The new owners of Durango Hot Springs question if La Plata County is as business-friendly as officials tout after the county tightened a key interpretation of a setback that limits their flexibility to revitalize the historic tourist draw north of town.
They say setback standards that change mid-project and delays in obtaining permits have made redevelopment work cumbersome, slow and costly.
“For us this is selfish. It’s our project, but overall, it’s about how difficult it is to get new businesses going in the county, to get new investments in the county. The county is looking at deficits with the loss of oil and gas revenue, and projects like this are going to help everybody,” said Bryan Yearout, co-owner of Durango Hot Springs, the new owners redeveloping historic Trimble Hot Springs.
Yearout and Durango Hot Springs co-owner Dan Carter appealed to county commissioners last week, one day after discovering that Community Development Director Neal Starkebaum had reinterpreted a generous setback interpretation the hot springs had with Starkebaum’s predecessor, Jason Meninger.
Meninger had allowed a 20-foot setback in which buildings could not go up without special approval to be measured from the edge of the asphalt on County Road 203, but that has been reinterpreted by Starkebaum to be measured from the hot springs’ property line.
The new interpretation imperils plans to add a beer kiosk, a front deck on the main building and down the road other amenities like food trucks – all planned in what the owners say will be a $10 million investment over five years to bring new life to the aging facility that was on the verge of shutdown before Yearout, Carter and Carter’s son, Kurt Carter, purchased the property in summer 2019.
Megan Graham, La Plata County spokeswoman, said the county has indeed reinterpreted the original setback definition given the new hot springs owners, but she said uses like the beer kiosk and deck, both of which would be within the setback area as measured from the edge of the county road asphalt, were never envisioned in plans submitted for a land-use permit.
The original interpretation wasn’t made through a formal channel, and Graham said that has led to the current friction between the hot springs owners and the county.
“Recognizing that this is challenging for the applicant, the staff has been trying to work with the applicant to find a successful outcome within the constraints of the code,” Graham said.
Dan Carter said the hot springs owners had been proceeding as if the original setback interpretation was a guiding principal they could rely on throughout their redevelopment of the property.
“Frankly, we were very careful to ensure the setback was in place before we bought the property,” he said. “Without the setback interpretation we thought we had, it’s doubtful we would have gone through with the purchase. We didn’t buy until we thought we had these issues resolved.”
Carter points out the county already has approved a number of uses that infringe on the new setback interpretation, including portions of the main pool and cabanas that will be used as warming huts.
In addition, he said the eastern portions of the existing buildings on the property – the main building and the guesthouse, both of which have been up for decades – also infringe into the new setback area.
The beer kiosk and the deck now threatened by the new setback interpretation, he said, are at least 4 feet farther from the county road than the already-approved cabanas.
Yearout added, “It just doesn’t make sense that we have approvals for the pool and the cabanas and now we run into this.”
After a meeting Friday with Starkebaum and La Plata County Manager Chuck Stevens, Yearout said hot springs owners were informed that a permit had been issued to complete a concession stand and family changing rooms in the main building. The hot springs had been seeking the permits for four months.
Both the concession stand and the family changing room in the main building violate the new interpretation of the setback, but both items were in the original land-use permit plan.
Permits to go ahead with the beer kiosk and the deck are now before a county attorney for a recommendation on whether to grant approval.
But Carter said both the county and the state were involved in granting the hot springs a liquor license, which came after the land-use permit had been approved. In addition, the deck on the main building doesn’t intrude farther into the setback than the existing decades-old building footprint.
“In the end, I think we will get what we want, but it’s going to be a fight every step of the way, and that shouldn’t be the way this all works,” Carter said.
He said neighbors are in favor of the project, which basically is a redevelopment of a historic use within the historic footprint of operations.
“This is a no-brainer, and we shouldn’t have to fight about everything,” he said. ‘And, you know, it just is turning every developer or every person who wants to put their money into this community, and turning them away, sending them somewhere else that’s much more business-friendly.”