Years in the making, a new land-use code for La Plata County is on track to be adopted Sept. 15, but what exactly is in the set of regulations that residents should know about?
County officials maintain the current land-use code is the No. 1 source of complaints they receive.
For developers, there’s no clear guidance on standards, and they can sink thousands of dollars into projects on the front end for things like engineering studies with no guarantee a project will be ultimately approved.
And for residents, there’s no assurance about what sorts of projects and developments could be built in their neighborhoods, which can rear its head when someone proposes a project that others consider out of character with an area.
After years of trying to revise the codes, which haven’t been seriously overhauled since the 1980s, it appears an update is imminent. The Durango Herald spoke with La Plata County spokeswoman Megan Graham about what is new in the codes.
It’s not a revolutionary advancement, Graham said, but the new set of codes will include what the old one did not: a simple table of contents. One of the goals of the code rewrite was to make it user-friendly, and this was a no-brainer first step.
“Right now, you just have to randomly go through it and hope you can find what you’re looking for,” Graham said. “So this alone is a big deal.”
And, astonishingly, the old codes did not have page numbers. The new one will, Graham said.
La Plata County’s “performance-based zoning” has required developers to go through a time-intensive and expensive process at the beginning of a proposed project for things like water, traffic and engineering studies.
A developer, however, can invest significant amounts of time and money only to be told at a later stage the project is incompatible with the area for which it was proposed.
With the new code, the county is introducing the concept of a “sketch review,” in which the general basics of the project are presented and neighborhood compatibility is determined from the outset.
“It’s not a full approval, but it’s a sort of green light to proceed as opposed to doing all those studies and being told no,” Graham said.
The new codes introduce the concept of an “economic development area,” in which an area that makes sense for more dense growth is identified, and projects in that zone can be approved quickly under administrative review.
The concept is based on Gem Village, just west of Bayfield.
The code doesn’t designate any economic development areas, Graham said, but sets up a process for the public to nominate an area, which would kick off an extensive public review with county commissioners ultimately voting on it.
Making a living solely on agriculture is increasingly challenging, Graham said, so the county developed the idea of “Ag-plus,” a permitting process that allows landowners to more easily diversify uses on their property.
Now, a farmer or rancher can start a variety of uses on their land – like a bed and breakfast, farm equipment sales, storage units and child care centers – through a quick and easy administrative review.
County officials also wanted to make it easier to fast-track smaller, low-impact projects.
Under the new codes, more projects that qualify can breeze through an administrative review, rather than going before multiple meetings with the Planning Commission or the Board of County Commissioners.
And the amount of public hearings were reduced for some other types of projects. Minor subdivisions, for example, used to be required to go before two Planning Commission meetings and one county commission meeting.
Now, it is one Planning Commission meeting.
As it stands, when a project is proposed, it is incumbent upon the applicant to notify nearby neighbors, having to get the list from the county and do all the mailing.
Under the new code, the county will take on that responsibility. The radius depends on the project, but the minimum area of notification will be 500 feet, and it could be wider if it is a more impactful development.
“It’s something we know how to do, and it’s easy enough for us to do it,” Graham said. “And it’s one more step off the applicant.”
Graham said the new code allows residents in different parts of the county to set up “registered district advisory committees” to review proposed projects in their neighborhood and weigh in.
Multiple groups can form in a neighborhood, but they must register with the county. Then, they’ll be notified any time a project is proposed and be kept in the loop.
“It’s very useful input for the planning department because they know their districts well,” Graham said.
The county is reintroducing “planned unit developments” with the new code – a process where a large, master plan is approved for a development just one time for multiple phases of projects.
Think developments the size of Purgatory’s Durango Mountain Resort or Edgemont Ranch.
“This way the developer doesn’t have to come back all the time for the next phase,” Graham said.
The old code does not do a good job of articulating development standards, Graham said, largely because the code speaks to only rural-residential subdivisions.
“It doesn’t contemplate many other uses or articulate standards for them,” she said. “So bed and breakfasts, gravel pits, marijuana facilities – standards had to be developed for every project, which is difficult on staff members and the applicant. It’s hard to be consistent if there’s no code to point to.”
The new codes feature general, applicable standards developers can use to identify what is required of them.
Having clear definitions on development terms like “performance-based zoning” or “compatibility” can make or break a code, Graham said. So, county staff members put a lot of time and energy into making those terms consistent.
“It improves the user experience and makes navigating the process as clear as can be,” she said.