La Plata County planning commissioners Jean Walter and George Hepner are the subject of an ethics complaint submitted this week to the Board of County Commissioners by Jack Turner, two-time candidate for county commissioner and two-time applicant to the Planning Commission.
The complaint alleges that Walter and Hepner disregarded the land-use code, violated the county code of ethics and conduct, and violated their responsibility and duty as planning commissioners. The complaint stems from statements they made during a Jan. 12 sketch plan hearing to consider the Village Camp luxury RV park being proposed for the Animas Valley.
Walter and Hepner were the two dissenters in a 3-2 vote to approve the sketch plan.
Toward the end of his eight-page complaint, Turner requests that Hepner and Walter be recused from any further discussion and review of the development. The request is moot with regard to Walter – her term expired after the last meeting on March 23.
Turner, who has a standing application to be considered for any available spots on the Planning Commission, withdrew that application to avoid the impression that he is attempting to create a vacancy from which he could benefit.
The basis of the complaint is that the two commissioners expressed personal opinions and voted in accordance with those opinions rather than conforming to the procedural guidelines for sketch plan reviews.
The purpose of a sketch plan is to determine if a proposed project is capable of “substantially complying” with the land-use code. The process calls for a high-level review of a broad proposal.
The sketch plan proposes a 306-stall luxury RV park on a 36-acre lot off Trimble Lane (County Road 252). Neighbors of the project have voiced myriad concerns including the impact on traffic, utilities, wildlife and noise.
“Both Walter and Hepner voted to deny sketch plan approval citing extraneous personal concerns that had no bearing on the project’s compliance with the Land Use Code at the sketch plan phase,” Turner told the BoCC.
In interviews with The Durango Herald, Walter and Hepner defended their votes and said they were in accordance with the land-use code.
Walter cited the introduction of the code, which reads, in part, that one of its goals is to “protect and respect the county’s most valued assets, such as its natural beauty and landscape, rural lands and viability of agricultural production; and mitigate the adverse impacts of new development on existing residents.”
Based on comments offered by the public that night, Walter said she felt the plan was not in accordance with that goal.
Hepner said his “nay” vote was predicated on the developer’s failure to adequately mention or mitigate adverse impacts of the project that had been voiced by neighbors at a community meeting in December.
“What I was thinking of – and this is what the sketch plan is supposed to do – is look at the broader, not the technical aspects, but the broader suitability assessment and those adverse impacts, and then mitigation concepts,” Hepner said. “That’s what's supposed to happen in the sketch plan process.”
Hepner said that although specific engineering plans are neither required nor allowed to be submitted during the sketch plan phase, the applicant, Scott Roberts, did not address concerns even in a broad sense.
His vote, he said, was the only tool at his disposal with which to draw attention to the concerns in a meaningful way so that the developer would address them before sinking more time and money into the project.
“My ‘no’ vote was my attempt to fulfill my obligation on the Planning Commission, under what the land-use code says for the sketch plan process, first and foremost,” he said. “... My ‘no’ vote was given to encourage the developer and the agent to consider these things more carefully in their future when they start laying out money for studies and engineering projects and so forth.”
In an email to the Herald, Turner said that Walter and Hepner “have already indicated they will vote against its (the project’s) approval.”
Hepner said that is not the case.
“I’m in favor of the project with different measures that mitigate the impacts,” he said. “I’m completely open to voting yes on the project if it comes before me again, but I’d like to see these suitability issues dealt with in a constructive manner.”
Hepner and Walter said they were caught of guard by the complaint. Hepner said he was “completely surprised” and dismissed the complaint as someone trying to make political hay. Walter called it a personal attack.
“He (Turner) managed to bring into this that I’m a Democrat – so what?” Walter responded. “That’s like attacking the entire system, saying the commissioners aren’t qualified to make a decision like this because (they are) Democrats.”
Turner’s complaint highlighted that Walter serves on the executive committee for the La Plata County Democrats, which supported the three Democratic county commissioners. To that point, Turner requested an independent, i.e., someone without a political affiliation – like himself, review his complaint so that there would not be any appearance of impropriety.
“This complaint is not a personal attack with a covert agenda,” he wrote.
County Manager Chuck Stevens said he read the complaint in full twice and was considering what the review process would be. On one other occasion when independent review was warranted, Stevens said the county recruited another county’s legal staff to review the complaint. However, there is no standardized process for how to deal with ethical complaints because they occur so infrequently.