SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
After two hours of testimony and debate Monday, the Durango Planning Commission voted 3-2 to recommend that a historic assay house, which was built in 1898 to assess the value of ore from local mines, to stay in the business of evaluating assets, this time as an office for a growing financial firm called Swan Wealth Advisors.
Opponents, which included city staff members and the Third Avenue Boulevard Association, had called the building’s origins irrelevant to their objective of protecting East Third Avenue as a historic residential neighborhood and avoid setting a precedent for allowing more homes to turn into commercial properties.
“If we start allowing a variance for everyone who requests one, then it will eventually become a business district instead of a residential street,” stated a letter from Maxine and Carroll Peterson to the city.
This is the fear commonly known as commercial creep, but an argument was also made that the assay house was a victim of residential creep.
Durango did not get zoning laws until 1948. The assay house, which is at the very southern end of East Third Avenue near hotels and the railroad, was then zoned for industrial use.
When the neighborhood was rezoned as residential in 1986, its owner then supported the rezone, said a city staff member.
Later owners, however, had difficulty selling the brick house because of its noisy location near the railroad and U.S. Highway 550/160.
Swan Wealth Advisors acquired the property in 2010 for its stunning views of the Animas River. The picturesque location would help to impress wealthy clientele who fly into Durango on private jets.
Because they work in the high-stress business of options trading, they liked the privacy of a house where they can unwind with a gym and a basketball hoop in the driveway, said representatives and staff who spoke Monday.
Randy Swan, the principal, said he thought he was complying with the special-use permit for a residential business because he considered his office as a second home, even welcoming out-of-town relatives to stay there. His primary house is on County Road 206.
Karen Anesi of the Boulevard Association, who also is a freelance food writer for The Durango Herald, paid the firm a visit after the Herald published a story about the firm’s success, reporting that it manages $150 million for clients.
Anesi then complained to the city that the firm was no longer a residential business but a commercial office.
In particular, the firm violated a condition of its permit that it could not have more than two employees at the house. The firm added its sixth employee last summer.
“I’m not a financial adviser, but I know the difference between one and six employees,” Anesi said.
The firm then applied for a conditional-use permit to continue to use the building, agreeing to see only one client per week at the office, to keep limited business hours between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. and getting permission to use the parking lot at the Best Western hotel behind their building.
The firm also got support of neighbors who live closest as well as the backing of the Durango Chamber of Commerce. The La Plata Economic Alliance, which is neutral on the issue of the conditional-use permit, did a report on the firm’s economic impact at Swan’s request, estimating its business indirectly supports 10 jobs in the community.
Planning Commissioner Joe Lewandowski was troubled that the firm seemed to be “asking for forgiveness instead of permission,” but he and Commissioners Ronald Meier and Jan Derck voted for the conditional-use permit because of the building’s out-of-way location and other circumstances.
Planning Commissioners Steve Eccher and Peter Tregillus voted against the permit.
The debate continues because the City Council must ultimately approve the permit. It will host a public hearing Feb. 19.