What awaits La Plata County residents in 2019? Will county commissioners approve a revised land-use code, something that has sparked intense feelings among rural landowners who value private property rights? Will a jury be selected to consider evidence against Mark Redwine, who is accused of murdering his 13-year-old son, Dylan, in 2012? Will Mother Nature bring much-needed moisture to Southwest Colorado, which is experiencing an “exceptional drought”?
A new year can bring a fresh start and new faces. La Plata County Manager Joanne Spina will retire Jan. 2, and a new manager is expected to be hired in the coming months. The city of Durango is expected to name a new police chief after Chief Kamran Afzal resigned late this year to be closer to his family on the East Coast. And Durango Mayor Sweetie Marbury and City Councilor Dick White will step down in April, which will make way for new leaders.
It is often the unexpected that makes the biggest news, but here are issues we’ll be watching this year to see if they make headlines:
For existing lodgers, that looks like a lot of new competition.
But Roger Zalneraitis, who recently left his post as executive director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance, noted that La Plata County, in 2018, is barely exceeding the 2,500 hotel rooms it had in 1990, according to data from STR Global, a nationwide firm that provides data to lodgers.
Job board: Speaking of Zalneraitis, the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance is expected to take three to six months to name a new executive director.
Zalneraitis has been named economic development manager for the Permanent Fund of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.
Frank Lockwood, executive director of the Durango Area Tourism Office, has been suspended, a move that comes in the wake of disagreements he had with Durango City Council about how funds from the lodgers tax are spent and City Council’s move to examine contracting out tourism marketing to another organization.
The new year will determine if Lockwood and DATO’s board of directors can mend their ways and if he returns to lead tourism marketing for Durango or if City Council will pick a new group to handle the job.
Affordable housing: All eyes will be on housing developments and whether they will help ease a housing crunch or the affordability problem. New multifamily housing projects and Durango’s first tiny home village could drive down rental prices. Developer Bob Lieb expects to open Escalante Village, a community of 22 tiny homes, this spring at 224 Baker Lane along the Animas River. About 190 new rental apartments on Escalante Drive between Home Depot and Walmart and nine townhomes along Florida Road will also become available next year. Construction is planned to start on a 53-unit housing project in Three Springs along Wilson Gulch Road that will provide subsidized housing to low-income seniors.
Dan Snowberger contract renewal: Durango School District 9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger’s contract will be up for a one-year automatic extension in January after a rocky end to 2018. The year ended with Snowberger offering a rebuttal to allegations made by Durango 9-R Central Office Accountability group, which issued a white paper claiming Snowberger misrepresented his career in résumés to past jobs and calling for his termination. The school board has backed Snowberger and expressed skepticism of the white paper when the superintendent rebutted allegations made in the document.
If Snowberger’s contract is renewed, he will continue to lead 9-R at least until 2021. His current contract goes through June 30, 2020.
El Niño, the savior?: If one thing needs to happen in the new year, in terms of the environment, it is a desperate break from the spell of drought. 2018 was a drought year for the record books. It depleted reservoirs, caused the perfect conditions for wildfires all over the West, including the 416 Fire outside Durango, put the local agriculture industry in a pinch – the list goes on.
Since early 2018, the region has been listed in the most extreme category of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Weather forecasters offered a sliver of hope recently by predicting the conditions could be ripe for an El Niño weather pattern year, which is synonymous with precipitation and big winter storms for Southwest Colorado.
But will it come to fruition?
Superfund, super slow: While 2018 was spent collecting more data to make a larger game plan for the Superfund site near Silverton, the upcoming year could bring some interesting developments. The Environmental Protection Agency expects to release a human health risk for the areas around Silverton, as well as a risk assessment to wildlife. The agency is also expected to finalize a quick action plan that would address low-hanging-fruit projects over the next five years.
416 Fire, a new reality: The impacts of the 416 Fire are here to stay. The fire, which burned through an estimated 54,000 acres of mostly U.S. Forest Service land in the Hermosa Creek drainage, was declared officially out Nov. 30, but its impacts are expected to be felt for years. It is still unclear when, or if at all in 2019, the Hermosa Creek area will reopen to recreation. It is also unknown what, if anything, local, state and federal agencies can do for remediation of the burn scar. And perhaps most of all, residents below the 416 Fire burn scar who remain at risk of flooding are asking who, if anyone, is able to help protect their homes from catastrophic mudslides and debris flows.
