The 40 or so La Plata County residents who attended Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting were a bit dismayed that the “elephant in the room” wasn’t initially addressed.
Earlier this week, the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners released an open letter that addressed concerns over some people and citizen groups working on district plans not drawing a clear distinction that they do not work for the county.
The issue was placed on Thursday’s agenda of the Planning Commission, the body that is responsible for leading the district plan update.
District plans are guiding, advisory documents that allow smaller communities within the county to establish visions for how and where they would like to see growth in their neighborhoods.
When the agenda item over the issue came up, Planning Director Jason Meininger passed out the county commissioners’ letter to the seven-person, volunteer Planning Commission, which then moved on to the next item, without internal discussion or opening up the topic to public comment.
The rest of the Planning Commission’s agenda included discussions on three district plan updates for the Animas Valley, Florida Mesa and Fort Lewis Mesa.
During Florida Mesa’s portion of the discussion, Naomi Riess, a member of a district plan working group for Florida Mesa, took issue that the Planning Commission passed over the “elephant in the room” – the County Commission’s open letter.
Riess said the open letter, as well as an article in The Durango Herald, were a “direct attack” on the Florida Mesa district planning group.
BOCC open letter
The county commissioners’ letter does not directly name a group or person as improperly representing itself as a county employee.
In the Herald article, published earlier this week, Planning Commission Chairman Jim Tencza mentioned Florida Mesa as having the issue, as well as having competing groups weighing in on the district plan.
“We have never, ever represented ourselves ... as county staff,” Riess said.
Tencza said it is true Florida Mesa has two groups with conflicting ideas on the district, but that he wanted to clarify he has not personally seen people representing themselves as county staff in that district.
“We appreciate your commitment,” Tencza told the Florida Mesa working group.
Planning Commissioner Geri Malandra said her “heart sank” when she saw the Florida Mesa group mixed up in the issue. She said citizens on Florida Mesa have worked well together in coming up with an updated district plan.
Planning Commissioner Charly Minkler also said he was aware the issue of misrepresentation was out there, though not in the Florida Mesa district.
“Obviously, some people felt that concern,” Minkler said. “They (county commissioners) are just trying to keep that messaging clear.”
Planning Commissioner Chris Scott said he was aware of some residents in the Animas Valley who made La Plata County aware there was an individual they felt was misrepresenting him- or herself.
Michelina Paulek, another member of the Florida Mesa working group, also expressed frustration that the Planning Commission did not address the issue head-on.
“That’s what the anticipation was,” she said. “That’s what we’re here tonight to discuss.”
Paulek said La Plata County initially wanted as much feedback as possible in the land-use code rewrite, as well as the district plan update. She said the tone of the county commissioners’ letter seemed to suggest that wasn’t the case anymore.
“I’m not sure of the intent (of the letter),” she said. “To frighten people from participating?”
The commissioners’ letter, however, says: “The board wants to emphasize that this advisement does not discourage residents from organizing to present a unified voice as the process continues.”
Instead, the letter clarifies how district plans are updated and warns that people and groups that do not clearly identify themselves as entities outside county authority may become confused.
“This confusion has led some county residents to mistakenly believe that meetings hosted by (third-party) groups were official county meetings, that the leaders at the meetings were county government representatives and other misplaced assumptions,” the letter says.
Paulek, as well as others, asked the Planning Commission take up the issue again at its next district plan-centric meeting next month. It was not clear Thursday night whether the Planning Commission would do so.
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Naomi Riess’ name.