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Some residents happy, others less so, with county district plans

Planning Commission set to adopt updates this week and next
After two years, it’s a mixed bag whether residents are pleased with the outcome updates to district plans. Jim Tencza, chairman of the La Plata County Planning Commission, is shown with the draft plans, set for adoption this week and next week.

The long-awaited updates to La Plata County’s district plans are scheduled for completion this week and next, but it’s a mixed bag among residents whether the documents are truly representative of their neighborhood.

For the past two years, La Plata County staff and residents have been working to update the county’s 12 district plans, which are guiding documents that allow smaller communities within the county to establish visions for how and where they would like to see growth in their neighborhoods.

The La Plata County Planning Commission on Thursday and again on Nov. 14 is slated to start approving the plans, which haven’t been updated in years.

But it varies by district whether residents feel the plans accomplish what they were set out to do: establish a vision for future growth in their community.

More specifically, it appears there’s a line in the sand: Residents interviewed for this story who live in the northern parts of the county said the plans were a success, while those who live in the southern parts around Bayfield, Fort Lewis Mesa and Florida Mesa say they are not happy with the finished product.

In the North County District, from about Bakers Bridge to the San Juan County line, the plan focuses on preserving the open space and mountain views of the San Juan Mountains while honoring private property rights, said Silverpick Lodge owner Chris Wing, who helped with the update.

To accomplish that, Wing said the plan calls for limited development in places where it makes sense along U.S. Highway 550, the only major roadway that passes through the area.

“We’ve had instances where people come in and haven’t been sensitive to the population up here, and the whole point of the plan is to give people an idea of the local culture,” he said. “And we’re delighted with the plan, and really appreciate all the efforts county staff put in.”

At Vallecito, Paul Eckenrode, president of the Vallecito Chamber of Commerce, reiterated a similar sentiment. He, too, said the community about 25 miles northeast of Durango wanted to preserve its rural character and natural beauty.

“It’s clear the people in Vallecito who live there full time, and also those who own part-time homes, value the rural setting of Vallecito Lake,” he said. “And I think the county did an admirable job of trying to receive feedback from residents and business owners.”

And in the Animas Valley, longtime resident Shirley Dills said a process that involved up to 200 home and business owners resulted in a successful plan that seeks to protect agriculture and scenic beauty amid increasing pressure for development.

Dills said there is some lingering difference of opinion about where identified “growth hubs” should occur and where the boundaries are. But, for the most part, the document lays out the vision of the community for the next 10 or 20 years. (The Animas Valley is the only area with zoning).

“Our process went pretty darn smooth,” Dills said.

In the southern parts of the county, it’s a different story.

Southern La Plata County relies, for the most part, on agriculture, as opposed to areas to the north that are more tourist-dependent.

There, the majority of residents are strong believers in little to no regulations, said Misti Witt, a resident in the Southeast District.

“There were things we wanted to say they (county staff) wouldn’t allow us to put in,” she said. “The people in the Southeast District are very much a constitutional group. … People should decide the use of their land, and they (county staff) did not want us to put that in there.”

Witt said a plan was drafted by residents but taken by county staff and changed. She said there are aspects of the plan that will help guide future growth around the district, but the county’s edits leave room for “doubt and distrust.”

“We didn’t get to write the entire plan the way we should have,” she said.

Naomi Riess with the Florida Mesa District also said county staff changed the district’s vision statement. She said two opposing groups in the district formed, further complicating matters.

“The finished product is not that bad,” she said. “But the Planning Commission basically took over and made it more their plan.”

Mae Morley, a rancher in western La Plata County, said she hoped the Planning Commission would include the original language that residents submitted before final adoption.

“It’s been a disappointment for a lot of us,” Morley said.

Daniel Murray, a planner with La Plata County, said staff is aware of the issues raised in the southern districts. But he disagreed community visions were edited out. Instead, he said district plans are advisory documents, not regulatory, and some plans toed that uneasy line. The county wanted to make sure district plans were consistent and compliant with state and federal law.

“Their vision is still there, but we had to take political ideologies out,” he said.

At its core, land-use planning is complex, Murray said. A common issue was that residents expressed a desire to preserve the character of their neighborhood, yet at the same time, want no regulations. All this in the face of increasing development pressures.

“There’s inherit conflict when you want to keep it the way it is and let people do what they want,” he said. “It’s a dilemma we’re trying to find the balance to.”

La Plata County staff have said district plans will help inform the overhaul of the land-use code over the coming months.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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