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La Plata County may update district plans before land-use code

Some say both can be worked on at the same time
La Plata County appears to be in agreement to wait until district plans are updated before finalizing a new land-use code.

La Plata County officials appear to be in agreement about holding off the adoption of a new land-use code until district plans, which allow individual communities to set a vision for future growth in their neighborhoods, are updated over the next few months.

At a joint meeting Wednesday with La Plata County commissioners and the La Plata County Planning Commission, a sort of consensus was reached that the hyper-local plans should be finished before finalizing a county-wide set of land-use codes.

“If you don’t have input from all the districts, you’re short on information before starting the land-use code,” said La Plata County Commissioner Brad Blake.

Last fall, the county released the first draft of a set of updated land-use codes, which met stiff opposition from county residents, who said the draft codes didn’t properly reflect a working knowledge or vision of La Plata County.

Many county residents said district plans should be completed first, which allow residents to come up with a guiding, advisory document for growth in their specific part of the county.

In La Plata County, there are 12 districts. The La Plata County Planning Commission, with input from community members, has been in the process of updating the district plans, many of which are decades old. The Planning Commission’s timeline has all district plans being updated by the first quarter of 2019.

Blake, however, said people in districts that are scheduled to update their plans toward the end of that process fear their voices won’t be heard. It was suggested that all districts be given six months from June to update their plans.

But Planning Commission Chairman Jim Tenzca said with limited staff and time, it would be difficult to handle all the district plans at once. He said the Planning Commission has been meeting all of its deadlines for updating district plans.

“I’m not sure we have the availability or desire to shoehorn in a couple more meetings a month,” Tenzca said. However, he was open to finding ways to speed up the timeline to get the district plans done before next year.

At Wednesday’s meeting, there was no clear path forward on how the land-use code and the district plan will work simultaneously.

“You don’t want to mix them so the public perception is confused,” said La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff. “But at the same time, we can’t pretend they exist in a vacuum.”

It was made clear that parts of the land-use code could be worked on that don’t overlap with issues raised in district plans.

In fact, Tenzca said nearly 85 percent of what’s in the land-use code deals with standards and other regulatory matters, like roadway standards, that wouldn’t interfere with what’s laid out in a district plan, which is more visionary.

“There’s a lot staff can do to get that 85 percent done, and then we can look at the parts that deal with the district plan,” he said. “Let’s get the cake baked, then figure out how to decorate it.”

Planning Commissioner Tom Gorton agreed.

“Clearly, the new land-use code should not be adopted until the district plans are done,” Gorton said. “But I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad idea to run simultaneously on some level.”

One of the major issues going forward is what the county intends to do in regard to zoning.

Aside from the Animas Valley north of Durango, there is no zoning in La Plata County, which has caused complications at the planning department and created an unpredictable, hard-to-navigate process for those interested in developing land.

Zoning was supposed to be the major solution to address this issue, but many county residents have said that zoning in effect takes away property rights by limiting what can be done with one’s land.

It was unclear Wednesday how the county will proceed with the zoning issue; commissioners did say it’s possible zoning may be right for some parts of the county and not for others. And, many agreed it should come after the district plans.

“When it comes to zoning issues around the new code,” Gorton said, “we would be advised to put that behind the district plan and the things that actually have a profound impact on what people can do with their property.

“Those should clearly come after we have the benefit and the knowledge of reviewing the district plans,” he said.

County officials also reiterated a desire to create some sort of platform that would more easily explain the complicated process of planning and land use.

“Some of it is really hard to grasp,” Tenzca said.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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