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After much deliberation, La Plata County Planning makes recommendations on gas and oil regulations

Commissioners vote to recommend draft code with modifications
County Attorney Sheryl Rogers and Assistant County Attorney Ashley Powell, seated at the table, worked with the Planning Commission Thursday night to draft recommendations to accompany the chapter 90 code revisions. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

The La Plata County Planning Commission voted unanimously late Thursday to recommend adoption of proposed gas and oil regulations with eight additional considerations.

It was the fourth consecutive meeting of the Planning Commission at which the body had considered the matter.

The Planning Commission is asking the Board of County Commissioners, among other things, to consider whether restrictions that surpass recently adopted state regulations are necessary. Setbacks – the distance that gas and oil infrastructure must be located from other developments – were the topic of five of the eight considerations.

The Planning Commission indicated it does not approve of a mandatory 500-foot setback from property lines or residential, commercial and industrial buildings. It suggested the county follow the less stringent state regulations, which allow for minimum distances to be waived if all parties consent.

According to state regulations, gas and oil infrastructure can be located closer than 500 feet to occupied buildings with the informed consent of the occupants.

La Plata County versus COGCC setbacks
La Plata County setback COGCC setback
Surface property line500 feet 150 feet
Commercial or industrial buildings 500 feet No rule
Residential building units and high occupancy building500 feet Zero to 2,000 feet
Reciprocal setbacks from other oil and gas facilities500 feet No rule
Pipelines50 feet No rule

Chairwoman Geri Malandra closed public comment at the March 9 meeting, meaning the public did not speak on the matter Thursday night. The commission heard many hours of public comment from those opposed and in favor of the proposed regulations at the previous two meetings.

Commissioners had expressed some concerns, confusion and a desire for more information at the conclusion of the Feb. 23 and March 9 meetings. To afford the commissioners the opportunity to ask questions of county staff and talk among themselves, the Planning Commission went into a 1 hour and 45 minute work session following votes on two unrelated agenda items.

“We anticipate that the board will take action on this this evening,” County Manager Chuck Stevens told the commissioners as he introduced the topic, teeing up the commissioners to vote.

The format provided the opportunity for a more vibrant discussion to occur between the commissioners and the county staff responsible for drafting the code’s language.

At the outset of the work session, County Attorney Sheryl Rogers presented the Planning Commission with a seven-page memorandum in which she outlined a response to a number of issues that had been brought to light during public comment and highlighted by planning commissioners.

Chairwoman Geri Malandra, left, and Clark Craig sit on the La Plata County Planning Commission listening to public comment at a March 9 meeting. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald file)

The memo also included a so-called “red line” draft of certain sections of the code with potential edits that the Planning Commission could support. County staff set up the work sessions such that planning commissioners could discuss the code revisions and Rogers drafted language for the Planning Commission’s specific recommendations to the BoCC on the spot.

Once the Planning Commission voted on its own recommendations, the body approved a motion to recommend that the Board of County Commissioners adopt the draft with consideration of the Planning Commission’s proposed changes.

The commissioners spent significant time discussing what level of local control La Plata County should maintain over oil and gas regulations. The revision of the county’s code follows new rules put forth by the state’s regulatory body, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, adopted to conform with the 2019 Senate Bill 181.

Historically, La Plata County has been a champion of local control. It prevailed in a 1992 case before the Colorado Supreme Court that established that counties may regulate the oil and gas industry beyond state regulations.

In discussion, Commissioners Jean Walter and George Hepner said they supported retaining local control, while Commissioners Clark Craig and Charly Minkler indicated they were supportive of adopting the recently adopted COGCC regulations.

“I don’t know that La Plata County needs to be in this business anymore,” Craig said.

Minkler echoed that sentiment.

“How did we get to a point where we are enacting some of the most strict, if not the most strict regulations in the state?” he asked. “... I’m on the side of ‘do we really need all this?’”

Rogers drafted a recommendation on the spot, highlighting the Planning Commission’s lack of consensus on whether the county ought to regulate the industry beyond the state’s regulations in the first place.

“The Planning Commission questions whether the stricter standards compromise our goals to balance competing interests,” the recommendation read in part. “Specifically, the Planning Commission questions whether the setbacks go beyond the type of regulations that are reasonable and necessary, both of which are required by state law. The Planning Commission believes the new state rules may supersede the need for the County to be so deeply involved in oil and gas regulations.”

Walter and Hepner voted against the recommendation.

The topic of reciprocal setbacks – meaning construction of something other than gas and oil infrastructure near existing industry development – has also dominated conversation.

Minkler highlighted concerns voiced by some landowners that a 500-foot minimum reciprocal setback for the construction of residential homes on a property that already has a well would render much of said property undeveloped.

Rogers responded that the Board of Adjustment could grant a variance in such a case, but Minkler responded that that would not be sufficient to ensure properties could still be developed.

As a result, the Planning Commission unanimously approved a recommendation that a “single-family residence on a legal lot of record may be granted an exception of a 200 foot setback from the wellbore following the guidelines of ‘informed consent.’”

In a last-minute switch up, Minkler, who had previously expressed he did not believe regulation beyond state rules to be necessary, requested the Planning Commission review all major gas and oil permits before they go to the BoCC for approval.

That would be an added step in the review process that, some commissioners noted, could slow down approval.

Minkler argued that the additional review would make space for direct public input on the matter instead of leaving decisions only in the hands of three county commissioners, which, he pointed out, are all currently of the same political party.

In all cases – including the approval of the chapter draft and any potential review of major oil and gas permits – the Planning Commission acts in an advisory capacity to the BoCC.

The BoCC will now take up consideration of the draft as well as the Planning Commission’s recommendations. Public hearings before the board are likely to take place on April 18, 26 and May 2.


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