis was an innovator who, for example, knew there had to be a better way than to have clerks jot down complaints on 5-by-8 inch index cards, send them out with officers who scribbled notes on the cards in the field, brought them back to the office to be transcribed into a computer database so a property owner could be notified.

    “I started looking for ways to enhance our abilities,” Lewis said. “I came up with tablets using wireless cards.”

    Complaints phoned in or emailed to the office could be transmitted instantly to officers who sit in front of a dilapidated building, for instance, write up a complaint and transmit it back for a clerk to handle in a matter of minutes instead of hours or days.

    Ken Lewis, Colorado Springs code enforcement administrator, assessed damage done by homeless campers to the old Fish Market restaurant in 2010.

    Ken Lewis, Colorado Springs code enforcement administrator, assessed damage done by homeless campers to the old Fish Market restaurant in 2010.

    “We were using wireless cards before the police department,” Lewis said. “We gained at least 20 percent in productivity by going to tablets with wireless cards.”

    Another innovation was creating an in-house graffiti-removal and trash hauling team, accelerating response time to combat those chronic problems.

    Lewis also campaigned for a blight ordinance, adopted in October 2006, that gives city code enforcers limited power to demand dilapidated properties be improved or face possible removal.

    To make the case for an ordinance, Lewis pointed to the Joseph O’Brien house at 715 N. 24th St., which has been condemned since 1973 — the longest in the city.

    Lewis said the blight ordinance lacks teeth to allow for aggressive enforcement of houses like O’Brien’s. And he said politics made it even harder for him to crack down.

    “I never felt like I had the support on City Council to go take properties like I needed to,” Lewis said.

    That’s one of the big frustrations felt by Lewis, who also is weary of trying to battle complaints that come in at a rate of 1,500 a month with a staff a fraction of the size of comparable cities in Colorado and the U.S.

    As a result, some complaints have to wait while life-threatening issues are addressed by his staff.

    “So people are always mad,” Lewis said. “People lose their minds over the simplest things. The complaints are amazing. And I just don’t have the staff to do it all. It’s part of the reason I’m retiring.”

    It just isn’t as satisfying as his previous career with the Colorado Springs Police Department, where he served nearly 28 years as a major accident investigator, a vice, narcotics and intelligence detective and a patrol officer before retiring in 2001.

    But he was bored on his ranch south of Simla and came back full time as a code enforcement officer, rising to the top of the agency when Karon Dipentino retired.

    Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations

    Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations

    I’m not alone in my admiration for Lewis. Consider what Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, said of him.

    “His retirement is going to be a huge loss for the city,” Munger said. “Ken has, with very limited resources, been working hard to make sure the rules we’ve all agreed to live by, the codes we impose on ourselves, get enforced to protect our quality of life.”

    Munger recalled how Lewis struggled to maintain service despite deep budget cuts in 2009 which slashed his department and added responsibilities.

    “Ken knows that when code enforcement suffers, the whole neighborhood suffers,” Munger said. “He’s been a real friend to neighborhoods and a real professional civil servant completely devoted to the city.

    “He’ll very much be missed.”

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  • CAN NEIGHBORS TALK? SOME LAWMAKERS SAY NO

    Thu, March 7, 2013 by Bill Vogrin with no comments

    Can we talk? Just us neighbors?

    Maybe to organize to fight a commercial development on vacant land.

    Or to get City Hall to listen to our concerns about traffic.

    Or to preserve the character of our unique neighborhood.

    Some on the Colorado Springs City Council and the Planning Commission say no. You can’t talk. They won’t grant you permission to talk.

    Dave Munger in 2011

    Dave Munger in 2011

    No kidding. I heard it myself.

    The idea that some in Colorado Springs government would dismiss groups of neighbors who organize informally and approach their elected leaders is troubling to the city’s top neighborhood activist, Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors & Organizations.

    Munger was puzzled the first time it happened in January when the Planning Commission rejected a request by the Rawles Open Space Neighborhood to initiate a city-sponsored conversation about creating a master plan for 38 large properties along Mesa Road on the city’s west side.

