Unprecedented growth in La Plata County is on the horizon after property owners and developers have swooped in months before the county plans to adopt new land-use codes.
And the result, county planners say, could include two small city-sized developments in parts of the county that aren’t generally considered areas where smart growth should occur.
In the past couple of months, La Plata County’s planning department has received more applications for possible development than the department has received in the previous five years. All of them are seeking and would require amendments to the county’s land-use maps.
Proposals for development so far in 2018 include 13 projects, totaling more than 1,000 acres. Between 2013 and 2017, the county received only 11 proposals that amounted to just less than 700 acres.
If these projects are ultimately approved, Jason Meininger, the county’s planning director, said it could bring thousands of new homes to the county. It could also result in creating a considerable amount of commercial space, especially in rural areas that haven’t had this scale of development.
“There’s been a flurry of activity,” Meininger told county commissioners on Wednesday. “There’s a significant amount of land contemplated for change ... and there are some very serious implications to this.”
Meininger said several factors led to increased demand for development, including a favorable economy and more access to infrastructure.
Perhaps an even bigger reason: Developers are likely trying to submit proposals for development before the county adopts updated district plans and land-use codes.
In fall 2017, the La Plata County Planning Department released a draft set of updated land-use codes, which haven’t been extensively updated since the 1980s and which fail to prepare for large-scale growth.
In the ensuing months, public backlash and a consensus that the draft codes missed the mark have caused planners to go back to make significant revisions, likely delaying the county’s anticipated timeline to adopt it in the fall.
In the meantime, new forthcoming land-use codes have apparently prompted property owners and developers to submit proposals for large-scale development under the current, outdated regulations.
“I believe there’s some property owners going: ‘Well, if something happens other than what we want in the new revised plan, we want to try and get some identified use in advance of that,’” said John Wells, owner of the Wells Group real estate firm.
With the updated codes, the county also plans to introduce zoning, which would provide clearer answers for property owners if they wanted to change their land designation from, say, agricultural use to a more high-density use.
Current codes require county planners to use more subjective interpretation when determining whether a proposed use for a property is compatible with the surrounding area and if it has the proper infrastructure.
“We’re going from a code that says, ‘Maybe you can do that,’ to a code that has a clear yes and no,” Meininger said.
Some of the proposed development projects target swaths of land that, if approved, would contribute to sprawl.
The largest proposal is for 700 acres between Durango and Bayfield, where longtime ranching family, the Burketts, are exploring a high-density residential-commercial development.
That project could allow more than 2,000 new homes to be built, Meininger said. If approved, commercial and industrial uses could be mixed into the property that has frontage along U.S. Highway 160.
For reference, the developing Three Springs subdivision further west, which was originally approved in 2004, also calls for more than 2,000 homes that was expected to absorb much of the city of Durango’s population growth.
The other large-scale proposed project is a 250-acre commercial-residential development just north of Sunnyside Elementary School on U.S. Highway 550, about 12 miles south of Durango.
The development would be split between two property owners: the Hess family, which seeks to change about 200 acres from agriculture/rural to large-lot residential (one home per 3 to 10 acres) and the Kroeger family, which seeks a mixed-use designation on 48 acres. Calls to the Hess and Kroeger families were not returned.
For comparison, the downtown grid of Durango encompasses about 400 acres. The town of Mancos also is about that size.
Meininger said these two projects are not consistent with other development in the area.
“As a community, we need to ask if there is a desire to have essentially a new town created in locations that I don’t think most people ever thought there would be a new town,” he said.
The project proposals also come at the same time neighborhood groups are updating their district plans. They are community-driven efforts to determine visions for future growth. There are 12 districts in the county, and the plans have not been updated in years.
“Instead of participating in that process, (property owners and developers) are making these requests now, which they have the right to do, but it could be perceived as premature,” Meininger said.
Not all projects are rushed proposals, he said.
Property owners and developers for about half of the 13 proposals have been working with the county for several years, and their projects make sense for the areas where they want to build, such as near Grandview and the top of Farmington Hill. Both are close to Durango, the region’s urban hub.
Also, many of the proposed developments are being driven by new access to water after service extensions put in place by the La Plata Archuleta Water District. The district can now serve areas along County Road 510 and U.S. Highway 160 east.
“We’re starting to see now that there’s water, there’s a desire to develop in the more rural parts of the county, which will put increased pressure on county services in that area,” Meininger said.
In 2013, La Plata Archuleta Water District began an extension project, said manager Ed Tolen. Because many of these rural properties now have access to waterline hookups, it allows property owners and developers to request a higher-density development than previously allowed, Meininger said.
Inextricably, growth impacts roads, schools, sewer, policing and the general agricultural character of the region.
Since 2010, the county has averaged about 700 to 800 new residents per year; population increased from 51,334 to 55,623 in 2016. According to the most recent data available, 935 new residents moved into the area from 2015 to 2016.
“With the growth anticipated in La Plata County, people will have to locate and live somewhere,” said Jason Burkett, owner of the 700-acre property between Durango and Bayfield.
Cost of Land Use Report
Meininger said the county had hoped to have the new land-use codes in place to guide sensible growth based on surrounding areas and available infrastructure. Otherwise, growth in the wrong places could end up costing the county and taxpayers.
A cost of growth study, commissioned by the county in November 2017, said that the county would “be well served to encourage growth to be near” the city of Durango and to pursue zoning that “reduces densities in the more rural areas” of the county.
Currently, the proposals are in the form of “map amendments,” which means a property owner or developer is asking the county to redesignate the land for other uses. Many of the proposals are existing “agricultural/rural” lands.
The Planning Commission will consider these projects through April. If approved, property owners and developers have the green light to flush out more details of their projects.