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Neighbors, Animas RV park developer clash over code

Neighbors have organized to try to halt development of a property along Trimble Lane
Residents of the Animas Valley have organized themselves in a group called the Animas Valley Action Coaltion to stop the development of a former gravel pit located at 876 Trimble Lane (County Road 252). From left: Ted Waterman, Brenda Fernandez, Sam Foster, Linda Fitz, Dot Wehrly, Jimbo Buickerood, Anita Rancatti, Tom Penn, Maria Spero, Chris Gregory and Sherry Inglat. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

It has been three months since residents of the Animas Valley first caught a whiff of development that may be coming their way, and a palpable cloud of opposition is now looming over the 36-acre former gravel pit where a developer has proposed building a luxury RV park.

Arizona-based developer Scott Roberts hopes to build a luxury RV park under his brand Village Camp on the lot located at 876 Trimble Lane (County Road 252). Roberts submitted a sketch plan – the most preliminary stage of the planning process – in December and received approval from the La Plata County Planning Commission on Jan. 12.

Roberts said he plans to file an application for a permit sometime later this spring.

The initial sketch plan proposal included 306 stalls for recreational vehicles, 49 of which would be occupied by prefabricated “adventure cabins,” which are essentially tiny homes.

Roberts has said the formal permit application will include fewer stalls in response to feedback provided by the community, although he was unsure exactly what that number would be. He said only that it would be fewer than 300 units but more than 200.

An example of one of the luxury adventure cabins at the Village Camp resort in Truckee, California. (Courtesy of Scott Roberts)

In a county populated by residents who are, by and large, champions of private property rights, many barbs hurled at the La Plata County Community Development Department come from those disgruntled by the restrictions imposed by the land-use code. Rarely, it seems, do protests arise over the ease with which development can occur.

However, a group of neighbors calling themselves the Animas Valley Action Coalition have united themselves to try to block the development on the basis that it does conform to the code, arguing that residents’ voices are being stifled.

“The citizens are being totally ignored,” said Dorothy Wehrly, one of the three de facto leaders of the AVAC. Wehrly and her partner, G. Sam Foster, live 3 miles north of the property.

Both county officials and the developer disagree, pointing to the fact that a permit application has yet to even be filed and more opportunities for public comment are to come.

“Our new plan will address the concerns of the residents,” Roberts said.

A major minor project

Initially, detractors argued that Roberts needed to seek a major land-use permit rather than a minor permit. Wehrly was the most vocal proponent of this position, making the point at the hearing on the sketch plan, in written comments to the Planning Commission, in the opinion pages of The Durango Herald and in multiple communications with the paper.

Despite meetings with planners, County Manager Chuck Stevens and Interim Community Development Director Kevin Hall, the neighbors did not back off the position until Wehrly received a set of notes on the matter from a neighbor that had been compiled by county staff members and forwarded to that neighbor by Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton.

Although RV parks are typically required to apply for a major land-use permit, developments within the Animas Valley are different as a result of the Animas Valley Land Use Plan. The plan, adopted in 2019, established the only Euclidean zoning in the county. As a result, certain kinds of development in the valley are made easier depending on how a lot is zoned.

The property at 876 Trimble Lane, which Roberts now owns, is zoned for general commercial use. The previous owner had it rezoned from industrial use in 2020, before Roberts entered the picture.

Under chapter 65-3-XII(c) of the code, properties zoned for general commercial use may apply for a minor land-use permit for “special uses.”

“Low-intensity, tourist-oriented recreational uses,” are included in the definition of “special use.”

Although the term has become a point of contention, the code does offer a definition of “low-intensity, tourist-oriented recreational uses.” The definition includes “golf courses, driving ranges, RV parks, riding stables, fishing ponds, campgrounds, glider ports.”

“They are going to submit under a minor land-use permit, and they are afforded that right based on their zoning,” said Daniel Murphy, the planner working on the project.

The notes provided by Porter-Norton laid this out to the satisfaction of Wehrly and her associates.

“I still don’t agree with it, but I understand how they can say it’s legal,” Wehrly said.

Although the project could be approved with fewer opportunities for public comment as a minor land-use permit, even that is unlikely to be the case. And, Murphy adds, there is a difference between approval procedure and approval standards.

“Standard-wise – FEMA, the land-use code, state regulations for traffic – there is no difference. They are subject to 100% of the applicable code sections,” he said. “... Procedurally, because of zoning, they are afforded the right, though, for a quicker public review.”

Given that all the standards used to scrutinize an RV park permitted under a major land-use permit remain in effect, only two procedural elements differentiate an RV park approved under a minor permit.

First, developers do not have to submit a sketch plan (eliminating one opportunity for public input). Second, minor permits are approved by the five member Planning Commission, unlike the major permits, which must be approved by the Board of County Commissioners.

Roberts voluntarily went through the sketch plan process; if the plan does go before the BoCC, which could happen as the result of either an appeal by a concerned neighbor or the order of the Community Development director, the approval procedures will be the same as if the project applied for a major land-use permit.

From legal technicalities to the spirit of the code
A piece of property that sits next to Trimble Lane (County Road 252) and the Animas River is being considered for a luxury RV park. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Tom Penn lives in South Dalton, a development abutting the Roberts property. He too, is one of the leaders of the AVAC.

“We worked a few years ago on how we want this whole area of the valley to move forward with development,” he said. “... Even though they may legally be able to squeeze through this back door, through the cracks in that document and the code, the truth is, it doesn’t really go with the spirit of what was trying to be done and what we’re trying to maintain.”

Two documents apply to development in the Animas Valley: the Animas Valley District Plan and the AVLUP. The former is advisory in nature, while the latter is regulatory.

“Any proposed development or redevelopment ought to be reviewed based on their compatibility with the sentiments of this document and the existing zone districts in the AVLUP,” the AVDP reads.

The district plan enumerates sweeping recommendations and goals for development. Members of the coalition refer to these guidelines in their objections now, citing objectives such as “3.B.1: Discourage land uses that would negatively impact surrounding property owners and the natural environment.”

Although these guidelines are less specific in nature, the members of the AVAC now hope they can be deployed to sway decision-makers.

Roberts, in response, offers a common refrain.

“I bought the property for the price I paid for it because it has the rights that are going with the property, which are that it has the zoning to be able to be a developed piece of land,” he said.

Scott Roberts makes the case for the Village Camp sketch plan before the La Plata County Planning Commission in January. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

However, Roberts also said he is willing to engage with concerned neighbors to work in the direction of assuaging their concerns.

“I want to win (the support of) everybody I possibly can,” he said. “Ultimately though, it has to be economically viable for myself as well.”

He said making the project only 100 units, as some neighbors have proposed, is not economically viable, nor would it be for anyone else who took ownership of the property. Roberts also makes the case that of the allowable uses, an RV park is a preferable development to other uses.

The neighbors disagree.

“Between a 300-unit park and the gravel pit, give me the gravel pit,” Penn said.

Until Roberts submits an application, the neighbors and planners can only wait. If the application is approved, Roberts said the earliest he would break ground is spring 2024.

Until then, the neighbors are strategizing how to get the Board of County Commissioners involved.

“If we can get this to the (BoCC), I think we will get a fair shake at it,” Penn said. “These are people who are elected, they’ve got votes to think about, and I think they are going to try to do the best they can for us.”

rschafir@durangoherald.com

This story has been updated to reflect that Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton sent staff notes on the subject to a neighbor of Dorothy Wehrly’s, who sent them on to her. Porter-Norton did not provide the notes directly to Wehrly.



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