    The commission voted 6-3 to deny neighbors the right to talk, demanding the group get agreement from 100 percent of the property owners before having a conversation. It didn’t matter the city code doesn’t require unanimous agreement before a master plan conversation can begin.

    Then similar comments were made last week during the City Council meeting. (You can watch the three-hour City Council debate at this link. Selected Item 14 for viewing.)

    The Rawles neighborhood leaders presented signatures of 26 homeowners who all want to discuss a master plan. It was not 100 percent but it was near 75 percent agreement.

    Janet Suthers

    Janet Suthers

    (Janet Suthers, the commission chairwoman, told the City Council during its hearing that her panel really only wanted two-thirds agreement, even though it repeatedly insisted on unanimous agreement.)

    Suthers and commission member Don Magill tried to explain to the council that the issue wasn’t about basic democracy and the right to congregate and self-govern, as Munger had tried to argue.

    Suthers and Magill said the issue was property rights. And a simple conversation about a master plan, which would declare the neighborhood’s desires to preserve a rural character and open development style, was too dangerous to allow.

    Don Magill

    Don Magill

    That attitude won agreement from three on City Council, including Angela Dougan who wanted to know who had elected the 26 Rawles neighbors to speak for all 38 property owners.

    “You have no documentation,” Dougan told Rawles spokesman James Kin. Dougan then tried to discredit Kin and his group by suggesting they were no more legitimate than if she and Councilman Merv Bennett went to a hotel and represented themselves as a married couple.

    Nervous laughter erupted on the council. But Munger wasn’t laughing at efforts to knock down the Rawles group because he passionately believes neighborhood groups, no matter how informally organized, ought to be respected and encouraged to get together and talk.

    “Democracy ought to be the over-arching goal here,” Munger said. “We ought to be empowering people to have a voice over their own lives.

    “If we’re not willing to give people the voice they deserve, we need to rethink our priorities.”

    Of course, Munger was buoyed by the final City Council vote, 5-3, to allow the master plan process to begin. And he said he would never advocate letting a majority of neighbors trample the property rights of the minority. Nor would city staff, the commission or council, all of whom must approve any master plan before it is enacted, Munger said.

    “There will be lots of opportunities for us to defend those who don’t agree with the majority,” Munger said. “Our history as a city is pretty clear. We’ve always encouraged neighborhoods to have conversations and speak for themselves and decide what their neighborhood ought to look like.

    “I’m not sure why anyone would oppose the idea of a conversation.”

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  • RAWLES SLAPPED DOWN IN BID TO TALK MASTER PLAN

    Sat, January 26, 2013 by Bill Vogrin with no comments

    This was the view of the Rawles Open Space along the 1500 block of Mesa Road in the 1940s. Colorado Springs founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer reportedly rode his horse along this route from Glen Eyrie to get downtown. Courtesy Pikes Peak Library District Special Collections.

    In 2009, neighborhood advocate Dave Munger asked the Colorado Springs City Council a simple question: What is a neighborhood and who decides?

    The council gave an emphatic answer: Size doesn’t matter when it comes to protecting the character of neighborhoods. Tiny pockets of homes, including the westside Rawles Open Space Neighborhood along Mesa Road, can organize even though they are covered by a larger association because they boast unique character and deserve individual recognition. Follow this link to my May 3, 2009, column about the Rawles Open Space Neighborhood.

    Neighborhood advocate Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors & Organizations, testifies Jan. 17, 2013, before the Colorado Springs Planning Commission in a screen capture from video.

    The council’s declaration was significant because it shielded the rustic Rawles neighborhood, where houses are scattered on large lots without curbs and gutters and even sewers, from a modern, five-house subdivision proposed on five acres in the area. Here’s a link to the follow-up blog I wrote on Nov. 8, 2009.

    That history seemed lost on the city Planning Commission last week when the panel voted to reject a request by the same Rawles group for permission to draft a master plan. It would cover 38 properties on 85 acres within the larger Mesa neighborhood.