Year of the elk?:It was reported this year that elk populations in Southwest Colorado are on the decline. The cause cannot be pinned on one driving force. It is likely a combination of habitat loss, stress from drought, climate change or even something like an unforeseen disease. But one thing seems clear to wildlife managers: Unprecedented pressure from hunters is likely not helping the problem.
In 2019, Colorado Parks and Wildlife will begin to restructure big-game hunting seasons in the state. Conservationists and hunters see the effort as an opportunity to provide some relief to elk herds by possibly limiting the amount of elk that can be killed in a season or restructuring the many hunting seasons that bring thousands of people out to hunt in the San Juan National Forest. Work sessions and public hearings are expected to kick off in the new year, with the restructured hunting season to take effect in 2020.
LPEA breaking up with Tri-State?: La Plata Electric Association’s relationship with its wholesale supplier Tri-State Generation and Transmission could change radically in the spring. The main sticking point between the two is the cap Tri-State places on the amount of local renewable energy LPEA can purchase. LPEA is required to buy 95 percent of its power from Tri-State until 2050. The findings from an LPEA subcommittee studying power alternatives to Tri-State are expected to be available next year, and those findings could help guide a decision about LPEA’s future contract with Tri-State.
Where to go with land-use code?: By far, the most pressing issue for the county is how to proceed with its update of the land-use code. The effort to update the codes had a rough start over the past year, but the county has slowed the process and encouraged more public involvement. Many rural residents and people in agriculture have been vocal opponents of zoning and other regionwide development codes, arguing they devalue private property. But how to mend the antiquated land-use code, with or without introducing zoning, is something La Plata County commissioners will have to reckon with in earnest in the new year.
Continuing budget declines:La Plata County’s 2019 budget shows a deceptive bright spot. For the first time in years, the county’s budget will see an increase to its property tax revenues year over year. But since 2010, the county’s property tax revenue has declined 50 percent – from $29.4 million to $14.9 million in 2018. The 2019 budget plans for property tax revenues to increase about 4.3 percent. But the bump is expected to be short-lived. Low natural gas prices in 2018 that will be reflected in 2020’s budget, and the implementation of the Gallagher Amendment, an expected $750,000 cut to the county’s revenue, makes county officials worry about the future. “We’re already thinking ... about what happens in 2020,” retiring County Manager Joanne Spina said in a previous interview. “We need to be thinking about what happens ... when those reductions happen.”
Search for county manager: Joanne Spina, who took the helm as county manager in 2017, will cap her 30-year career in the public sector when she retires Jan. 2. The county will have to try to fill that gaping void as it searches for a replacement. Despite challenges with the county’s budget and the adoption of new land-use codes, county officials say the position will draw qualified candidates. Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said in a previous interview the board will search for a candidate who is willing to commit to La Plata County for the long term. “We’re going to be pretty particular about the person we end up choosing,” she said.
Suicide-prevention efforts: Animas High School students may give suicide-prevention efforts a boost with their Community of Resilience project. Senior humanities students are working on a film, magazine and web stories about how middle school and high school students overcame challenges. The group is also raising money for the Second Wind Fund, which connects children and teens at risk of suicide with therapists.
Water treatment: The city’s most expensive capital improvement project is scheduled to be complete in June 2019. The Santa Rita Water Reclamation Facility has been under construction since late 2017, a more than $50 million project approved by voters in 2015. The project is intended to improve the quality of water released from the plant and increase its capacity in preparation for a growing Durango. The improvements will reduce the amount of nutrient pollution in the water released from the plant. Residents saw double-digit water and sewer rate increases to pay off the debt incurred by the city to improve the water facility.
Once work on the main plant is finished, the city plans to redevelop Santa Rita Park, which has been ripped up during the construction of the new plant.
New councilors: Mayor Sweetie Marbury and Councilor Dick White are term-limited and will finish their service in April. That leaves two open seats on City Council, a five-member board that makes policy decisions for the city. No residents have announced their candidacy. Candidates will likely be quizzed about their positions on homelessness, city finances and future tax increases.
