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Overhaul of La Plata County land-use code up for discussion

Wednesday meeting to address zoning, rewrite of rules
At a major hearing in January 2018, county residents voiced their disdain for a draft of land-use code revisions. Since, the county has worked to find a balance between fixing the issues in the outdated codes and weighing residents’ concerns.

Wednesday could be a milestone moment for the future of La Plata County’s rewrite of the land-use code.

At a work session at 10 a.m., county commissioners are expected to give clear direction about how to proceed with the overhaul and take a stance on whether to implement zoning, one of the most controversial aspects of the process.

In early 2016, La Plata County commissioners voted unanimously to update the land-use code, which hasn’t been revamped since the 1980s. Multiple attempts to rewrite the regulations have failed.

Current codes, county officials say, cause problems for developers and residents.

Under county procedure, anyone who wants to develop land must first go through a time-consuming and costly process to draft things such as engineering studies and building designs.

After the front-end work, the project goes before the county, which determines whether the proposed project and site are a suitable fit – and it could be denied. This toss-up likely has stunted development and job growth, county officials say.

The process, called “performance-based zoning,” creates a burdensome uncertainty for developers and property owners who want to develop their land, as well as residents who want to influence the character of their neighborhood, county officials say.

County commissioners in 2016 directed county staff members to revise the code to fix these conflicts, as well as address other parts of the regulations in order to better direct growth in appropriate areas, streamline the development process and minimize sprawl.

But the county in late 2017 rolled out a draft of the land-use code that immediately sparked outrage among some residents, who criticized the proposed regulations for overstepping private property rights and being out of touch with the diverse character of regional zones.

La Plata County officials ultimately agreed and, in April 2018, fired the contracted Texas firm that drew up the draft code and vowed to rewrite the codes in-house, slow down the process and include more public input.

Over the past year or so, county staff and commissioners have held various work sessions to discuss larger themes of the code, such as rules surrounding storage containers and special events, as well as amendments to water standards.

But the ultimate rewrite of the code was put on hold until the completion of district plans, which allow individual communities to set a vision for growth in their neighborhoods. Those 12 plans are set to be finalized in November, and it appears the larger conversation about the land-use code is back.

“I think it’s an appropriate time to take steps forward,” Commissioner Julie Westendorff said.

On Wednesday, one of the main discussion points will include whether to pursue “Euclidean zoning,” a system in which properties are classified for a particular use, or continue with the current “performance-based zoning.”

County staff, it appears, suggests not pursuing Euclidean zoning, based on public opposition. Instead, staff recommends improving the performance-based system.

“Staff believes that it can achieve the board’s goals with performance-based zoning through development standards and improved compatibility and project review process,” according to county records.

On Thursday, Commissioner Clyde Church said residents have made it clear they do not want Euclidean zoning.

Euclidean zoning would essentially flip the process, county officials have said, by predetermining what type of uses work in what areas, based on the character of the neighborhood and what infrastructure exists there. It is the most common form of zoning, according to the state of Colorado.

But Church said many county residents believe this system would pigeonhole potential use of their land. However, he said performance-based zoning isn’t much better. He called it “really slow and difficult” and highlighted that the system doesn’t provide any certainty for development.

“But if they want to retain it, fine,” he said. “They seem to think it gives more flexibility and control of their land.”

Commissioners said the land-use code rewrite should rely heavily on input included in the 12 district plans. As a result, zoning of any kind might not be the right call for some areas of the county.

“I can tell you we’re not taking as big a bite as we did initially,” Westendorff said. “But I think we’re going to be able to tackle the biggest components of the land-use revision to try and facilitate economic development, jobs and the like for our communities.”

Commissioner Gwen Lachelt, too, said the county is headed in the right direction.

“I feel like we really are going to achieve a code that affords more certainty and predictability to those that use our land-use process for development,” she said.

Wednesday’s work session will be held at the County Administration Building, 1101 East Second Ave.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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