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La Plata County unveils skeleton – or table of contents – of revised land-use code

Residents raise concerns about public input, grandfathering issues
This picture is made of two photos showing the Animas Valley, which is one of the only areas in La Plata County where traditional zoning is in effect. The land-use revision project continued in March with a series of workshops to gather public input on a draft outline of the revised code.

HESPERUS – La Plata County residents have had their first glimpse of the controversial and long-awaited land-use code revisions: a draft table of contents outlining its structure.

County planning staff and commissioners have introduced community members to what’s new and what will – or won’t – be in the code during a countywide workshop series. While staff emphasized how to incorporate public input into the process, community members still expressed concerns, and some distrust.

“The proof in the pudding, so to speak, is to see ... some of that input come out and end up in the code,” said Charly Minkler, a planning commissioner and Ignacio-area rancher.

County planning commissioners and staff met with community members this week in Oxford and Hesperus to gather comments about the draft table of contents. The last of the five-workshop series will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Vallecito Community Center.

The table of contents outlines the draft code, which the county plans to release in May. County staff structured it to address flaws in the current code, incorporate public feedback and make the code easier to use for everyone.

The mere existence of a table of contents is a big deal for county staff – the current code does not have one, staff members said.

The revised land-use code is not yet written, but staff propose revisions that will fix gaping holes in the current code.

For example, developers do not find out whether their project is compatible with surrounding land use until late in the process, after they’ve already spent money and time on a project.

One proposed revision is to allow developers to submit a “sketch” plan, a rough idea of a project, at the beginning of the process to determine its compatibility.

The county also has a rural residential development code, which does not include a defined process for large developments, like Purgatory Resort. Staff said revisions would establish an approval process for large development projects and district-defined economic development areas to guide future projects.

The revisions would address development of specific uses, like hemp, campgrounds, and bed and breakfasts that do not have guiding policies in the current code.

Words matter

Once the land-use code is written, it will have multiple chapters – staff members said it could be up to 300 pages – and it will be released as one document.

But that is a point of contention. Releasing all chapters at once is helpful because each section includes a web of references to other sections, staff said. But some community members are worried they won’t have time to give input before the county aims to approve the revised document in the fall.

“I’m concerned that they will not give us enough time to look at it before it’s voted on,” said Mae Morley, a Hesperus resident and chairwoman of the Fort Lewis Mesa District. She hoped to have six months to review the code.

“We have to wait ’til the whole thing’s out. It’s going to take some time,” Morley said.

While the table of contents gives residents insight into the code before its release, the outline also makes the code easier to use. That’s another main goal, staff said.

The county information technology department created a map where residents can search for development projects in the county. It clarified chapter titles so the public can easily navigate the future code.

The revised code will also include flow charts, tables, graphs, sections on who does what and clear definitions for land-use terms.

“Words matter,” Minkler said, adding that the sections on definitions, standards and non-conforming uses drew the most community attention during the Oxford workshop.

Response from the grange

In Hesperus and Oxford, many community members raised concerns or asked questions about how existing land uses would be grandfathered into the revised code.

The code will apply to new development only, unless someone plans to make significant changes to existing development.

“If that’s actually true, and they’re telling the truth, it’s a good deal,” said Ray Prda, a farmer and rancher at the Oxford meeting Wednesday. “It’s an ‘only time will tell’ type deal.”

Another primary topic was Ag Plus, a new use-by-right idea to expand development flexibility on agricultural land. With policy solutions, like cluster development, farmers and ranchers could develop portions of their land, and diversify income, without compromising land uses.

“Farmers and ranchers operate on pretty small margins. A drought here, or some other natural disaster that happens – that wipes out profit for the year,” Minkler said.

The county will hold meetings March 12 and March 26 to discuss policies in the code revisions, like the role of district advisory committees.

In the meantime, staff members encouraged the public to give comments through a new email and comment portal on the planning website.

“We’re trying to get the message out: talk to us,” Minkler said. “We want to know how to you feel about things as they are rolled out.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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