    A master plan, if approved by the planning commission and council, would guide future development in the neighborhood. It might call for houses to be built farther back from the road than required by city codes, or seek to impose stricter height restrictions and other rules for construction.

    The planning commission decided to stop the conversation before it could even get started. To watch the two-hour hearing on the issue, click this link.

    Real estate attorney James Kin, a leader of the Rawles Open Space Neighborhood, testifies Jan. 17, 2013, before the Colorado Springs Planning Commission in a screen capture from video.

    Several commissioners challenged the validity of the Rawles group, despite its high-profile recognition by the council. And several flatly rejected the assertion it counts 75 percent of the homeowners among its members, as stated by group leader James Kin, a prominent real estate attorney who has served on similar city commissions.

    Commissioner Jeff Markewich put it bluntly: “Other than Mr. Kin’s word, I haven’t seen evidence the organization really represents the neighborhood . . . I just don’t see any evidence that this neighborhood organization really is representative of the vast majority of people in the neighborhood.”

    Ouch.

    Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors & Organizations, or CONO, tried to persuade the panel to let the master plan conversation occur so the neighbors can try to draft a plan.

    “In our view, neighborhoods are one of the basic ways in which we, as a community, exercise and conduct democracy,” he said. “It’s the basic way we come together to solve problems. One thing CONO tries hard to do is to encourage neighborhood discussion of important issues.

    “We would view this draft plan as the beginning of that discussion.”

    Colorado Springs Planning Commissioner Don Magill gestures as he pointedly questions attorney James Kin about the Rawles Open Space Neighborhood in testimony Jan. 17, 2013, in a screen capture from video.

    But Commissioner Don Magill took offense at Munger’s suggestion, snapping: “You just gave us a lecture on how we should deal with this. Thank you.”

    Commissioners repeatedly questioned Kin, Munger and others about how the Rawles group, or any neighborhood group, gets officially recognized. Who at the city, one asked, certifies a neighborhood association? What are the criteria?

    Clearly the commission was trying to discredit Kin’s group as not a credible association. And several accused Kin and his group of having a hidden agenda.

    “This is actually an attempt to get control of somebody else’s property through a kind of esoteric, indirect fashion,” said Commissioner Robert Shonkwiler.

    The majority didn’t seem to care that master plans are a common tool for preserving the character of a neighborhood and routinely written by developers, the city and even, in rare instances, neighborhoods themselves.

    Most baffling to Kin, Munger and others was the insistence by the commission that 100 percent of the 38 property owners agree to the master plan process.

    Kim insisted the commission didn’t have legal authority to demand unanimous approval of the neighborhood to simply draft a proposed plan.

    “Not only do we believe the code does not allow you to add additional requirements such as 100 percent participation, but we also don’t believe it is good governance,” Kin said.

    Magill fired back.

    “That’s what I want to do,” he said, pointing at Kin. “That’s what we’re saying. That’s what we want to do.”

    And Munger noted the 75 percent agreement was more than the super majority vote needed to pass laws, overturn a veto or amend neighborhood covenants in most homeowners associations.

    But the majority on the commission was unswayed. Magill said to simply allow the discussion would give sanction to the group and tacit approval to its master plan.

    “To approve you to go forward with a master plan opens Pandora’s box,” Magill said.

    Now, the council will get a chance to decide because the Rawles group has appealed the commission’s rejection, Kin said Friday.

    He acknowledges he probably angered some on the commission by drafting a proposed master plan and passing it around the neighborhood prior to getting commission approval. And he denies the group tried to bully folks who recently bought vacant lots in the neighborhood, as was suggested.

    “We have a unique little stretch and we think it’s worth preserving,” Kin said. “I hope they (the council) will be open-minded.

    A 2009 view of the Rawles Open Space, a 7.6-acre tract named for the former owners of the property. It was deeded to the Palmer Land Trust for preservation. Another 19-acre tract nearby also is owned by the Trust, which works to secure conservation easements to preserve undeveloped land. The 38 homes sprinkled amid the open space adopted its name.

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  • SNOW ANGELS TO APPEAR WHEN SKIES TURN WHITE

    Wed, January 18, 2012 by Bill Vogrin with no comments

    Amy Filipiak is watching for the skies to turn white.

