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Updates to La Plata County district plans sought before land-use code changes

County says both can be addressed at the same time
Jim Tencza, chairman of the La Plata County Planning Commission, says many of the district plans haven’t been updated in 20 years and no longer reflect the desires of the neighborhoods.

As La Plata County’s land-use code update remains in limbo, some residents are calling for the process to be put on hold until the narrower, hyper-local district plans are revised.

County planners maintain that rewrites to both the land-use code and district plans can happen simultaneously and that any pressure to do otherwise would unnecessarily delay badly needed updates to the outdated codes.

“The district plans absolutely need to be finished before the land-use code is adopted,” said Jon Fossel with the La Plata Liberty Coalition. “How can you adopt a new land-use code without first having input from all the districts?”

In county planning, two major documents guide growth: a comprehensive plan, which is an advisory document that lays out a broad vision for future growth; and a land-use code, which sets regulations and development standards for that growth.

Within the comprehensive plan, district plans allow smaller communities to establish visions for how and where they would like to see growth in their neighborhoods.

“The district plans are more specific to where you live,” said Jim Tencza, chairman of the La Plata County Planning Commission. “It’s really about you as a resident, and what you’d like to see happen.”

New district plans

La Plata County has a long and troubled history with efforts to update its comprehensive plan and land-use code. But in May 2017, the county was able to update its comprehensive plan without much fanfare.

Within La Plata County, there are 12 districts. Many of the district plans haven’t been updated in 20 years and no longer reflect the desires of the neighborhoods, Tencza said.

As a result, in November 2017, the county’s planning department and commission began outreach to update every district plan with the expectation of finishing the process by spring 2019.

Now, many county residents want this process completed before a serious rewrite of the land-use code.

“Given how wrong the proposed code was, it certainly makes sense to give the community a chance to update those district plans first before finishing and adopting a new code,” said Naomi Dobbs with La Plata Liberty Coalition.

Two visions of the process

In the fall, the county planning department released a rough draft of an updated land-use code, which immediately elicited intense public backlash from those who said the regulations exceeded the county’s authority.

The fallout from the release of the draft land-use codes has caused the county to put the rewrite process on hold until county commissioners provide direction about how to move forward.

The sentiment among some county residents is that by shoring up district plans first, the county will have a better foundation on which to base the land-use code.

“The district plans and comprehensive plan are supposed to say what the vision of an area is, and the code is supposed to regulate that,” said Jenny Burbey, a Breen resident who has served on the Fort Lewis Mesa review group since 2003.

“But if they have regulatory language in the code that doesn’t reflect the vision of the district, then the code is wrong.”

Jason Meininger, the county’s planning director, contests this notion.

He said the majority of the land-use codes are generic, county-wide rules, such as road standards, parking lot designs and size requirements for new water or sewer pipes. Or more simply, Meininger said land-use codes are development standards that do not impact the unique characteristics of neighborhoods, which a district plan sets.

“District plans identify types of uses and where that is appropriate,” he said. “Land-use codes are about how that development happens and to what standards.”

The other main sticking point is that zoning (which the land-use code is expected to include for the first time in the La Plata County) is based on uses of surrounding properties, as well as where infrastructure exists.

“That’s what people get confused about,” Meininger said. “Zoning is based on what other uses are around that area and what infrastructure is available, while district plans identify what a community wants in the future and where.”

Burbey said one of the main reasons the draft land-use codes missed the mark was that they didn’t reflect what county residents desired.

“(The county) would probably have had less backlash if people ... saw their own districts and homes reflected in the codes,” she said. “And that’s what it missed.”

Commissioners back work on land-use code

While the La Plata County Planning Commission spearheads district plan updates, county commissioners have the authority to stop the land-use code update until that process plays out.

Commissioner Brad Blake said he would like to see the county continue the land-use code rewriting process but hold off on areas of the code that overlap with district plans until those are updated.

“The entirety of the code doesn’t focus only on land use,” he said. “You have all kinds of other things that can be worked on.”

Commissioners Gwen Lachelt and Julie Westendorff also said it’s not necessary to stop rewriting the codes to wait for the district plan updates.

Westendorff said a lot of the push for the county to stop rewriting the codes stems from a misunderstanding of the process. She said many people wrongly think a district plan is actually a map of land uses.

“And that’s not what it is,” she said. “They look at the goals, objectives and values of a particular part of the county. District plans don’t look at nitty-gritty of property. That’s the land-use codes.”

The Planning Commission’s Tencza said 80 to 85 percent of the land-use code deals with regulations that have no bearing on district plans. He, too, would like to see those matters worked on while district plans are updated.

“Why not work on those generic things across the county and wait for the district plans to catch up?” he said. “That way at the end of the process we can identify conflicts (between the land-use code and district plans) and deal with them.”

Timelines may coincide

If the district plans meet their scheduled timeline, which can be viewed on the county website, it appears the two will end up finishing simultaneously. But delays to updating the land-use code are a concern to county planners.

The county’s current land-use code hasn’t been seriously overhauled since the 1980s and fails to take into account large-scale growth.

Already, the county has had requests from developers to explore two city-sized projects in areas that aren’t generally considered the best places for that kind of growth.

“I think it really comes down to people not understanding how the pieces fit and work together,” Meininger said. “It is an ill-informed comment. They can really be done together.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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