Looking back: Fire shapes Cassiani’s HBA presidency

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John Cassiani’s term as HBA president took a dramatic turn when the fire struck in late June.

From the beginning, John Cassiani’s term as president of the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs was eventful. His year started amid intense negotiations with Colorado Springs Utilities to keep residential tap fees from climbing and to reduce commercial tap fees.

That negotiation could have been the defining action of his presidency — if not for the Waldo Canyon fire.

“My proudest moment was the way we jumped right in,” Cassiani said.

The organization didn’t waste any time getting information to members or homeowners. HBA organized information sessions and expert panels immediately. The organization also focused heavily on promoting trusted local contractors, most of whom were HBA members or had been members in the past.

Companies from out of state swooped in to pick up the business and tried to join the HBA in order to gain credibility.

“As a board, we voted not to accept new members,” Cassiani said.

That was a big gesture for an organization that survives on membership dues. But Cassiani said they believed it was important to support existing members and promote local contractors that the families who lost their homes or needed repairs could trust.

It proved to be a good move. Contractors, builders and others were happy with the support they got from the HBA, Cassiani said. He heard of some who had been thinking about bowing out of the organization and saving the dues — but decided to stay with the HBA because of the positive response after the fire. In fact, about 40 or 50 previous members returned to the organization, Cassiani said.

While Cassiani said he can’t take credit for it, 2012 was a good year for Colorado Springs builders and homeowners with more new construction and an improving economy.

Cassiani took some time to talk with the CSBJ about his year as HBA president.

CSBJ: What was the HBA’s role in the aftermath of the Waldo Canyon fire?

JC: Our most important role was to get information to the people who lost their homes in the fire and information to our members on how best to respond to these families to help them rebuild their lives and their homes.

Because of this unprecedented devastating fire event, we were all learning day by day of what to do, but we knew that HBA had to be proactive in helping the families who lost their homes. Our staff, led by Renee Zentz (CEO), spent the first few days after the fire at the Disaster Recovery Center talking with families who had lost their homes. What we found out was that everyone had questions of what they should do first — where to live, how to handle their insurance questions, how to clean up the debris and how to rebuild.

HBA, a few days after the fire, restructured our website with information on rebuilding our community and giving lists of our members that the families could turn to to receive good information and services.

We mailed out flyers with the same information to everyone in Mountain Shadows, Peregrine and Rockrimmon, since we knew people would still be able to pick up their mail even if they did not have access to a computer.

HBA held several meetings for our members as well as the families who lost their homes, with panel experts who could answer most of their questions. We also brought in CARe Inc. (Community Assisting Recovery), a California non-profit that travels by request to fire-damaged areas to answer questions about insurance. We were a key member of Colorado Springs Together, which helped with the debris removal, and worked closely with City Zoning, Regional Building, and Colorado Springs Utilities to resolve issues to allow families to rebuild as soon as possible.

CSBJ: How did the Waldo Canyon fire shape or define your year as the HBA president?

JC: The fire focused attention on HBA and how it would help Mountain Shadows rebuild. With all the questions and attention HBA was receiving during the aftermath of the fire, I, as spokesman for HBA, had the opportunity to share the HBA story of how we were helping the Waldo Canyon fire families with our community as well as media from Colorado Springs and Denver.

HBA was thrust into the leadership role of helping to rebuild Mountain Shadows and we embraced that role in order to help the families who had lost their homes. Many people asked how we in Colorado Springs were so successful in responding as quickly as we did in helping the families. It was due to a concentrated effort from the city, Utilities, Regional Building, Colorado Springs Together, and HBA working together that made it happen.

CSBJ: Aside from the fire response, what do believe were the HBA’s three biggest accomplishments this year?

JC: Negotiating with Colorado Springs Utilities to keep the residential single-family home water tap fee from increasing from $9,292 to $19,000 during the next five years and to reduce the cost of the commercial water tap fees.

Working with the El Paso County staff and commissioners to develop and enact a Road Impact Fee Program for all new development in unincorporated El Paso County, which requires all developers and builders to pay their fair share for roadway construction.

Working with the Colorado Springs Fire Department to develop new fire codes in the aftermath of the Waldo Canyon fire for new construction in Mountain Shadows and the Hillside Overlay Zone.

CSBJ: What significance will the HBA’s tap fee negotiation with Colorado Springs Utilities have for builders and developers?

JC: With the new housing industry rebounding in 2012 — with more than a 50 percent increase from 2011 in new single family building permits — what the industry didn’t need was a significant water tap fee increase, which would increase the base price of a new house. This successful negotiation with Colorado Springs Utilities allowed our industry to remain competitive with new housing in El Paso County.

CSBJ: What should HBA members look forward to in 2013?

JC: HBA expects the local housing industry to continue to improve, with the caveat of the fiscal cliff possibly causing some loss of consumer confidence. There is a pent-up demand from potential homebuyers, and with the low interest rates and competitive prices, our industry should continue to do well in 2013. We expect more than 100 new building permits in Mountain Shadows in 2013.

One key issue which HBA will be working on in 2013 is stormwater. Colorado Springs and surrounding communities have old, deteriorating stormwater infrastructure, and with the doing away of the city’s stormwater enterprise, there are capital requirements with very little revenue to fix these problems. This is exacerbated with the potential flooding conditions caused by the Waldo Canyon fire. Also, there is an important City Council election in April where six Council seats are in play. The HBA political action committee is interviewing all the candidates and will be making recommendations of the candidates to our members.

CSBJ: What’s next for you?

JC: After running the development operations for Banning Lewis Ranch for the last seven years, taking it from a raw parcel of ground to a residential community, and with the sale of the property to MREC/Oakwood Homes and Ultra Petroleum, I decided to form my own real estate consulting and brokerage company. I will continue to be involved with the HBA as immediate past president and will be heading up the HBA stormwater committee. I also plan to take more time off to travel with my wife and spend more time with my four grandchildren.