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Four years in the making, La Plata County releases draft land-use code

County officials target September adoption
A public meeting in January 2018 about an earlier set of draft land-use codes drew more than 1,000 residents to the La Plata County Fairgrounds.

Four years in the making, La Plata County’s long-awaited draft land-use code was released Monday and is now available for public review, with county officials eyeing a final adoption in September.

“I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time,” said Commissioner Julie Westendorff.

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.

This most recent effort started in early 2016 when Commissioners Brad Blake, Gwen Lachelt and Westendorff directed county staff to pursue updating the land-use codes.

A draft of the regulations, created by a Texas firm, was released in fall 2017, which met 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 district plans to be rewritten and finalized in November 2019, which set a vision for growth in 12 individual sectors throughout the county.

Commissioners also said in fall 2019 that the main issues in the code could be fixed without as major of an overhaul as previously thought.

The main issue, county officials say, is the current codes – known as “performance-based zoning” – require anyone who wants to develop land to go through a costly and time-intensive process to draft things like engineering studies and building designs.

After all the front-end work, which in some instances can take up to a year and cost prospective developers tens of thousands of dollars, the county then reviews the proposed project to determine if it is a suitable fit for the area – and it could be denied.

The county believes it has solved that problem in the new draft code in two ways.

The first is introducing the process of a “sketch plan review” to evaluate and discuss basic designs, concepts and suitability of a project at the beginning of the project, effectively flipping compatibility analysis from the back end to front.

And the second process is designated “economic development areas” that promote commercial, industrial or mixed-use developments in areas pegged for growth, much like Gem Village west of Bayfield is now.

“Our goal is a land-use code that brings certainty and predictability to those seeking to develop projects in the county and one that takes less time to get through the planning process,” Lachelt said.

The draft codes also introduce the concept of “AgPlus,” a set of expanded uses on agricultural land that doesn’t require an extensive review process in an attempt to help agricultural operators diversify their businesses.

Westendorff said the AgPlus concept will hopefully keep agricultural operations viable by allowing farmers and ranchers more options on their land.

With the draft codes released, the county will now embark on an extensive public comment process, said county spokeswoman Megan Graham.

La Plata County will host multiple community workshops over the next few weeks about the draft codes via Zoom. Public comments can be made online at the county’s website or through email. And public hearings will be held during certain commissioner meetings, as well as Planning Commission meetings.

County commissioners and planning commissioners also have several joint work sessions planned in May and June.

“We went to great lengths to build a robust public engagement schedule for consideration of the code,” Graham said. “We’re eager to hear what the community has to say, and use that feedback and input to make the draft code better toward adoption.”

To view the new draft codes or see the schedule of upcoming outreach meetings, visit the county’s website at www.lpccds.org/planning/land_use_code_revision_project.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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