Change marked year at city, county levels

As 2102 draws to a close, there are a few sighs of relief we can collectively enjoy, the most notable being that we are still here to look back – and forward – at the year behind us and the one to come. Locally, 2012 has been one of change – of leadership and of priorities – more often than not in response to new or even long-standing goals born from the shared values of the community.

The city of Durango has had a busy 2012, in part because the Durango City Council has had before it a full agenda with the Land Use and Development Code update – a project that is long overdue and no small undertaking. In that effort, the council is considering some significant and somewhat controversial changes, including allowing accessory dwelling units for some houses in some neighborhoods. While that proposal may make sense for those with large enough lots to accommodate the units, there are a number of neighborhood impacts – such as parking and crowding – that make the plan difficult for some to embrace. The conversation will continue into 2013 as the Land Use Code revision is finalized.

Meanwhile, the council has considered a series of somewhat progressive policy change proposals that have each drawn controversy. A proposed ban on plastic bags distributed free by local merchants gained momentum in 2012, with a task force studying the proposal. The City Council has yet to take action on it, but the level of discussion surrounding the bag ban was endemic of the discourse at the city this year.

For example, the city adopted a ban on smoking in public outdoor spaces, including parks and the Animas River Trail, at the urging of a coalition of advocates concerned about air quality and public health. That ban exempted Hillcrest Golf Course as well as outdoor patios where smoking is currently allowed. Also, the council took up a proposal to “organically manage” the city’s parks – a discussion prompted by a petition that could have placed the proposal on a citywide ballot for voter input. While the city balked at the notion of fully transitioning to the proponents’ plan, it acquiesced by hiring a consultant to study ways it could reduce chemical use in the parks. That was a $36,000 investment – a bit steep for a year in which coffers everywhere were pinched and rates for basic city services were on the table for increase. Nevertheless, the council’s decision is indicative of an engaged and responsive group of leaders concerned with the evolving issues in their community.

That ethic was demonstrated tangibly with the completion of the last missing link on the Animas River Trail behind the Durango Mall. The segment’s opening transformed the trail into a continuous seven-mile ribbon of pavement along the Animas River where pedestrians and cyclists can enjoy a vehicle-free journey through town’s corridor. That completion is significant, and the city deserves congratulations for the accomplishment. Jack Turner’s Durango Connect event commemorated the significance – it was a community gathering in every sense.

The 2012 county story is also full of big changes, but too often they were born of contention. The La Plata County Board of Commissioners was tasked with replacing two critical members of the staff: the county manager and the planning director. These hires were necessary after the positions became vacant in late 2011, owed at least in part to the implosion of the county’s comprehensive planning effort. Fortunately, the hiring processes appear to have been thorough and qualified applicants have been chosen for the posts. This all took place at a time when development was relatively quiet in the county – a blessing at a time of such uncertainty.

These factors, though, certainly contributed to an even more fundamental change in the county, brought about on Election Day when incumbent Commissioner Kellie Hotter narrowly lost her seat to Gwen Lachelt, who was an energetic campaigner and a vocal critic of the comprehensive plan’s failure. The change is likely to be significant in 2013.

There is no question that 2012 has been a year of achievement and shift – across the country to some degree, but locally at particularly high levels. In Monday’s editorial, we will examine how that was demonstrated in terms of culture and the local economy.