Animas River Trail: Construction is expected to begin in January on the northern extension of the Animas River Trail. The nearly $10 million project will connect the Animas River Trail to Oxbow Park and Preserve, a piece of city-owned property about a mile north of where the trail currently ends.
Part of the money will be used to redevelop Oxbow Park on Animas View Drive, which will include a river access point and a permanent toilet. A bridge across the Animas River is planned for just south of the 32nd Street Bridge to connect the trail to the western side of the river. The trail is then planned to go north through Memorial Park and follow the train tracks on the eastern side of the railway all the way to the park.
Homelessness: City rules against sleeping in public open spaces are in limbo. The American Civil Liberties Union and National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty have warned the city that its enforcement policies border on being unconstitutional. The groups have urged the city to focus less on enforcement and more on solutions for addressing homelessness. City leaders said they plan to work with La Plata County government, law-enforcement agencies, nonprofits and health care organizations to explore solutions to curbing panhandling and the dangers associated with outdoor camping. La Plata County government has expressed interest in purchasing property where low-income housing could be built, but plans have not been finalized.
New police chief: The search is on for a new chief for the Durango Police Department. The former chief, Kamran Afzal, left at the end of 2018 to be closer with his family on the East Coast.
He had been with the department for only a year. The department has more than 50 sworn officers who patrol almost 14 square miles. The new chief will be in charge of a department that found it needed more money for more officers to respond to an increasing demand in calls for service in the past year. That requested funding was denied when voters rejected a ballot measure to raise sales and property taxes in November. Interim Chief Bob Brammer will run the department until the city names a permanent replacement.
Body cameras: The Durango Police Department will fully adopt body camera technology for its officers in 2019. For several years, the city had been talking about providing body cameras – a law enforcement tool that became popular in the past few years with high-profile national cases of unarmed black men being shot by police. The department paid $100,000 for 48 body cameras and 20 new dash cameras. Police leaders have spent the past year working on policy and proper training on the technology for officers. The department has had to consider whether the cameras should record interviews with sexual assault victims and whether they should be turned on when officers enter residents’ homes. As envisioned, a criminal call would be the main trigger that would key a responding officer to tap the camera to begin the recording process. Recording would extend to the end of the call. Most routine, noncriminal interactions with the public will not be recorded.
In addition, cameras will be set to automatically record if a patrol car hits 80 mph or if the emergency lights in the vehicle are turned on.
Justice for Dylan?:Mark Redwine is expected to face a jury trial on suspicion of murdering his 13-year-old son, Dylan, who disappeared in November 2012 while on a court-ordered visit with his father.
Defense lawyers have been fighting to suppress evidence that they say would be prejudicial to their client. They are also fighting to move the trial to a different judicial district, claiming Redwine cannot receive a fair trial in La Plata County.
6th Judicial District Court Judge Jeffrey Wilson is expected to rule on hundreds of motions during the next several months. The trial was previously scheduled for late February, but the date was canceled after Redwine’s lawyers argued they would not be ready by then. Redwine has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death. If convicted, he could face between 16 to 48 years in prison.
New governor: In January, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis will take the reins from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who served two terms. Polis, a five-term congressman from Boulder and tech millionaire, has been labeled an “unabashed Democrat” who has said he will pursue universal health care and get tougher on fighting climate change. Polis defeated Republican Walker Stapleton in the November election. He will be Colorado’s (and the nation’s) first openly gay governor. He also will be the first Coloradan in more than a century to serve as governor after serving in Congress. Last week, the incoming head of state made his first round of Cabinet picks, and that included a Durango woman, Kate Greenberg, to head the state’s Department of Agriculture.
As the 2020 election is in its early stages, Coloradans will have their eyes on whether term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet will enter the race for president. Neither man has announced their candidacy, but they have given just enough hints for people to watch their every move. Hickenlooper has already staffed up for a possible bid: He has had dozens of interviews with potential staffers and has hired a pollster and a national fundraiser. He has launched a political action committee, too. Bennet – who once worked as Hickenlooper’s chief of staff when the now-governor was mayor of Denver – said he is “seriously considering” a presidential bid. In November, The Associated Press reported that Bennet has been in discussions with influential Iowa Democrats. Though neither has announced what they will do, last week, they were languishing in a large field of Democratic candidates.