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To zone or not to zone, that’s the question for La Plata County

Multiple attempts to update the land-use code have failed

La Plata County is about to take a deep dive down the zoning rabbit hole to decide whether to implement for the first time countywide zoning, and if rules are adopted, what that would look like.

In early 2016, La Plata County commissioners unanimously called for an update to the land-use code, which hasn’t been seriously overhauled since the 1980s.

Multiple attempts to update the code after the effort in the ’80s failed.

The outdated codes cause a host of problems, but by far the biggest issue, county officials say, is the uncertainty it creates for prospective developers and private property owners who wish to develop their land.

With the way the county’s procedure currently works, anyone who wants to develop land must go through a timely and costly process to draft things such as engineering studies and building designs.

After this front end work is done, the project goes before the county to determine whether the project is suitable for the area where it is proposed – and it could very well be denied.

“You could spend $20,000 designing and planning and get rejected at the end,” Planning Director Jason Meininger said at a work session Wednesday.

A remedy – one used by counties all over the country – is to implement zoning laws that provide predetermined criteria and locations for development based on available infrastructure and neighborhood compatibility.

La Plata County is one of only four or five counties in Colorado that do not have zoning regulations. Two areas north of Durango – the Animas Valley and North County – implemented their own standards.

But ever since La Plata County commissioners called for the land-use code update, they have not given clear direction to county planners about the extent of what zoning laws would like.

Wednesday’s work session kicked off that process, which will consist of two meetings to talk about zoning, and one hearing for public input.

After these meetings, La Plata County commissioners will convene to provide county staff members with direction on whether to incorporate zoning – and how – in the revised land-use code.

As of Tuesday, no dates have been set for these meetings.

Zoning regulations cause mixed reactions from county residents.

Mae Morley, a rancher in western La Plata County, said people in the agriculture industry need flexibility to diversify use of their land. She worried that zoning a property for a specific use limits that ability.

“If we’re zoned ag, how much is it going to cost us to try to do something different?” Morley said. “In order to stay there, we need the opportunity to diversify and have ... lots of options for it (the land).”

Whether there’s zoning or not, county attorney Sheryl Rogers said the county will always have regulations in place that apply to development standards related to water, sewer and access.

“The notion that somehow by having no zoning, there’d be no regulations is not accurate,” Rogers said.

But zoning deals more with the process for determining whether a proposed development’s use is compatible with the area and neighborhood.

So commissioners must decide if compatibility matters. If it does, there are two processes to chose from.

A “performance-based” structure is similar to what the county uses now. It requires a developer to do work on the front end without knowing if the project will ultimately be approved.

Not many counties use this process, Meininger said, because it provides an uncertainty many developers and businesses don’t want to deal with. As a result, it deters new development and possible jobs.

A “Euclidean” structure is what most U.S. counties use. County staff members predetermine zoning for parcels of land. That way, a developer can look at a map to see exactly what uses are allowed on a specific property.

Options exist to draft a hybrid of the two processes, Meininger said.

Commissioners could also decide compatibility isn’t a priority and choose not to apply zoning.

Jack Scott, a La Plata County resident, suggested that some of the county doesn’t need to be zoned, given the diverse communities and topographical realities.

But, Scott said it is good that the county is at least seeking an understanding what zoning could look like.

“In the public, the word ‘zoning’ has created major turmoil,” he said. “But I don’t think we’ve ever looked to zoning as to what it actually is ... and we’ve been talking about this for 10 years.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

Poll: Should La Plata County adopt zoning rules to make the development process more predictable for developers and private landowners?

Yes - 888 - 44.6%

No - 1103 - 55.4%

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