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What went wrong with La Plata County’s land-use plan?

In an attempt to overhaul outdated regulations, a mix of forces led to outrage
Blake

After months of dealing with a bungled update to one of La Plata County’s critical documents guiding future development, county staff will take the lead on making much-needed revisions to its proposed land-use code. As a result, the Texas-based consultant that many – the county included – say “missed the mark” on the first draft will take a back seat.

“Based on the input we’ve received ... staff is going to be stepping in to ensure the revision to the first and subsequent modules meets our community’s expectations,” said Planning Director Jason Meininger.

“This is a big project for us to get our hands around, but I believe the staff in the county can do the job and do it well.”

In the fall, the La Plata County Planning Department released a draft set of land-use codes to update the county’s current set of regulations, which haven’t been seriously overhauled since the 1980s.

A rewrite started in 2004, and a 400-plus page code was adopted in summer 2007, but it never went into effect. In February 2009, county commissioners revoked it after studies showed it could promote unwanted rural sprawl instead of discouraging it.

Shortly after that, the commissioners moved to update the comprehensive plan so it would, in turn, guide the creation of a new land-use code. But the comprehensive plan was scrapped in November 2011 because of controversy, and in 2016, the county turned its focus back to updating the land-use regulations.

But the result was a familiar one when it comes to the county’s attempts to regulate and guide development. The draft codes sparked controversy among mostly rural residents, who chided county officials for among other things, short-sightedness, incompetency and iron-fistedness.

Costly processes

One of the biggest issues with the county’s current land-use codes, Meininger said, is that it is focused on suburban-rural growth and doesn’t take into account or have regulations for commercial or industrial development. As a result, property owners or developers who want to develop land must go through a lengthy process, which can be costly and deter growth. After a lot of time and money, a project may be denied.

A remedy is to implement zoning laws that would identify where commercial or industrial growth makes sense and would set standards for development rather than subjecting developers to a process that relies on staff and commissioners to determine compatibility.

“That is why most counties have zoning,” Meininger said. “It identifies compatible land uses prior to development so that existing and future property owners all know and understand what type of development can occur in the future.”

La Plata County is one of only five counties in the state without zoning, Meininger said. It is unpopular among many county residents who believe it would devalue their land by pigeon-holing its uses. But as the county faces inevitable growth, county staff and commissioners, as well as most members of the public, agree the land-use regulations are due to be updated.

The county started the process by hiring Sugarland, Texas-based Kendig Keast Collaborative to draft new codes. The firm did, but when its consultants delivered the proposed regulations in December, a firestorm ignited.

Many people felt the first working set didn’t properly reflect knowledge of the desires and needs of La Plata County residents.

Questionable proposed rules, such as requiring a permit for people who want to have a party of more than 25 people on their property and limiting the amount of time someone can have a temporary storage facility, reinforced this sentiment.

“I think it’s fair to say we feel like Kendig Keast did miss the mark on that first draft,” said La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff. “It wasn’t what I was looking for as a first draft.”

After intense pushback from county residents and county commissioners, the Planning Department announced earlier this month that it will alter its timeline for adopting the codes while it makes necessary revisions.

What went wrong?

In early 2016, all three county commissioners – Brad Blake, Gwen Lachelt and Westendorff – directed county staff to pursue updating the land-use codes after multiple failed attempts.

But a lack of time and money, as well as planning staff’s limited knowledge about specific laws associated with land-use codes, led the county to hire a contractor.

Lachelt

Despite contacting several local companies, the only firm to apply for the job was Kendig Keast, based in Texas. Kendig Keast told the county it would take 16 months and cost about $250,000. A “selection committee” made up of two planning staff employees and two planning commissioners vetted the Texas-based firm.

“We didn’t just hire them based on the fact there were no other suitors,” said county spokeswoman Megan Graham. “They met all the criteria, and our selection committee was impressed with their qualifications.”

