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It took two years, but district plans are complete

Documents will help guide growth in La Plata County
Plans that are intended to help guide growth based on input from residents in select regions of La Plata County were updated Thursday after a two-year process.

It took just one hour on Thursday to formally certify La Plata County’s district plan update, the culmination of a two-year effort.

“I know it was hard, I know it was frustrating, I know it was painful,” said Planning Commissioner Geri Malandra. “But at the same time, I think it was illuminating.”

For the past two years, La Plata County staff and residents have been working to update the county’s 12 district plans, which are guiding documents that allow smaller communities within the county to establish visions for how and where they would like to see growth in their neighborhoods.

In some districts, mostly concentrated in the southern parts of La Plata County around Bayfield, Florida Mesa and Fort Lewis Mesa, it wasn’t always a harmonious process, commissioners, county planning staff and some residents agreed.

But it was a necessary one, which will set the vision for growth in La Plata County for years to come.

“We had a lot of constructive dialogue with folks, even when we didn’t see eye to eye,” said Planning Commissioner Chris Scott.

In La Plata County, there’s essentially three tiers to planning and development: district plans, an advisory guide on growth created by residents in select neighborhoods; the comprehensive plan, a high-level outlook on the county’s vision for the future; and the land-use code, the regulatory component that carries out the planning process.

All acknowledged that La Plata County’s diverse terrain, from the San Juan Mountains to the north, where residents mostly rely on a tourism-based economy, to the high-desert, piñon-juniper forests to the south, where agriculture and rural industries reign supreme, calls for different approaches based on geographical location.

Despite the arduous process and countless hours it took to get to the certification of the district plans, which haven’t been updated in years, the meeting itself held little fanfare.

There was little public comment from residents in the northern districts – like the Animas Valley, North County and Vallecito – who have expressed satisfaction in recent weeks about the planning process and the end result of their district plans.

“We believe the North County plan is an excellent document to guide land-use and development,” Gary Derck, president of Mountainsprings, a company that consults on development around Purgatory Resort, wrote in a public comment that was read aloud.

Residents in the southern parts of the county, however, did voice some displeasure with the update process, namely, that county staff and planning commissioners removed language from plans written by residents concerning the vision of their community.

“It’s like having your whiskey diluted,” said Scott Davey with Fort Lewis Mesa. “If the bartender was adding a lot of water to your drinks, you’d be upset and frustrated.”

County officials have maintained planning commissioners are required by state law to actually write the finalized district plan, based off information collected by residents in select districts. And, county staff said it is required to remove any political ideologies, which were found in these southern districts.

“Not everyone got what they wanted,” said Planning Commissioner Jim Tencza, ”but we kinda knew that was going to happen.”

Misti Witt with the Southeast District said residents were “contrary at times, but we appreciate how much of our vision and our plan was able to stay in there.”

The updated district plans will be used as an important reference for planning commissioners when making decisions whether to approve a project, Tencza said. When a development is proposed, planners can look to the plans to see if it matches with what the residents said they want, though the district plans are strictly advisory in nature.

Daniel Murray, a planner with La Plata County, said district plans will be updated on a more frequent basis going forward. He said La Plata County is the only county in Colorado where the expected population boom is anticipated to occur in unincorporated areas. That increase usually happens within city limits.

And that projection means the county must be prepared for future growth with a strong planning process in place.

“We are all very deeply connected to the land and our sense of place here in La Plata County,” Murray said. “I want to thank everyone for being a part of an inherently messy process. We’ve been listening to everyone and we believe in the value of these plans.”

La Plata County staff have said district plans will help inform the overhaul of the land-use code over the coming months.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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