Citizens' Make Plea To Fountain City Council Regarding Carport Regulations
Last updated 7/31/2019 at 10:37am | View PDF
At the Fountain City Council’s July 23 meeting, the Fountain City Council heard a plea for leniency from residents of Desert Circle in Comanche Junction regarding their carport.
Two ladies, Sherry Orange and her daughter, Susie Miller, explained their neighborhood is comprised of manufactured (modular) homes and due to plot configurations, the setback regulations don’t work. Orange said builders were allowed by the city to build the neighborhood this way. She said, “If it met the code for set back it would be in the house.”
She asked, “Shouldn’t the goal of compliance be toward improving quality of life?”
She explained they need the carport to protect from heat, snow/ice and hail, and explained their carport is well constructed and adds value to the property. She also said it didn’t block neighbors and they were fine with it. They asked the council to consider the special circumstances of how the neighborhood was allowed to be built, in hopes of being allowed to leave their carport as is.
Susie said she lost two cars due to the hail that buried her financially. She said she put up a structure that doesn’t impede the sidewalk, and adds to the beauty and value of her home. She said she is fearful of future storms and said she is pleading to allow for grandfathering and to keep the carport up.
Mayor Gabe Ortega said he knows that neighborhood and the developer was allowed to build differently, (regarding the lots and setbacks.)
Fountain Planning Supervisor Kristy Martinez explained she had spoken with the ladies and shared they could request a variance from the Board of Adjustment. She also said that neighborhood was never intended to have garages.
Mrs. Orange said the cost to apply for the variance is $350 but there is no guarantee of the outcome. “It’s a lot of hoops to jump through after all these steps, there is no guarantee.”
Councilmember Sharon Thompson pointed out that if it’s over utilities easements and they needed to get to them, there is a possibility the carport would have to be torn down.
Mr. Charles Orange joined his wife and daughter and explained that he had attempted to get a permit, but was turned down. He admitted he installed the carport anyway to protect his wife’s 90+ year old parents from hail, sun and more.
“I was told no due to the lot size dimensions,” he reminded. He said the easement behind his house comes in 10 feet so the house is on it. He mentioned a neighbor’s home would be required by code for a 20 foot setback, but the house is about six feet from the sidewalk.
“The builder did whatever they wanted and the carport has been blocking the easement for 20 years, adding he was willing to accept the risk of it having to be torn down (if utilities needed access.)
He also pointed out he was told no about having a double wide carport, but you could have two that are two inches apart. That doesn’t make sense.
“I knew there was no way to reach the setback regulations, there was no way to get the permit.” He later said that since nothing had been enforced about carports for 20 years he felt it was OK to do.
He had concerns about making a variance request because you go before a board of two or three people with no guarantee of the outcome. He thought this involved a $200 fee. Then if it passes, he would have to do the same with El Paso County and pay $350, and then he would have to get the utilities to all sign off as well; all to make sure it’s structurally sound and meets codes.
He added, “It seemed like a long shot to get all those approvals plus time and expenses, so I decided not to do it. My thinking was city council would be considerate of this, especially since codes have not been enforced or applied for 20 years. If so, houses would have to be moved. He said many homes in his area have front doors that don’t face the street either- there are many code violations, carports being the least of them.
Mayor Ortega said it’s a tough thing and this change was intended to allow people to have carports. “As we move forward we look at the past,” he added, “but the intent was to allow people the opportunity to have them. It’s a process and some don’t agree, but we are trying to make it fair and equitable to everyone. As we move forward we have to keep up as best we can with codes, it’s very difficult.”
The mayor said code is one of the most contentious things to deal with as it affects peoples’ property rights.
“Some want the city ultra enforcing code with a hammer for every infraction, while others want to be left alone. We can’t let you get away with this and then next meeting there are 15 more people,” he added. “ I apologize and I’m sorry you are in this situation. We have to find that balance. We want to help people live the life they want on their own property.”
He then suggested taking the variance route, adding he can’t say he would let the residents get away with it.
Mr. Orange then said the county hasn’t enforcement this- it’s been that way for 20 years. What’s next? Are you going to require me to move my house? He then asked, “If we are willing to go through the variance process (and it fails) will council then come and try to help us? He also asked, “what about the spirit of the law.”