The Board of County Commissioners ultimately directed county staff to hire the firm.

Representatives with Kendig Keast visited La Plata County in November 2016 and again in January 2017 to conduct public meetings with different groups and to do an extensive driving tour of the county.

Meininger said the initial meetings included several groups: community associations, such as the Chamber of Commerce; planning district representatives; town governments and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe; community advocate groups such as Trails 2000, FireWise of Southwest Colorado and the Regional Housing Alliance; business interests, such as bankers, Realtors and developers; code users, such as architects and land-use agents; and members of the agricultural community.

County planning staff initially determined what groups to include, but county commissioners made adjustments and approved the final list. Any member of the public, however, was invited to attend and give input, Meininger said.

On the firm’s second visit, Kendig Keast followed up with nearly 30 irrigation and ditch companies, as well as utilities providers. The firm also conducted a “consensus exercise” that asked members of the community to prioritize the issues brought up over the stakeholder meetings.

“It wasn’t just casual conversations,” Meininger said. “It was a pretty in-depth exercise.”

Kendig Keast did not respond to requests for comment on this story. However, while visiting the county in November 2016, the firm’s owner, Bret Keast, told The Durango Herald that he and his employees gained extensive insight.

“There is so much diversity and uniqueness in this county, it warrants and requires we adapt to the environments of certain areas,” Keast said.

A draft ‘out of character’

After site visits, Kendig Keast began writing a draft for the first module of the land-use codes, which deals specifically with land-use and zoning. The county was given a rough copy in late spring 2017.

“We identified a lot of issues for them to correct,” Meininger said. “We asked them to go back and make significant revisions to what they provided.”

After some back and forth over the summer, the draft revisions still did not meet county staff’s expectations. So, the Planning Department worked to tweak the codes until they were made public in fall 2017.

“What they provided us was so out of character with our community that we spent a lot of time trying to bring it more into alignment,” Meininger said. “There was so much in there we had to work through and revise, we just missed things. We did a bunch of work but never got the chance to step back and read it again.”

Before the county publicly released the proposed codes, the Planning Department had already removed some of the more egregious regulations Kendig Keast proposed.

Meininger said mobile home parks were particularly discriminated against in the draft. It required a manager to live on site, 6-foot fencing separating uses and burdensome provisions on trash.

“It was drafted with an assumption that people who live in mobile home parks don’t take care of their place,” Meininger said.

Kendig Keast also included standards on landscaping that simply weren’t reasonable in the semi-arid climate of La Plata County. It required a visual landscape of dense trees and shrubs that were excessive, Meininger said.

Bad reception

Despite the Planning Department’s revisions, the draft land-use codes ultimately fell flat when county residents learned about them. A large contingent of residents said the regulations go beyond the county’s authority and veer to an infringement of property rights.

Peggy Beebe, who owns a 360-acre ranch between Bayfield and Ignacio, was part of the stakeholders group that represented agricultural interests. She attended Kendig Keast’s meetings.

“The draft is like they didn’t even listen to what we had to say,” Beebe said. “We don’t need an iron thumb put on us and tell us exactly what to do.”

Jenny Burbey, a Breen resident who has lived in La Plata County since 1995, said planners got stuck in their own vacuum while drafting the codes. The lack of communication to the public was poor throughout the process, too.

“The outreach was a huge debacle,” Burbey said. “And buy-in is big. Now, people are mad and scared, and that doesn’t necessarily lead to productive conversations.”

Even county commissioners were caught off guard.

Many residents have criticized the board for ostensibly not reading the proposed codes before they were released to the public.

Westendorff said the timing was intentional. She said commissioners decided to publicly release the draft land-use codes at the same time they received them to ensure transparency.

“I can guarantee you if we had the opportunity to review it ahead of time, some of the things the public found outrageous ... would not have been in the first draft.”

Westendorff

Blake, however, said he had requested a copy of the draft codes multiple times before they were released to the public, but he was never given the material.

