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Lake Nighthorse gets OK for annexation, zoning

Some skeptical about cost and revenue projections
Durango planning commissioners recommended that the City Council annex and zone the 1,500 surface-acre Lake Nighthorse.

Despite reluctance and some skepticism about projected operational costs and revenues from fees that will be brought in by recreationalists at Lake Nighthorse, annexing and zoning the 1,500 surface-acre lake into the city of Durango got an initial recommendation of approval from the Durango Planning Commission on Monday night.

The vote, while unanimous, came with some warnings from commissioners that the initial recommendation for a fee of $5 per car or $50 annual pass and other revenue streams officials estimate from lake users won’t bring in the money the city projects.

The city aims to have fees and cost-sharing agreements with the federal Bureau of Reclamation at the reservoir to eventually cover 90 percent of its operational costs, a goal similar to the city’s policy for operation of Chapman Hill and the Durango Community Recreation Center.

“I did some quick calculations here: If we charge $5 per car, that means we’d have to have 100,000 cars go through in seven months, and that would be 476 cars per day. I think that’s optimistic,” said Planning Commissioner Joe Lewandowski.


Other commissioners recommended the city research an array of cost and revenue scenarios so the city would not be caught flat-footed if estimates for costs and revenues from the never-before-used lake don’t hold up.

Initial projections from the city estimate the costs to operate Lake Nighthorse, principally from managing recreation and law enforcement, would be $500,000 and revenue from fees would be $300,000.

The $200,000 shortfall would be shared by the Bureau of Reclamation, but that cost-sharing agreement must get approvals from both Congress and the Durango City Council.

The city projects it will need to hire three full-time employees in the Parks and Recreation Department to staff the reservoir for recreational purposes. In addition, an undetermined number of part-time seasonal employees would be hired to cover an estimated 2,500 hours of operation from April 1 to Nov. 15, the period the city now expects to open the reservoir for recreational use.

Commissioner Peter Tregillus also worried the pay rate for part-time employees during the operating season would fail to meet a livable wage in Durango.

“I do have concerns that what generally will be supporting the city will be those types of jobs which are staffed by people who can’t afford to live here,” Tregillus said, “and that’s a big planning issue that relates to some large issues in our Comprehensive Plan.”

Cathy Metz, director of parks and recreation, said the expected pay rate for part-time employees would be $13.82 an hour in 2018 – above one projection of a livable wage in La Plata County of $13.33 an hour.

Another point of friction was the debate about motorized and nonmotorized use of the lake. Some commissioners sought a more balanced approach to open up time for nonmotorized use of the lake during the peak season from June to August, when warmer weather makes outdoor activity more inviting.

Currently, the city plans to keep motorized boats off the lake from April 1 to May 14.

“I support this reluctantly because I think this is going to be a huge financial suck on the city. So, I hope you will take that into consideration as you discuss fees and management and where this is going,” Lewandowski said before his vote of approval.


This story has been corrected to reflect that Commissioner Peter Tregillus raised the issue about and commented on the pay rate for part-time employees.

Sep 20, 2021
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