Mayor Ortega replied, “you didn’t get a permit first, and put it up anyway.”
Orange reiterated, “It’s been this way 20 years and you are going to require me to move my house?” adding perhaps there is a need for a class action lawsuit although that’s not his intention. He also asked, “so the buck stops with the planning department? Or to code? (not with the city council?),” to which Mayor Ortega replied, “yes it does stop with the code.”
Fountain resident and former city councilmember Patricia St. Louis then addressed council. She said back when this issue was first presented for council consideration she asked the council to take into account the different areas- like larger lots or agricultural areas. She said, “I personally think the city council does have the flexibility. I thought so the night I brought this up.”
She continued, “This gentleman is talking about a whole neighborhood that was built improperly- which was allowed by previous councils and administration. I don’t think they should be penalized because that was allowed. They want safety for their cars and their well being. I think council can consider this, perhaps this neighborhood or others if built inappropriately. I don’t think that should be on the citizens. Council does have the power and as one who used to sit up there, we dealt with a lot of things and I was always most proud when council really listened to citizens and tried to take their concerns to heart, and not just follow paper rules.”
She said that while the rules and codes are there, back where there were issues with code enforcement and people were complaining they were looking in backyards, etc., the council at that time decided they didn’t want that and changed it so code enforcement is reactive not proactive.
She said, “I feel you do have the power to consider this. You guys are the final say.”
Councilmember Thompson then mentioned, “we are being asked to grandfather something in that goes for the life of the property, not the property owners,” to which St. Louis replied, “I don’t think those properties are going to be rebuilt or changed.” Thompson said she understood this and she gets it.
St. Louis continued, “its not their fault the city leaders before you guys, and before all of us, let that happen 20 years ago. I think you as city leaders have the opportunity right now to step in and do what’s right since it wasn’t done then.”
Mayor Ortega then asked, “the bigger question is when does it stop? Because then there will be another group that comes in…” St. Louis replied, If the city allowed bad building and development plans… to which Ortega interjected, “so we just throw everything out?”
St. Louis said most developments in town are probably compliant with how things should be built. “If it takes looking at more situations I personally think council should do that. You were elected by the people to represent the people, not the code book per se.”
She concluded, “Yeah, a lot of people might want the code followed, but I think you really need to consider individuals and their lives and how you affect them with your decisions. Thank you.”
Thompson then stated she had not received any emails about carports and while she saw things on social media she doesn’t respond to them. Her email is [email protected] and she would be happy to have discussions or meetings with anyone who writes to her about this.
After St. Louis left the podium Mayor Ortega said, “Are you going to come up or just stand there?” speaking to long-time resident and community activist Fran Carrick who was standing near the windows. As she then approached the podium, he added, “‘cause we need to get moving on and have two others for public comment.”
Carrick told the council, “This is a big deal. They are approaching 100 years of age and facing costs of $500 to $600 or more to get approved. She said she doesn’t know their financial situation, but agreed council or planning can make adjustments.”
Mayor Ortega replied, “They can. But I go back to my first statement, they didn’t follow the rules in the first place. But we are supposed to have a sympathetic ear?”
Carrick replied, “this is 20 years old or more, yes you should.”
Councilmember Sam Gieck asked, “what about the people who did it the right way?” to which she replied, “Good for them.” She also asked Gieck not to scowl at her.
Carrick said for a lot of people it is about survival.
Earlier in the meeting Councilmember Sharon Thompson did express she would like to send a letter from the council to the Board of Directors of Regional Building regarding Fountain’s situation. Letters were sent to carport owners explaining if they hadn’t previously obtained permits (if necessary) they would need to do so. Thompson said regarding carport compliance she hopes that Regional would reduce or waive fees on a short term basis so that Fountain residents could come into compliance.
Mayor Pro Tem Phil Thomas said that while they may say we should do this for all of El Paso County if we do it for Fountain, why not try it?
Councilmember Sam Gieck asked, “for how long?”
Thompson replied the city of Fountain’s letter sent to residents indicated they have nine months to come into compliance.
Mayor Ortega said his only concern is how to determine the shortness of it.