“We absolutely should have reviewed it, and I feel bad we didn’t get that opportunity,” Blake said. “We’re taking a lot of heat for that, and maybe rightfully so.”

Lachelt said Kendig Keast was late meeting its expected work schedule, causing frustrating delays.

“We were waiting for the draft for a really long time,” Lachelt said.

Firm’s mixed results

This is not the first time Kendig Keast has missed the mark writing a land-use code for a community.

In 2013, Kootenai County, in the northern panhandle of Idaho, fired Kendig Keast from working on its land-use code that had regulations that hadn’t been updated since the 1970s.

“The approach Kendig Keast took was not the right approach for this part of Idaho,” said David Callahan, Kootenai County community development director.

Callahan said the main problem was Kendig Keast proposed cutting-edge codes more fitting for urban areas such as Denver or Austin, Texas, rather than the rural county home to 126,000 mainly conservative residents.

And, perhaps setting the firm up for failure, Kendig Keast wrote Kootenai County’s draft codes based on an outdated comprehensive plan, which is supposed to serve as the groundwork for land-use codes.

Kootenai County dumped Kendig Keast and its $340,000 plan. Two years later, in 2016, the county passed a more simplified set of regulations developed by its in-house staff and that struck a balance in the community.

“I really think the basic problem was the wrong consultant was picked for the job,” Callahan said.

Meininger, La Plata County’s planning director, said he and county staff reached out to officials at Kootenai County since the fallout of the land-use code process, and hearing that county’s experience with the firm was like a sense of “déjà vu.”

Although Kendig Keast was working with a new comprehensive plan that La Plata County Planning Commission updated in April 2017, the firm’s proposed regulations are still out of touch with the county, Meininger said.

After the Planning Department began actively redrafting the land-use code in the summer and fall of 2017, the county renegotiated its contract with Kendig Keast. It will now pay the firm just less than $220,000.

To date, the county has paid Kendig Keast $160,000, but the Texas firm’s role going forward is uncertain.

“The county is certainly not going to pay for services not rendered,” Meininger said. “We’re not obligated at all to pay for something we don’t receive.”

Coincidentally, the city of Durango hired Kendig Keast to help update its land-use codes in 2014. The process went relatively smoothly, said city planner Vicki Vandegrift.

“We knew what we were getting and got pretty much what we were expecting,” she said.

Kendig Keast is not currently contracted with the city on any planning projects.

A foundation exists

The work the firm completed for La Plata County so far is not a complete loss.

The county can use the first draft as a framework, Meininger said. And, in an ironic twist, the amount of outrage from residents has provoked unprecedented public feedback that will benefit the county.

“The public comments we’ve received really do help us going forward,” he said.

Over the next several weeks, county commissioners are expected to give the Planning Department clearer direction to revise the land-use codes, which will then set off an estimated 12-week rewrite process.

Lachelt said commissioners won’t make the same mistake twice. In the past few weeks, commissioners and staff have met with county residents individually, reviewed input from the more than 400 people who submitted public comments and attended several community meetings throughout the county.

“Our goal is to have a land-use code that works for La Plata County,” Lachelt said. “We’ve taken the comments we’ve received very seriously, and the next draft will reflect the input we’ve received.”

In the meantime, the Planning Department will make minor changes – clean up and simplify language, remove the obviously questionable regulations and look to other Colorado counties for input.

Meininger said many of the perceived conflicts with the code can be rectified by using clearer language.

The codes, for instance, do not dictate what color someone can paint their home. References to compatibility would apply only to commercial or industrial developments in scenic overlays.

Sandy Young, a rancher in the Animas Valley who has been a vocal critic of the draft land-use codes and process thus far, said it is encouraging that county staff is taking a more hands-on approach.

“They (county staff and commissioners) have been responsive to us, and I think that’s a great thing.” Young said. “I feel like I’m getting heard, and I’m one of the first people to complain.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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