It’s official: La Plata County has a new land-use code.
La Plata County commissioners Clyde Church, Gwen Lachelt and Julie Westendorff voted unanimously Tuesday in support of adopting sweeping revisions to the county’s outdated set of regulations, culminating a nearly four-year process.
“This has been a monumental project,” Westendorff said. “I’m really pleased with where we are today. ... I think we’ve taken a big step for La Plata County.”
La Plata County’s land-use code hasn’t received a serious overhaul since the 1980s, though not for lack of trying: Numerous attempts over the years have run into controversy and failed.
The main issue, county officials said, was that the old codes required anyone who wanted to develop land to go through a costly and time-intensive process to draft things such as engineering studies and building designs.
After all the front-end work, which could take up to a year and cost prospective developers tens of thousands of dollars, the county then reviewed the proposed project to determine if it was a suitable fit for the area – and it could be denied.
In an another attempt at an update of the land-use code, in early 2016, commissioners Brad Blake, Lachelt and Westendorff directed county staff members to pursue a revision of the regulations.
“We had a few hiccups early on, and after being able to overcome those hiccups, we engaged in a process with a very extensive outreach to the public,” Lachelt said. “This is very exciting to be here today.”
The process did not get off to an easy start.
A draft of the regulations, created by a Texas firm, was released in fall 2017. It was met with immediate backlash from some residents who said the proposed codes went beyond the county’s authority and infringed on property rights.
The Texas company, Kendig Keast Collaborative, was ultimately fired, and its draft codes scrapped. La Plata County then put the brakes on the process to take more community input and write the regulations in-house.
The pause in the process also allowed for the county’s comprehensive plan to be updated and finalized in May 2017, and district plans to be rewritten and finalized in November 2019.
“Our staff was then sent back to the drawing board,” said planner Dan Murphy. “We essentially started from a blank slate.”
La Plata County has spent the past few years engaged in extensive meetings and public hearings aimed at developing a code that more accurately reflects the values of the community, officials say.
While the land-use code update isn’t as extensive as previously envisioned, county officials believe they have solved many of the problems in the old code.
The process of a “sketch plan review” is expected to address the issue of compatibility on the front end, requiring developers to present basic designs and concepts for a project at the beginning of a proposal.
To help streamline development, the county created the concept of “economic development areas” that promote commercial, industrial or mixed-use developments in areas pegged for growth, much like Gem Village is now.
And the new codes also introduce the concept of “AgPlus,” a set of expanded uses on agricultural land that don’t require an extensive review process, in an attempt to help agricultural operators diversify their businesses.
Now, a farmer or rancher can start a variety of uses on his or her land – like a bed and breakfast, farm equipment sales, storage units and child care centers – through a quick and easy administrative review.
Though the process to update the land-use code elicited hundreds of public comments over the past few years, only two people spoke at Tuesday’s hearing, raising technical concerns or matters about the new regulations.
Charly Minkler, a planning commissioner, said it is “monumental” and that he is excited about some of the processes in the new code that streamline development and support agriculture.
But he said he voted against the code at the Planning Commission meeting in July because he was concerned some aspects could potentially hinder attempts at building future affordable housing.
“That’s the main reason I voted against it,” said Minkler, who is running for the board of commissioners. “But in general, I’m excited about the new code.”
Neal Starkebaum, community development director, said the section in the code Minkler was concerned about is in fact more “flexible.”
“We don’t want to create an obstacle for potential affordable housing in areas in the county, based on the need to maintain existing character, when it may be appropriate based on the location,” he said.
County commissioners were adamant this is not the end of the line for fixing issues within the codes – that’s going to take minor tweaks and adjustments as the regulations are put into practice, they said.
“No code is ever perfect,” Lachelt said. “And I trust future boards of county commissions, as well as future staff members, to address issues as they arise.”