    When they do, if all goes according to plans, teams of Snow Angels will emerge to clear sidewalks within at least 1,500 feet of a half dozen schools in the region.

    Filipiak and a group of neighborhood leaders and city officials have spent a year organizing Snow Angels around these elementary schools: Steele, Carver and West in District 11, Pikes Peak in D2, Frontier in D20 and Odyssey in D49.

    Eventually, Filipiak hopes to see similar teams spread to all elementary schools in the Pikes Peak region.

    “We put together a pilot program to see how best to get people to participate,” she said.

    Amy credits the idea to bicycling advocate Al Brody. Both believe snow should never block a child’s path to school so they set about organizing teams of Snow Angels to clear the way.

    Amy Filipiak, leader of the Snow Angel army

    Brody sought out Amy because of her role as volunteer coordinator for the area’s Safe Routes to School program, which program promotes walking and biking to school by building sidewalks and bike paths, training crossing guards, installing bike racks at schools and encouraging students and families to participate.

    Since Congress authorized it in 2005, the program has distributed $612 million in grants to more than 10,400 schools nationwide, covering 4.8 million children.

    Filipiak then approached the city’s traffic engineering department and the Council of Neighbors & Organizations, the umbrella organization for area neighborhood groups.

    CONO president Dave Munger said his folks quickly saw the potential and began contacting neighborhood associations where they might test the idea, such as the Old North End and the Organization of Westside Neighbors.

    “Part of being a good neighbor is making sure kids can get to school safely without slipping and sliding,” Munger said.

    CONO treasurer John Nuwer said the city embraced the idea and printed door hangers to help get the word out to residents within a radius of the six schools in the pilot program.

    “They also printed some nice decals to give people who shovel their sidewalks to let people know you are a Snow Angel,” Nuwer said.

    The program benefits more than just school children, said Vic Appugliese, president of the Old North End group.

    Nobody wants to see Grandma out plowing her own sidewalk.

    “This will help elderly neighbors who can no longer pick up a shovel. It will help us identify those folks and get them help,” he said. “This is a great program. We have a lot of pedestrians in our neighborhood. This is about helping everybody.”

    There’s just one problem.

    It hasn’t snowed enough to trigger the program.

    When it does, the group is ready.

    “We’re hoping a little bit of awareness will get people out to shovel their walks,” Filipiak said.

    Are you ready, Snow Angels? The kids are counting on you! 

    Here's the 1,500-foot radius around Steele Elementary in the Old North End Neighborhood. It's approximately three blocks in every direction. Organizers hope Snow Angels will clear all sidewalks in the zone each time it snows.

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  • REDEVELOPING VACANT HOUSES, BUILDINGS COULD GET BOOST FROM UTILITIES

    Sun, November 20, 2011 by Bill Vogrin with 1 comment

    Chip Landman testifies before the Colorado Springs City Council, sitting in its dual role as the Utilities Board, on Sept. 21, 2011.

    In 2006, Chip Landman bought a dilapidated building out of foreclosure and started making plans to restore it — exactly the kind of “infill” development City Hall has promoted for years.

    Due to the recession, the building sat until 2009 when Landman learned from Colorado Springs Utilities that it would cost him thousands to reconnect the water and sewer services, which had been shut off when the bank took the property back years earlier.

    The huge cost of essentially turning a water valve created what Landman called “a chilling effect on redevelopment of old blighted properties.”

    It seems most of the Colorado Springs City Council agree and will consider slashing fees for restoring utility service based on sweeping changes suggested by Utilities staff.

    Colorado Springs City Council president Scott Hente

    “I’ve heard support for bringing this forward to City Council,” council President Scott Hente told the staff at an Oct. 19 meeting of the council, sitting as the Utilities Board. The council is expected to consider the new fees Dec. 13.

    Besides making it cheaper to redevelop commercial property, the proposed fee reductions would apply to residential properties, which have gone into foreclosure by the thousands.

