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Tanking Trust: Multiple errors led to too tall tank

Internal city documents uncover a 60-foot tall water tank was always the plan
Water Tank Modification
Posted at 5:01 PM, Sep 25, 2023

Months after Colorado Springs Utilities constructed a water tank 15 feet higher than its city permit allowed, internal documents are shedding light on oversight errors made by multiple agencies that led to the oversized controversy.

Neighbors who live around the new 60-foot tall Wilson Water Tank raised concerns that the construction of the tank was out of compliance with its permit to build the tank 45 feet tall. Their concerns have grown to anger as the work continues.

Internal city documents reveal the height discrepancy between the planned and the permitted height of the Wilson Water Tank is a result of multiple oversight errors made by city and utility employees. And now they're working with the engineering firm hired to build the tank to come up with a solution.

When the owner of the Flying W Ranch, Leigh Ann Wolfe, realized the water tank on the edge of her property was taller than the tank it was replacing, she called and emailed her concerns to Colorado Springs Utilities. Internal documents show a handful of neighbors did the same. Wolfe says they were ignored.

"We said this isn’t right, stop this, you cannot do this! They didn’t care ... they plowed ahead," she said.

Wolfe's grandfather sold Utilities the parcel of land where the tanks sit in 1957 for $2,719.50, according to city documents, knowing the agency planned to build a water tank and pump to serve the growing Mountain Shadows community. The tank, erected in 1966, holds five million gallons and stands 40 feet high.

Neighbors say Utilities representatives told them in public meetings that the new tank would be its twin. Utility representatives told neighbors a new tank was needed because the older one, assessed by the city in 2019, was corroded and its outdated design meant it could not prevent bacteria and algae growth inside the tank.

An initial development plan was put forward by Kimley-Horn in July 2021 and Utilities applied for a permit for the project that was approved in June of the following year by city zoning and engineering, setting the maximum height at 45 feet, according to city documents. City documents show the "tank elevation showed an approximate height because final engineering was not complete with a review of the development plan."

Despite that, a building permit was issued for the public facilities-zoned land for a height of 45 feet on May 5, 2023, according to city documents. Then the city's Development Review Enterprise signed off on the height as part of the land use permit.

But when panels of the new domed tank were raised into place in early June, it was clear to neighbors it would be taller — and larger — than the older tank beside it, though it holds the same amount of water.

Internal city correspondence about the water tank obtained through an open records request includes the plans submitted by engineering firm Kimley-Horn, which has a multi-million dollar contract with Colorado Springs to build the tank.

"When they selected the contractor, they then signed a contract for in excess of $7 million to build the tank that the contractor proposed to build ... Well, the plans and specifications for the tank showed a 60-foot high tank. And so somebody at CSU knew that they were signing a contract for over $7 million for a tank that was 60 feet high," said Bruce Wright an attorney who specializes in land use, real estate, and development projects.

It's unclear why CSU chose to apply for a permit for 45 feet when the documentation and engineering plans show a design likely taller than that.

However, Wright who represents Leigh Ann Wolfe, does not believe the errors were intentional.

"No, I don't. I think the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing and it should have," Wright told News 5.

City documents also reveal through an email sent by Kimley-Horn civil engineer Makenzie Chesak to senior planner Bill Gray reveal that when the firm submitted its developmental plan, "We didn't have a tank designer on board."

News 5 reached out to Kimley-Horn for an interview and to ask questions about its role in the height discrepancy. The firm said it was unable to comment.

The documents show the city learned of the tank's height in June. “Water tank height confirmed to be to [sic] tall upon city staff review," reads one city document.

Lawrence Starr says he is the person who drew the city's attention to the height discrepancy. He is perhaps the person most impacted by the concrete tank that sits just steps from his back patio.

"So it was right around the beginning of June that I saw the scaffolding go that high. And I questioned their community outreach person and I said, that looks higher than what I was told it was going to be," Wright said.

A series of emails exchanged between the city, utilities, and the engineering firm from late June through mid-July reference multiple meetings where the parties attempted to decide what to do about the water tank height.

In an email dated June 28 sent by Mackenzie Chesak of Kimley-Horn to Utilities project manager Bryan Gimble, she outlines the options:

Number one, “Do nothing. The planning department should have caught the difference and had us update the developmental plan during the building permit process or deny the permit altogether. Since it was approved in error, this would be on planning.”

Number two was to make an administrative code change.

Number three, she suggests the city could issue a minor modification, “to reconcile the height discrepancy between the developmental plan and approved structural drawings without a public hearing.”

They chose option three, as News 5 previously reported, Colorado Springs Utilities posted a major modification notice to neighbors stating the height of the tank would be 60 feet, rather than 45 acknowledging shortly after in a press release, “We regret the height wasn’t accurately communicated.”

The city then issued a stop-work order on the project, which Utilities appealed, allowing them to continue work until a decision was made, per city code.

At the time of its appeal, Colorado Springs Utilities issued a release saying in part, that it " feels it is in the best interest of its customers to avoid costly delays and complete construction." It adds that it is, "committed to following the amended development plan and appeals process."

Starr knows partial demolition likely won’t happen, but that extra 15 feet has done far more than block his view, it has vastly diminished his property value and his attempt to reclaim his peace at home following the Waldo Canyon Fire.

“I want them to come back to the table. I want them to say that they messed up. I want them to agree that they've injured our neighborhood and I want them to take responsibility for it and then do something to mitigate or abate that injury," Starr said.

In response to a request for an interview about what led to the height discrepancy between the project development plan and the permit, the city sent this statement.

It reads in part, "This project went through a normal development process; however, during construction of the tank, a discrepancy regarding the height of the tank listed on the development plan and the building permit issued for construction was identified. Since that time, Utilities has submitted an amendment to City Planning regarding the height of the water tank as well as an appeal to a stop-work order. The next step in the process is for the City Planning Commission to consider both items. It will do so during its next regular meeting on Oct. 11, 2023. The Planning Commission decision is final action unless appealed to City Council."

If a private developer had discovered a discrepancy between the development plan and the permit for a project, Wright said he has seen the city require partial demolition.

"In my experience, any private developer who did this would be told, 'Tear it down. Adhere to what was approved by the planning department,'" Wright said.

He pointed out that if the city does not take 15 feet off the tank, "it kind of smacks of a double standard".

Colorado Springs Utilities said in a release earlier this month, it has spent $3.42 million constructing the tank. Utilities notes the project was under $3 million before it claims it learned the building permit was "erroneously" approved.

It also said, Utilities is "committed" to following the amended development plan and appeals process "to ensure alignment between the development plan for the tank and the building permit."

Neither Springs Utilities nor the city would go on-camera for an interview for this story.

Access the internal city documents here.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story indicated Kimley-Horn did not respond to our request for comment.

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