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Colorado Springs Council greenlights Utilities' controversial water tank

Posted at 8:34 PM, Nov 14, 2023

Colorado Springs Utilities prevailed in the David versus Goliath controversy that has stewed in Northwest Colorado Springs since the summer. On Tuesday evening, Council members voted to overturn an earlier decision, effectively allowing Utilities to complete its construction of the Wilson Water Tank.

The tank, built above the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, was erected 15 feet higher than its approved plans in large part to a 20-foot dome that tops the structure. For months, neighbors have been raising concerns over whether Utilities side-stepped the city's planning and building processes, and lied to them in the process.

The decision over the fate of the project fell to the council after Utilities appealed the Planning Commission's decision last month to reject its request to modify the height of its development plan. Colorado Springs Utilities’ representative Lisa Barbato told the council that the planning commission was wrong in that decision. 

In a presentation ahead of public comment at City Hall, Barbato argued the project adhered to the city code which requires among three other criteria that there be no adverse impact on the public.

"We don’t believe an increase in height creates more of an adverse impact on properties. The walls are still going to need to be 36 feet tall. The roof is domed so only really the center is 60 feet high,” Barbato said.

She acknowledged the utility took a misstep in failing to update its development plan and request a modification earlier.

City Planner Bill Gray told the council that his office erred in approving Utilities' plan. Barbato affirmed for council members that approved plan then went through Regional Building which issued a building permit for 60 feet. Council members were reminded of city employee's errors multiple times throughout Utilities' presentation.

However, an attorney representing neighbor Lawrence Starr explained to the council that per city code, the fact that the building permit was issued in error means that it is voided.

Nine community members gave up their time to Starr to speak to the council as a neighborhood representative. Starr rebuilt his home after the Waldo Canyon fire, which now sits directly behind the 60-foot water tank. He laid out the timeline of communication from Colorado Springs Utilities and explained the complicated series of events that led to this decision.

“There were lots of mistakes in getting to a 60-foot tank that literally showed up on our doorstep,” Starr said.

More than a dozen neighbors from the Mountain Shadows Community and the owners of the Flying W Ranch, Gerald Thurston and Leigh Ann Wolfe also offered comments.

"You can't just build a tank 45 percent higher than you were given! It makes a mockery of the planning department and every single one of you up there," Wolfe said pointing to the council.

Two council members were not present - Mike O'Malley was absent and Dave Donelson recused himself from the vote, vaguely citing conversations he may have had that could affect his vote, though he made clear that he told his constituents in the Mountain Shadows community he couldn't speak about the issue.

Ahead of the 5-2 vote to overturn the planning commission's decision denying Utilities' appeal to amend its permit, Councilmember Dave Leinweber noted the cost of any adjustments to the project as a reason he wanted to move forward. Neighbors predicted that.

"They’re going to tell you it's going to be $4 million. It's going to be $4 million because they didn’t stop and listen to the homeowner. That was pretty darn egregious to me," said Genevieve Gustovson, referencing Starr who alerted Utilities to the height discrepancy in late June 2023.

Utilities' Barbato underscored the importance of the tank to the western side of the city, providing them with drinking water and necessary fire mitigation. She explained that a domed tank was the "best choice for our customers," and noted that moving the tank location was not feasible given the pump and other infrastructure at the site.

Barbato reassured councilmembers that it has identified improvements Utilities can make going forward, including training its project managers in land use issues rather than relying on contractors, and improving its communication with the public and city planners.

"We need to make sure we're working together on this and we're not missing anything in the process," Barbato said.

The council made no mention of what the next steps might be in the process, nor is there any word about whether neighbors intend to file suit. With an amended permit to continue work, Utilities plans to do just that and finalize the Wilson Water Tank project in the next few months.

Editor's Note: This story has been changed to reflect the fact that Utilities acknowledged it failed to update its development plan.

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