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Givon and Helmin-Schmid: Revising our land-use code; let reason prevail over passion

Let reason prevail over passion

The real story of the overflow crowd of rural residents that attended the county land-use meeting at the Oxford Grange on Jan. 9, and the standing-room-only bash at the fairground the next week, may be in the numbers.

Nobody in recent memory has seen the rural folks of La Plata County pour out in such numbers, or express themselves so passionately about the technical minutiae of codes, zones and rules-and-regs. But we are getting way ahead of ourselves.

Colorado counties are required by law to have a land-use plan and codes. Updating those codes is but a recognition that our county has changed and has grown explosively since the last revision of its codes in the 1980s. Whether you do or don’t like such growth, the codes need to play some catch-up. Having reviewed the revised code and attended both open meetings, we can’t help but notice the numerous misconceptions that have been circulating about it.

As far as we can see, all traditional activities and uses of agriculture property are, in fact, permitted under both the old and revised code. The revision merely spells them out more explicitly, striving to eliminate the ambiguity and confusion of the old code, confusion that has been responsible for countless complaints and delays. The revised code will in no way impede us from pursuing our livelihood and traditional rural way of life.

What the revised plan does, however, is something La Plata County has resisted for decades: It recognizes that different parts of the county – high-density urban, residential-suburban, the river corridor, transitional areas around Bayfield, Ignacio and Durango and the truly-rural southwest and southeast districts – have different residential and land-use patterns and thus should not be subjected to the same one-size-fits-all code. The new code spells out those differences more explicitly and then rationalizes the applicable rules.

Why the great commotion then? Why is our former commissioner and state representative J. Paul Brown sounding the alarm with “We see this as taking our property” (Herald, Jan. 6)? Why has Bayfield resident Jon Fossel chosen to brand the new plan “big-brotherism,” “branded socialism” and “blatant taking of property rights” (Herald, Jan. 17)?

Why does Ignacio cowboy Tom James, in his column “Watch Yore Topknot” (Herald, Jan. 15) feel duty-bound to regale us with purple Patrick Henry-like insurrectionist prose like “... Are you going to conform to the tyranny or are you going to risk your home ... They ain’t gonna like it, and there will be lots of strong talk – and possibly action ... If they want a fight, let them bring it (on)...”? And why are old conspiracy theories resurfacing, like bad pennies, about the United Nations’nefarious “Agenda 21” taking over our county, snatching away our guns and converting our ranches into bucolic public greens?

La Plata County is, alas, a mirror of our national stalemate; of the long-simmering alienation of rural working folks; of the seeming indifference and condescension by the urban professional class; of bitter polarization whipped up by politicians at various levels who stoke the fires of our many divisions rather than proclaim our commonality. Unbridled passions are also fed by ancient fissures dating back to the confederacy and beyond, and a view of government as font of all evils.

The size of our government and its ever-expanding codes is the direct consequence of population growth and settlement density. We have been a social species for over 8 million years now. Until the advent of agriculture, ca. 8,000 B.C., we lived in intimate, isolated bands and abided by the hunter-gatherer rigid but implicit code. We learned the rules-and-regs at our mother’s breast and our father’s heels. Government by written law is the price we pay for living in a large-scale society closer and closer to each other; so that what we do by sacred right on our private patch – noise, pollution, unsightly mess, sewer, irrigation, wells, broken fences, stray animals – can easily encroach on the life and rights of our neighbors.

We have no rational choice but to work together to try to mitigate such mutual encroachment. This, and pooling resources for the common good – defense, currency, commerce, infrastructure, crime and fire protection, water, education, environment, health and welfare – is all government really is, or should be. Our choice ever since the late stone age has been, invariably either band together by consensus, or a king, dictator or a coercive state will take over and do it for us, most often to our sorrow.

We urge everyone to tone down the rhetoric, study the new code and contact the county planning office with concerns and suggestions. Likewise, we urge our county leaders to slow down and listen, schedule more discussion, keep the process open and transparent. Several previous attempts have failed despite the time, money and effort expended. We have made a good if imperfect start. Let us move on together.

Caryl Helmin-Schmid and her husband, Cliff, ranch cattle near Tiffany. Reach them at wcrcows@juno.com. Tom Givón ranches near Ignacio. Reach him at tgivon@uoregon.edu.

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