Thompson stated there were 150 letters mailed out to anyone with a carport, adding “We are just asking for this since they made so much from the hail damage here.”
After Two Years of Trying, Old Dominion Freight Lines Cancels Project in Fountain
Also during the meeting, long-time area developer Audrey Beckett addressed the council. She said for two years now she has been working on getting approval on one of her properties along Bandley Drive for a new Old Dominion Freight Lines trucking terminal.
“We got a cancellation letter from them last month,” she shared, explaining the reason they cancelled is because of the on going challenges and finally- a request for light poles to be set at 40 feet (in the parking lot/truck maneuvering area) was turned down because the planning department said they could not be higher than 25 feet.
She also explained the planning department review included 17 pages of comments and concerns. She said with the additional substantial review it could be another year and Old Dominion was not willing to put more time and money into this.
“I am sad for me and the city of Fountain,” she stated, adding it was a six million dollar project that would have brought jobs and property tax revenue, and would have given a good look to Bandley Drive. They were also going to finish widening of Bandley for all of Section 3.
She expressed concerns this might be a trend, pointing out that in June, 2016 she had brought a project for a plant that builds utility trailers and spent over a year with the planning department. She said there were complications with it too, for example the site would have contained trailers for sale, but if they were parked on a gravel lot they would be considered “storage” which is limited. They were urged to pave the whole lot, but then it would make it impervious surface and require a larger detention facility.
That deal cratered after a year, she said.
Beckett asked the city to give the planning department more flexibility, especially when the answer isn’t in the code book. She said she felt the Board of Adjustment was made of good-meaning people but they are not experienced in these issues. She felt the city should defer to the experts- the planning department. She asked the council to look into the department and how they do things. She said some of these issues shouldn’t need (to be brought before) the council. She said the city has a good planning commission and felt they should be enough. She also stated a facility in Denver allowed for 40 foot light poles. She also pointed out Fountain doesn’t have other trucking terminals in the city.
Beckett also stated, regarding the platting process, she was not able to run more than one development plan concurrently, saying the planning department refused to until her first plans were approved. They couldn’t be considered concurrently. She said if they say they don’t have the staff (to handle it) consider $600,000 in engineering and $200,000 with Old Dominion, adding the code book has no latitude in the planning department.
Deputy City Manager Todd Evans said he has no qualms about making administrative decisions that are set in place and there is citizen oversight, however he would like more flexibility. He said he understands why the citizen oversite option is there. He also said it has to be a fair and equitable process for everyone so no one is left behind. He said there is a lot of value in having checks and balances.
Planning Commissioner Gordon Rick then explained to everyone that just that day, staff had posted a link on the city’s website that the city is re-doing the zoning ordinance, having an expert rewrite it. He added if you see changes or something that needs to change mention it. Take advantage of this.”
Mayor Ortega said it’s not easy, and referenced a comment previously made by Councilmember Greg Lauer about most of the time 50% of the people will be happy and 50% wont. He then referred to a comment from a lady (about the city considering going with a one-hauler trash pick up system) that this is a dictatorship. “I told her you can still use your own (trash company.) He said there is a trash company being critical of the citizens’ group that brought forward this idea, adding they have nothing better to do?
He said the citizen volunteers don’t get paid to work on city business. And he added, “Neither do I. “
He continued, “Fact of matter, I’m trying to make a difference because I love this community. This takes time from my life with my family but I am committed to this community. I strongly believe we are working for the betterment of the community.” He then added, “there are seats (on council) open this fall. I urge people who want to give back to give it a shot but it’s not for the lighthearted.”
In concluding the meeting, during staff members’ time, Deputy City Manager Evans said thanks to the councilmembers who were at the recent meeting about the one-hauler trash system. He said it was the sixth meeting (as some were held in the three zones that were created) and said there was good feedback from both sides.
“We are still fact gathering. Part of our job is bringing new ideas to look at,” he said.
(Editor’s Note: a story about the meeting Evans was referring to will be included in next week’s issue. Space limitations caused it to be delayed until next week.)
Request to Place Sales Tax Increase on Ballot Delayed
* An agenda item related to approving placing a sales tax increase measure on the Nov. 5 ballot was postponed until the next council meeting on August 13.