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La Plata County approves variance request

But it may not be necessary as state seeks to reopen more businesses
La Plata County approved an effort to seek a variance request, but the state is already working to reopen most of the businesses still shut down.

La Plata County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution to seek a variance from Gov. Jared Polis’ public health order to reopen some businesses still shut down.

But they acknowledged the effort may be moot as the state already is at work to address the issue.

In recent weeks, La Plata County officials have been drafting a variance that would reopen, under strict guidelines related to the novel coronavirus outbreak, outdoor recreation companies, outfitters, gyms, churches and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

Commissioners have been working on the draft variance request, which would then be sent to San Juan Basin Public Health, local hospitals, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe for approval.

The variance request would need ultimate approval from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

On Monday, however, Polis signed an executive order that extended safer-at-home regulations, while at the same time, sought to reopen outdoor recreation, places of worship, gyms and even scenic trains.

“This draft guidance addresses all of the industry segments we were going to seek a variance on,” said County Manager Chuck Stevens.

The state is seeking public comment until noon Wednesday about how to reopen those sectors. Then, CDPHE is expected to release a public health order that lays out regulations for those businesses to reopen.

County officials stressed that requesting a variance on the local level would help ensure local leaders could respond to nuances of the county’s needs.

“I am in agreement with giving permission to the county manager to apply for a variance, if necessary,” said Commissioner Julie Westendorff. “But a lot is up in the air. Is anything still necessary given the broader parameters the state is putting in place?”

Megan Graham, county spokeswoman, said the local variance request sought significant input from local businesses and economic leaders. It also used other successful variance requests from other counties as a model.

“There are detailed plans for each sector,” she said.

After the meeting, Graham said the county will follow the state’s guidelines if it meets local needs, noting the state can reopen businesses faster than a local variance request.

“We have permission to proceed, but we may not need to,” she said.

Commissioners also approved a resolution that makes it easier for restaurants to expand their premises in an effort to give them more space to serve customers while at the same time following social-distancing guidelines.

“I’m optimistic here and looking forward to people enjoying themselves outside and staying safe,” said Commissioner Clyde Church.


County officials said a significant amount of public comments called for commissioners to attach a stipulation in the variance request prohibiting the D&SNG from running coal-fired steam engines, given drought conditions and complications to firefighting efforts with the COVID-19 outbreak.

The D&SNG has been shut down since March because of the outbreak. Railroad officials announced Monday the closure would extend to June 22 or until further notice.

Commissioners agreed running coal-fired engines may pose a risk of wildfire but said that issue should be taken up with local fire chiefs and addressed in a fire restriction, not a coronavirus variance request.

“I recognize people are concerned about fire conditions, we all are,” Westendorff said. “But I think that fire discussion is one separate and a part from the variance.”


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