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La Plata County’s new land-use code clears major hurdle

Planning Commission gives revised regulations nod of approval

La Plata County’s more than four-year attempt to update its land-use code passed a major hurdle Thursday.

The La Plata County Planning Commission, charged with giving county commissioners a recommendation about the revised regulations, voted 4-1 in favor of the draft code.

Now, there will be two public hearings from 2 to 4 p.m. and again from 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 4 and Aug 11.

La Plata County commissioners are expected to take a final vote whether to approve the revised code on Sept. 15.

The county’s land-use code hasn’t received a serious overhaul since the 1980s, though not for lack of trying: Numerous attempts over the years have run into controversy and failed.

This most recent effort started in early 2016 when commissioners Brad Blake, Gwen Lachelt and Julie Westendorff directed county staff members to pursue updating the land-use code.

Blake is no longer on the commission. Lachelt and Westendorff are term-limited and will leave their posts in January 2021.

A draft of the regulations, created by a Texas firm, was released in fall 2017, which met immediate backlash from some residents who said the proposed codes went beyond the county’s authority and infringed on property rights.

The Texas company, Kendig Keast Collaborative, was ultimately fired, and its draft codes scrapped. La Plata County then put the brakes on the process to take more community input and write the regulations in-house.

After numerous public meetings and workshops, La Plata County released the current revised draft in May.

“I think this is a time where we’re unlikely to reach perfection,” said Planning Commissioner Christopher Scott. “But staff has produced a substantially better code than has existed in the past.”

Planning Commissioner Geri Malandra echoed much of the same.

“Is it perfection? No,” she said. “Will it get better? Yes.”

The lone vote of dissension came from Planning Commissioner Charly Minkler, who is running as an independent candidate for La Plata County commissioner. Minkler said there has not been sufficient time to gather public comment and raised concerns the new codes would be too restrictive on development.

A handful of residents who spoke during public comment at Thursday’s meeting raised the same issues.

“With all that’s going on in the world ... I don’t understand the need to rush through this,” said Misti Witt, who lives in southeastern La Plata County.

Several residents voiced concern that certain projects call for an administrative review and put too much discretion in the hands of the community development director.

The majority of Planning Commission members said they are comfortable with the process put in place, highlighting that anyone who disagrees with the community development director’s decision can appeal to the county’s Board of Adjustments.

Minkler also called for more flexibility to allow small agricultural producers more uses on their land. Planning commissioners directed staff members to create a “micro ag” designation to address the issue.

“In the past, we think of ag being on large parcels of land,” Minkler said. “The new reality is folks are farming and making a living on smaller parcels.”

County officials have said the current set of codes is among the top complaints they hear from residents.

The main issue, county officials say, is the current codes – known as “performance-based zoning” – require anyone who wants to develop land to go through a costly and time-intensive process to draft things like engineering studies and building designs.

After all the front-end work, which in some cases can take up to a year and cost prospective developers tens of thousands of dollars, the county then reviews the proposed project to determine if it is a suitable fit for the area – and it could be denied.

The county believes it has solved that problem in the new draft code in two ways.

The first is introducing the process of a “sketch plan review” to evaluate and discuss basic designs, concepts and suitability of a project at the beginning of the project, effectively flipping compatibility analysis from the back end to the front.

And the second process is designated “economic development areas” that promote commercial, industrial or mixed-use developments in areas pegged for growth, much like Gem Village west of Bayfield.

The draft codes also introduce the concept of “Ag Plus,” a set of expanded uses on agricultural land that don’t require an extensive review process in an attempt to help agricultural operators diversify their businesses.

“It’s time to adopt the land-use code,” said Planning Commissioner Mike Scieszka. “It is a comprehensive, well-designed code that will serve the county’s development needs over the next decade.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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