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No zeal to zone

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

This view of the Animas River Valley, a combination of two photos stitched together, shows one of the only areas in La Plata County where traditional zoning is in effect. Despite the downfalls of the compatibility-based land use system applied in the rest of the county, government leaders don’t have their immediate sights set on duplicating Animas Valley-style zoning in other parts of the county.

By Emery Cowan Herald staff writer

The scene at the Board of County Commissioners meeting was a typical one, with a crowd of community members gathered to make their best case for why commissioners should support the project at hand – a dog-training facility on Florida Mesa.

Without a clear set of standards, it was up to commissioners to decide whether the project was compatible with the surrounding area.

In the end commissioners denied the dog-training facility, but property owners Jim and Karen Lewis had already gone through months of meetings with county planners and coordinated inspections of everything from their roads to their water wells.

The process was frustrating, confusing and costly, Karen Lewis said. They didn’t know what really was allowed on their land and had to go off what seemed like ever-changing advice of county planners.

La Plata County’s current compatibility-based land-use system has been the object of a range of criticism over the years and took even more heat during the county commissioner race last year.

The system is inherently subjective and unpredictable, commissioner candidates on both sides of the aisle said.

Yet a month after taking their seats at the dais, the county’s new commissioners and the new planning director say they don’t have their eyes on major changes to the county’s land-use code. After the failure of two major efforts to reform the county’s land-use planning over the past decade, the new county leaders have adopted a view that the current system isn’t as bad as most people say, it just needs sprucing up.

“During the campaign, compatibility was what people pointed to as the problem,” Commissioner Julie Westendorff said. “But after talking to (Planning Director) Damian (Peduto) it’s not compatibility that is the problem ... it’s not the idea of the (land use) code but the way it’s written.”

Like it or hate it, the county’s land-use code is here to stay, at least for now.

‘Behind the curve’

Though it might reflect the right idea, the county’s land-use code needs a lot of edits to get into working order, county leaders said. For the past decade, updates to the current code have languished while the county focused on years-long efforts to reform land use planning, first through attempting to write an entirely new land-use code, and later, trying to create a comprehensive plan that would guide future land-use planning.

“Part of why we didn’t do any real substantive amendments was because we were always anticipating a new code,” said Sheryl Rogers, the county’s attorney. “We’ve been on the cusp of a new code for like a decade.”

In that time, the compatibility-based code, which dates back to at least 1990, became conflicting and outdated, causing much of the county’s land-use struggles today, county officials said.

“I would say La Plata County is a bit behind the curve with regards to our development of land-use regulations,” Commissioner Bobby Lieb said. “A lot of other counties have already implemented a level of zoning that is more sophisticated. We tend to be on the more subjective side of the spectrum.”

According to a survey of Colorado counties conducted by the state Department of Local Affairs, 64 percent of counties use traditional zoning, 16 percent use a development permit or performance zoning approach, 11 percent employ a hybrid approach and 2 percent do not use zoning. La Plata County’s land-use code is based on performance zoning standards, which judge a project based on the impacts it would have to surrounding neighbors.

Gary Suiter, who was the county’s interim planning director for nine months last year, said he was surprised by the county’s approach.

“My perception (from the consulting world) was that La Plata County was a bit more progressive in terms of land-use philosophy and principles,” Suiter said. “Coming and seeing they didn’t have zoning, it raised an eyebrow.”

The politics of land use

Land-use changes are hard in a county with so many different geographies, densities and land uses, Lieb said.

Discussions about implementing more traditional zoning strike a deep fear in people who see it as a threat to private property rights, said Erick Aune, former head of the planning department. Especially in more rural areas of the county where the concept of wealth is more likely to be associated with land than income, the idea of putting restrictions on how land can be used puts many large property owners on the defensive.

County residents are also split in their views about planning priorities. Many of the comprehensive plan’s most vocal opponents argued that infrastructure planning needs to happen before comprehensive planning.

Former County Commissioner Kellie Hotter put it more simply.

“In La Plata County, planning is a blood sport,” she said.

The way forward

The county’s new commissioners are behind the updates that Peduto said are at the root of the biggest problems with the county’s land-use code. Current efforts focus on reforming regulations about accessory dwellings and nonconforming uses and writing new code governing telecommunications.

While Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said the county’s land-use system continues to be problematic, Peduto said it actually works well here because it allows the flexibility to accommodate the county’s diversity.

Peduto said the county could also benefit from elements like overlay zones or planned-unit developments that introduce more traditional zoning to select parts of the county rather than the whole thing.

Looking forward, the county most likely will move toward a higher level of land-use regulation in more developed areas of the county, Lieb said.

“If I were a betting man, I would say that the possibility of that happening sometime in the future is likely,” Lieb said.

That may not be enough to satisfy some.

“The outcry for a more predictable land-use system has risen,” said Nancy Lauro, a planner with Russell Engineering and former director of planning with the county. “Those that want to protect neighborhoods and those that want to change and develop, both sides are saying we’re tired of having to fight every single time.”


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