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Grass-roots group forms to change La Plata County’s draft land-use codes

LaPlata Liberty Coalition aims to make county ‘get it right’
Bayfield resident Jon Fossel makes a statement during a meeting Jan. 16 at the La Plata County Fairgrounds about La Plata County’s draft land-use codes. Fossel is an organizer of the LaPlata Liberty Coalition, which is made up of county residents who mostly object to the draft regulations.

A contingent of property owners in La Plata County has formally organized a grass-roots group to change the county’s proposed draft land-use codes, which they say impose too many regulations and infringe on personal property rights.

Jon Fossel, one of the organizers of “LaPlata Liberty Coalition,” said the group informally formed shortly after a Jan. 9 meeting about the land-use codes at the Oxford Grange, which drew more than 400 county residents.

A week later, another meeting about the land-use codes, this time at the La Plata County Fairgrounds, brought out more than 1,000 people, and most of them spoke in opposition to the codes.

“It became clear there was an immense amount of opposition to the proposed codes,” Fossel said. “I think a half dozen people came together and said, ‘We need to do something.’”

Now, the coalition is preparing to register as a nonprofit LLC. On Monday, the group elected its first board of directors, which includes Fossel who recently moved to Bayfield, fourth-generation rancher Lorene Bonds, community organizer Naomi Dobbs and longtime rancher Mae Morley. The group wants the county to “get it right.”

Fossel said the registered group is separate from a Facebook group called “LaPlata Liberty Coalition” that was created in January. That group quickly gained nearly 3,000 members who discuss a range of county issues, including the land-use codes as well as the recall effort of La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt.

But Fossel said the LaPlata Liberty Coalition Facebook group is more of a rogue outfit for people to gather and talk on social media. Instead, the official group will host its own Facebook page and website, along with its own set of protocols and initiatives.

Fossel said the Liberty Coalition will focus on educating and helping county residents update their own district plans in an effort to help county staff craft better countywide land-use regulations.

In La Plata County, there are 12 different districts, each with its own specific plans, many of which haven’t been updated in years. Several residents want the county to update these smaller, more specific plans before overhauling the umbrella land-use codes.

“We would like to see them do what the citizens feel works for their community,” Bonds said. “They need to slow the process down and make the revisions work for the citizens.”

The county had planned to have all district plans updated by mid-2019, but Liberty Coalition organizers said they will ask county commissioners to hold off moving forward with codes until these district plans are complete.

“We want a bottoms-up approach as opposed to a top-down approach,” Fossel said.

Bonds said members of the Liberty Coalition feel like their voices are being heard by county staff, especially since the county decided to push back its timeline for the land-use codes to address residents’ many concerns.

This past fall, the La Plata County Planning Department released a draft set of land-use codes to update a set of regulations that have not been overhauled since the 1980s. Several attempts to update the codes over the years have failed. As a result, county staff say the current codes are wildly out of date and cause an over-burdensome process for people who want to develop their land.

Even county officials say the newest draft codes missed the mark, including regulations that limit temporary storage facilities, require residents to get permits for parties of more than 25 people and restrict building in scenic overlays. As a result, county staff said they plan to remove some of the more controversial regulations.

“It looks like a million-acre homeowners association,” Fossel said. “It’s just a vast overreach of what a county government is responsible for.”

Liberty Coalition organizers said they feel the unwanted codes woke county residents up about the land-use code writing process.

Bonds and Fossel said the Liberty Coalition doesn’t completely oppose updating the land-use codes. Rather, they want the codes to be less regulatory and better reflect the different communities in the county.

While much of the conversation on the LaPlata Liberty Coalition Facebook group involves discussion and support of the recall effort against Lachelt, both Bonds and Fossel emphasized that the official Liberty Coalition will not be involved with that effort.

“No question there are members of the Liberty Coalition actively involved in the recall, but that is not one of our initiatives,” Fossel said. “As an organization, we are not involved anyway in the recall. Period.”

Asked how the group intends to separate those efforts, Bonds said, “We’ll have to get that one figured out.”

Fossel also said the group has received no outside financial contributions in efforts to oppose the draft land-use codes. Instead, he said, the group is funded by local residents.

The board adopted a policy Monday that says: No donations shall be accepted from or made to any outside organization without the approval of the board. Any such donations shall be disclosed in 30 days.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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