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Rural La Plata County landowners decry proposed land-use code

Ag crowd overflows at Oxford Grange Hall

Proposed land-use code revisions that would add rules to what landowners can and can’t do with their property didn’t go over well Tuesday night at the Oxford Grange Hall in eastern La Plata County, where more than 200 residents showed up – mostly to oppose the rules.

Two county commissioners and staffers were on hand to hear ag concerns after local landowners started reading the first part of the proposed La Plata County Land Use Code, and many said they don’t like it. So far, more than 250 comments have been received, and more are expected before the Jan. 26 deadline to comment.

“We need this,” Commissioner Brad Blake said of the public input he heard at the meeting.

While Tuesday night’s crowd spilled out the doors, past meetings, including those involving the land-use code, have had only three people in attendance, he said.

Part of the uproar is caused by a philosophical opposition to zoning land in ag country.

“When you take uses from that property, you devalue that property,” said J. Paul Brown, a former state representative who ranches near Ignacio. “We need to sit down with you and try to come up with a code and land-use plan that we can live with, and you can live with.”

Blake said most complaints he receives as a commissioner are about the existing land-use code. “It does not work,” he said. “The county has to do better.”

“Our goal is to get the right code,” said Commissioner Julie Westendorff, who represents the eastern section of the county.

While the crowd was mostly amicable, at times there were heated comments and open jeers from some in attendance.

Having a predictable code that spells out what is allowed and what isn’t provides more uses by right than the existing process, said Jason Meininger, the county’s planning director.

“That makes no sense,” hollered one woman in the crowd.

“Huh-uh,” added another.

The draft code needs more definitions and clarity, said Christi Zeller, director of the La Plata County Energy Council. It also needs to be released simultaneously, not in stages, she said. Rural residential and suburban residential are not defined in the draft, she said. And a section calling for permits for Class A and Class B events doesn’t define the difference between the two.

The proposed code also gets into areas that shouldn’t be part of land use, she said, such as housing affordability and economic development. “I don’t understand why a land-use code talks about the interior of a house,” Zeller said. That comment brought a round of applause.

Robert Peck, who ranches near Ignacio, said current county regulations are “pretty cumbersome,” and he thinks use permits should be kept to a minimum. “Don’t let the people in Durango determine the rules,” he said.

Another participant said the code “feels like an HOA at the county level” and involves “nitpicking” things the county shouldn’t regulate.

Meininger said while that may be the consensus in rural La Plata County, there are other county residents who don’t share that point of view. Sixty to 75 percent of the complaints made to county staff involve aesthetics, said Sheryl Rogers, the county attorney.

“Too bad!” one crowd member responded.

Westendorff said one of the issues in the county is the vastly different sizes of acreage. What one property owner does on 200 acres, for example, has fewer impacts than someone on 1 or 3 acres.

“Did you guys get a permit for this meeting?” one audience member asked, which brought a roar of laughter from the crowd.

Efforts to update the code go back many years, and none of them have been particularly popular. A complete re-write started in 2004. A new 400-plus page code was adopted in summer 2007, but it never went into effect.

In February of 2009, county commissioners revoked the code after studies showed it could promote unwanted rural sprawl instead of discouraging it.

Shortly after revoking the 2007 code approval, commissioners moved to update the 2001 county comprehensive plan with visions and goals that would guide creation of a new land-use code. But the comp plan itself became controversial in 2011, and the commissioners scrapped it in November that year, followed by the planning commission the next month.

If you go

La Plata County commissioners will host a forum to discuss proposed changes to the land-use code at 7 p.m. Jan 16 at the Administration Building, 1101 East Second Ave.

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