    For decades, Utilities didn’t charge to restore utilities unless a property sat disconnected five years or longer. At that point it was deemed abandoned and fees imposed.

    In 2006, the codes changed and service was not considered abandoned until 10 years elapsed. Also, Utilities instituted a two-year grace period, after which service restoration fees were imposed. Beginning in 2010, the abandonment period was extended to 20 years.

    Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations

    Under the proposal Utilities proposed, the two-year grace period would grow to five years. And fees would drop. For example, instead of paying about $10,000 to reconnect residential service deemed abandoned, it would be capped at $3,008.

    Savings would be even greater for commercial customers. For a 2-inch meter inactive 10 years, reconnection would drop from about $14,000 to about $4,600. And restoring abandoned service would plunge from the current $116,000 to $14,000.

    The proposed fee reduction is welcome news to neighborhood activist Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors & Organizations. He said he’s heard many complaints about the fees.

    “It’s in everyone’s best interest to figure out ways to encourage infill,” Munger said. “I’m glad to hear Utilities is rethinking its position on reconnection fees.”

    Andrew Knauf stands outside his house on West Pikes Peak Avenue. He turned off the utilities in 1993. When he called to get service reconnected about three months ago, he was told it would cost more than $11,000. He is appealing.

    It’s unclear if the new fees will help Andrew Knauf, who turned off utilities in 1993 to a house he owns on West Pikes Peak Avenue.

    When he tried to restore water and sewer a few months ago, he was told it would cost more than $11,000. He is appealing.

    “We’re talking about turning a valve,” Knauf said. “I can’t afford $11,000.”

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  • FEAR FACTOR CLIMBS IN SPRINGS NEIGHBORHOODS

    Sun, October 9, 2011 by Bill Vogrin with no comments

    Are you afraid in your neighborhood?

    Scared to walk at night?

    What about the daytime?

    A new survey reports that fewer than 50 percent of folks in the Pikes Peak Region feel “very safe” walking their neighborhoods at night!

    The 2011 survey of the Quality of Life Indicators in the Pikes Peak Region released Friday reports the number of people who feel “very safe” walking in their neighborhoods at night has dropped below 50 percent.

    According to the report, 82 percent of people surveyed feel “very safe” or “somewhat safe” strolling their neighborhoods in the day.

    But when night falls, the number drops to just 71 percent. And fewer than half feel “very safe.”

    I was shocked.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m no macho man. Over the years, I’ve been scared, day and night, visiting certain neighborhoods . . . the housing projects in Chicago, the Tenderloin in San Francisco, or any neighborhood in Oakland, East St. Louis and Kansas City, Kan.

    But never have I felt fear in Colorado Springs.

    I know there are neighborhoods here where you can get robbed or shot . . . Briargate, Peregrine, Flying Horse, Broadmoor.

    Let’s face it, any neighborhoods where there are nice cars, fancy homes and money are targets of crime.

    The only fear I’ve felt walking at night in the Springs is from the rare mountain lion or frequent black bear who roam our region. I’ve seen mother bears get pretty aggressive around humans at dusk. I even faced one in my own garage.

    But the survey is talking about fear from humans and that is much different. And it doesn’t seem to matter that the crime rate in the region is 10 points below the national average.

     

    Colorado Springs neighborhood activist Dave Munger and Mayor Steve Bach spoke at a news conference in September 2011.

    So I asked neighborhood guru Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, about the findings.

    “I’m a little concerned,” Munger said, noting that some of the fear may be related to another finding of the survey that showed the city’s police are solving fewer crimes than ever.

    The so-called “crime clearance rate” dropped to 22 percent in 2010 in Colorado Springs and it was 27 percent in El Paso County. In Fountain, the rate was just 23 percent.

    “Unfortunately, I don’t have a great solution for this,” Munger said. “The question is: How do we make sure we are providing a safe environment for all our citizens and good a quality of life for all citizens regardless of their ability to pay for it?”

    On the positive side, he said, the survey showed a growth in the number of neighborhood organizations. There are about 200.

    “That’s a terrific thing,” he said. “Neighborhood and community organizations are where we learn to work together and understand what it means to live and work together. They are basic units of democracy.

