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La Plata County land-use codes draw more than 1,000 residents

Concerns about planned updates shared with commissioners
La Plata County commissioners listen to Jason Meininger, county planning director, deliver a presentation on La Plata County’s proposed land-use codes on Tuesday evening to a full house in the La Plata County Fairgrounds Exhibit Building.

La Plata County’s proposed land-use code was shown no love Tuesday night as well over a thousand people showed up to lambaste the codes as an example of government overreach and an infringement on property rights.

“They say the devil is in the details,” said Bayfield resident Jon Fossel. “Well, there are some nasty details ... in this document.”

Within the past few months, La Plata County has released a draft of proposed land-use codes – that haven’t been updated since the 1980s – that county officials say will provide more predictability to landowners and developers on what they can do with their land.

As a result, county officials say, the codes will in turn speed up and make cheaper the development process, which can lead to an increase in growth and expand the economy.

However, certain members of La Plata County’s ranching and farming community have opposed the idea of land-use codes since the beginning, calling them unnecessary and an attempt to covertly take their land.

On Tuesday, more than a thousand people packed into the La Plata County Fairgrounds for a public forum with county commissioners and staff.

Fossel went on to call the land-use codes an extreme example of “big brotherism,” “branded socialism” and a “blatant taking of property rights.”

There were a number of specific issues county residents brought up with the land-use codes.

For one, the codes place some restrictions within a river corridor and scenic overlay along certain roadways that county officials say aim to protect the scenic quality of the county.

Animas Valley rancher Ed Zink, however, said his property is surrounded by both and the restrictions go too far.

“I’d have nothing left,” he said.

Zink did commend the proposed land-use codes for protecting irrigation ditches from the impact of new development.

Other county residents took issue with the draft codes for the restrictions they place on temporary storage units.

“This is an extreme overreach on property rights,” said Mae Morley, a fifth-generation La Plata County rancher.

“This is based on controlling the appearance of other people’s private property. And we don’t see our land as open space, we see it as part of our business. Don’t tie our hands and decrease the value of our land.”

Animas Valley rancher Sandy Young said the land-use codes are an attempt to streamline development and protect scenic corridors to increase tourism so more people “see this beautiful landscape and want to move here.”

“There‘s not one word about small-scale ag, of which I am one,” Young said. “Durango is city enough ... keep it simple.”

Tony Ganzerla, who said he’s been working in the Animas Valley for nearly 50 years, said the county doesn’t need to adopt a huge document with the intent of protecting the rural quality and landscape of the area.

“For the last 100-plus years, it’s been farmers and ranchers maintaining these properties,” he said. “All the things you come to appreciate that you think you need to protect.”

This portion of the land-use codes is the first of three “modules.” This part of the code that’s been in question the past few months deals specifically with land use. The county has said it hopes to adopt this version, with necessary revisions, by fall 2018.

Many in the crowd Tuesday said that timeline needed to be pushed back. “I understand people that want to do things with their property need a system and have an idea what steps they have to take to get where they’re going,” said Diane Purdy, who’s lived in the area 38 years. “But please go back to the drawing board. This document takes away so many personal property rights, and I think that’s a crime.”

Michael Bruce, who lives on County Road 250, added: “This is not about being neighborly. This is about imposing on your neighbors by people that don’t live … on any of the roads you cited as designed routes.”

One county resident likened the land-use codes as an extension of “Agenda 21” – a more than 20-year-old United Nations document that encourages sustainable growth.

Some people allege the document is a covert plan for the government to take control of their land and gun rights.

“The sooner we get the United Nation out of La Plata County and Durango and Colorado … right now’s the time to do it,” the resident said.

County officials say the current land-use codes are a constant source of issues for staff.

“The reason this code is being revised right now,” said Commissioner Julie Westendorff, “this is our No. 1 source of complaint.”

There are 64 counties in Colorado, said planning director Jason Meininger, and La Plata County is only one of four that doesn’t have zoning.

The county has said it will review a number of issues brought up during public comment when drafting a final version of the code. Commissioner Brad Blake said the public process will aim to fix many “missteps” in the first draft.

Blake said there needs to be tweaks to the river corridor and scenic overlay restrictions, as well as the proposed rules on temporary storage facilities and a part of the code that says residents need a permit for events that draw more than 25 cars.

“We really don’t want things in the code we’re not going to enforce, that doesn’t make sense to me,” Blake said. “But I think we can get there, it’s desperately needed. (The current code) is almost an unbearable code to deal with.”

The meeting was still ongoing nearly three hours at press time. County Manager Joanne Spina said in her decades-long experience with the county, she never saw a crowd so large come to speak on an issue.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

Poll: Are proposed updates to the La Plata County land-use code smart planning or an infringement on property rights?

Smart planning - 467 - 17.37%

Infringement on rights - 2222 - 82.63%

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