The Wild West-esque days may be coming to an end for a rogue neighborhood northwest of Durango that enjoyed little oversight or regulation for years.
“It’s just this no man’s land that’s not being regulated or governed by the county,” said Joe Bodewes, a nearby property owner. “It’s never going to fly as a development, but it’s a diamond in the rough.”
The story of the neighborhood, known as Durango Estates, goes back decades.
Back in the 1970s, a 185-acre property was divided into about 420 quarter-acre lots, near intersection of Junction Creek Road (County Road 204) and County Road 205.
But because the neighborhood was plotted before the county’s Building Department was created, none of the standard issues like access roads and necessary infrastructure, i.e., sewer and water, was taken into consideration.
So when the Building Department was later formed, developers had a tough time getting anything approved. The road to the property, for instance, remains incredibly steep and is the only way in or out.
“That’s the crux of the issue here,” said county spokeswoman Megan Graham. “There’s been a number of attempts (to develop) over the years, but nothing has been approved ... because of that underlying inadequacy of infrastructure.”
Now, about half the lots are owned by individual private landowners, and the other half are owned by a developer called “Corona,” said La Plata County Treasurer Allison Aichele.
Over the years, Corona stopped paying its property taxes on its lots. As a result, La Plata County started taking on tax liens, with the Treasurer’s Office responsible for then making a list available for the public to purchase.
Aichele said historically there has been very little interest in purchasing the lots, which cost about $3,500 each, until the past two years when more people started buying property – though she did not have a total amount.
As more people moved into the unregulated neighborhood, nearby neighbors started to report issues with damage to the access road, concerns about fire danger and the environmental impacts of people living in areas with no sewer.
“This is going to become a nightmare if they (the county) keeps selling these tax liens,” said Cheryl Albrecht-Harvey, who since 1998 has lived along the access road to Durango Estates, just at the edge of the subdivision.
Albrecht-Harvey said two lots are occupied, for the most part, year-round, by people who live in campers. She was unsure what the people did for disposing of human waste.
“The county is creating a bit of a mess they’ll have to contend with later if they don’t nip it in the bud,” she said.
Albrecht-Harvey’s husband, Kennan Harvey, said he’s asked the two property owners to help maintain the steep access road, especially in winter, but he claimed everyone said no.
“There’s been a number of conflicts with people up here,” he said. “I sound like a disgruntled neighbor, and to a point I am. No one wants to help with the road.”
Harvey also said the people living in Durango Estates are in violation of certain county codes. Graham, however, said the county’s code enforcement has not found any violations upon inspection of the properties in the neighborhood.
Craig Bauer, one of the people who live year-round in Durango Estates, said he was unable to comment about whether he was for or against helping maintain the road, citing possible legal complications.
Regardless, Bauer said he doesn’t see any issue with the way Durango Estates is.
“I don’t think the county has a right to tell an individual what they can do on their own land,” he said. “I have a constitutional right to be on my land.”
Bauer said the main issue is people trespassing into Durango Estates to access adjacent public lands.
Indeed, on a recent visit, several hikers could be seen walking through the mostly undeveloped neighborhood up to the San Juan National Forest. Graham, however, said while it is a private subdivision, one of the challenges seems to be that there might not be legal access.
“People have been using these trails for 30 years, probably,” said Albrecht-Harvey.
With any large-scale development seemingly out of the question because of issues with topography and infrastructure, several neighbors expressed a keen interest in conserving the land and converting it to a park or trail system.
This week, coincidentally, La Plata County commissioners voted to start a process whereby the county could acquire the land. (Right now, the county holds only the tax lien.)
Current property owners would still have the chance to pay their back taxes. But should it fall into county ownership, Commissioner Julie Westendorff also floated the idea of a public park “if that turns out to be a better use of the land.”
“Right now, it’s an unusable asset,” she said.
Any potential future use for land that could come into county ownership in Durango Estates would be a decision for a future Board of County Commissioners, and would go through a public process.