    “When a neighborhood is organized and makes decisions to improve the quality of life, it will impact the people in the immediate vicinity in a positive manner.”

    Wonder if those neighborhood groups are good at solving crimes?

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  • SHOOKS RUN AHEAD OF STREETSCAPE CURVE

    Wed, September 28, 2011 by Bill Vogrin with no comments

    Nancy Strong didn’t know she was ahead of the curve when she led an effort to transform a deteriorating piece of abandoned Santa Fe Railway right-of-way in the Shooks Run neighborhood.

    The property, at the southeast corner of El Paso Street and Willamette Avenue, was a bend in the railroad abandoned after the last train passed in 1971.

    Over the years, it had grown weedy and nasty.

    It bothered Nancy, especially because it was across from the Middle Shooks Run Park and adjacent to a Mountain Metro Transit bus stop.

    So after the bus stop was rebuilt last fall to make it handicapped accessible, Nancy was inspired to transform the right-of-way as well.

    She led and public-private effort to rehab an old bend in the railroad and make it an attractive corner that would look good for years with minimal water or weeding.

    The corner of El Paso Street and Willamette Avenue has been transformed by the Middle Shooks Run Neighborhood Association from weeds and dirt into a landscape of trees and shrubs sustainable in our dry climate.

    First, she enlisted her friends in the Middle Shooks Run Neighborhood Association for ideas and help.

    Then she started contacted Metro Transit where she found Bill Bottini, who helped her get approval to redirect $500 the agency planned to use reseeding the area and use the cash for landscaping.

    Nancy turned to area businesses for donations and got donations and discounts on boulders, dirt, landscaping materials, trees, shrubs, flowers and mulch.

    Finally, it was up to neighborhood volunteers to sculpt everything into the streetscape that exists today.

    Long-term, the plants will need little water. Hopefully, they will get by on natural rainfall and snowmelt.

    And the mulch will suppress weed growth to keep the properpty attractive with minimal labor.

    Turns out, Nancy and her neighbors doing the exact kind of public/private project envisioned by Mayor Steve Bach when he announced formation Wednesday of a Streetscapes Solution Team.

    The team will be led by longtime neighborhood activist Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, an umbrella group for the city’s neighborhood associations.

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  • CAN A NEIGHBORHOOD ACTIVIST GET ELECTED MAYOR?

    Sun, January 23, 2011 by Bill Vogrin with 2 comments

    To date, the answer is no. No neighborhood organizer/activist has ever been elected mayor of Colorado Springs.

    The mayor typically is a product of the establishment . . . a banker, attorney, businessman, a leader of a non-profit or some other executive.

    Even as neighborhoods have grown in sophistication, political savvy and influence at City Hall, they have not produced mayoral timber. 

    Sallie Clark

    The most successful product of a grassroots neighborhood movement, Sallie Clark, tried twice to win the mayor’s seat and lost. 

    In 1999, she finished third to incumbent Mary Lou Makepeace and car dealer Will Perkins

    Then in 2003 she again finished a close third behind winner Lionel Rivera and Ted Eastburn.

    Another neighborhood leader who joined her on the council was Margaret Radford.  They were followed by Tom Gallagher.

    In 2004 Clark deepened her political resume when she was elected to the El Paso County Commission.

    Margaret Radford, former neighborhood activist and two-term member of the Colorado Springs City Council

    She’s watching with interest the upcoming race for mayor. That’s because the race includes two men whose roots are in neighborhood organizing like hers: Gallagher and Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, or CONO, the umbrella organization for the city’s neighborhood associations.

    Clark is wondering, like I am, if their backgrounds in neighborhood leadership, will translate into votes for mayor.

    Radford surprised me with her analysis. Having come from a neighborhood organizer/activist background, I expected her to echo the need for our next mayor to have strong neighborhood sensibilities and perhaps roots similar to hers.

    However, Radford said neighborhoods don’t have the corner on leadership training. She urged voters to elect the candidate with the best character, leadlership skills and vision. Interesting.

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