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Hearing on La Plata County’s new land-use code draws few comments

Proposed regulations set for adoption this fall
Durango Herald file<br><br>La Plata County’s proposed land-use code is going through an extensive public comment period as officials seek a fall adoption.

Only a handful of people spoke Thursday night during a public hearing for La Plata County’s proposed new land-use code, which is expected to be adopted in the fall.

La Plata County’s long-awaited draft land-use code was released in May, and for the past few weeks, a number of public work sessions have been held to talk specifics about the regulations.

The 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 Julie Westendorff directed county staff to pursue updating the land-use codes.

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: through a “sketch plan review” as a first step to evaluate compatibility and “economic development areas” to streamline growth in designated areas.

County officials say current codes take a development proposal about 72 days to review. Under the proposed new codes, that would be cut down to about 46 days.

During a public hearing Thursday, only a handful of people spoke.

Anita Rancatti, who lives in the Animas Valley, said she was concerned the draft codes may favor developers as opposed to residents who live near proposed developments.

“There doesn’t seem to be the same protections or concerns about residents that may live adjacent to these developments,” she said.

County attorney Sheryl Rogers responded by saying the new codes have dramatically improved standards for development, as well as rules on setbacks from homes, limits on hours of operations and measures to ensure compatibility.

“There’s always a balance in land-use codes about the property rights of the owner and also the public health, safety and welfare,” she said.

Dan Burkhart, owner of Burkhart Planning & Permitting, said sketch plans should focus on what use of a certain property is acceptable, then be followed up with a preliminary plan that shows how the designs of the approved use are compatible with the neighborhood.

Burkhart also suggested only one neighborhood meeting on a proposed plan. The draft land-use code calls for two.

“If we keep asking for neighborhood input, a developer will never know what it’s going to cost,” he said. “It takes any hope of certainty out of the process if we constantly try to appeal to neighbors.”

La Plata County resident Steve Doob asked if it would be more efficient to have traditional zoning, instead of going through hoops to make the county’s current performance-based zoning work.

“We wouldn’t have to work nearly as hard as this,” he said.

Westendorff responded by saying the county initially pursed traditional zoning but was met with resistance from members of the public, resulting in the current proposed process.

The county plans several more public hearings over the next couple weeks. The schedule can be viewed at https://bit.ly/2zHTklY.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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