For Jim Greer, a rancher in western La Plata County, his future is tied to his land.
Like so many ranchers and farmers, Greer doesn’t have a retirement plan or 401(k). His land is his 401(k).
Greer’s family history in Southwest Colorado dates back to the early 1900s. Now, he dryland farms his own pastures, which he hopes to pass down to his kids.
But in the case of a bad crop year for hay, or in dry years, like this one, where cattle must be sold earlier than usual at a lower price, Greer said he needs to have flexible options for what he can do on his land.
It’s not a decision ranchers or farmers take lightly, to sell off a portion of their land for a subdivision of homes or to a new business, just to keep the family ranching operation afloat.
“You think twice before you do it because it is our livelihood,” Greer said. “If you have land, down the road, that’s what you look at for retirement. If I need to sell it for someone to build a house, that’s my choice.”
And therein lies the heart of the argument for many in the agricultural community who are opposed to the possibility of introducing of zoning in La Plata County, which is one of only four counties in Colorado without zoning laws.
Recently, La Plata County has been attempting to modernize its antiquated land-use code, which hasn’t been updated since the 1980s, a time span in which the county population has more than doubled.
A big part – and a big uncertainty – in updating the code is whether to implement zoning, which county officials say would help steer more responsible growth.
But many ranchers and farmers, like Greer, feel that zoning a piece of property as “agriculture” or “residential” effectively limits the types of developments or uses a landowner can do with the land.
There are, of course, people in La Plata County who hold a blanket opposition to zoning based on an ideology that no one should be told what they can or can’t do with their land, ever.
Greer unabashedly falls into this category.
“To force it on the whole county is like forcing an HOA (homeowners association) countywide,” Greer said.
But some residents, like Brad Fasset, a rancher on Florida Mesa south of Durango, fall somewhere in the middle. He knows growth is inevitable, and he wants to see that growth well-managed, but a strong belief in private property rights has him dead set against any land-use codes.
“I think smart growth is important,” Fasset said. “But I don’t think the county, or any form of government, should be in the business of directing that.”
La Plata County officials say the No. 1 complaint they hear, of all the issues in the county, is about the current land-use code and its burdensome process.
As it stands now, if a developer or property owner wants to propose a development, such as building a subdivision or mini-storage units, they apply to La Plata County’s Planning Department.
That kicks off a timely and expensive process for the would-be developer, who must put in a substantial amount of work on the front end by submitting designs and engineering reviews to prove the project is appropriate.
But there is no certainty that after putting in all that time and money the project will be approved, which is ultimately decided by the volunteer Planning Commission and at times the La Plata County commissioners.
This has deterred developers, and likely stunted growth, and therefore jobs, throughout La Plata County, said Jason Meininger, the county’s planning director.
Residents, too, are troubled by the process, Meininger said, because they have no idea what could be built around them and if a new development could completely alter the character of their neighborhood.
In January, for instance, a shooting range was approved in a rural part of the county south of Durango, despite objections by adjacent landowners.
“Who would have thought that when you buy a property in that area, they’re going to put a shooting range in your backyard?” resident Paula Sprenger said at the time.
The most recent effort to update the county’s land-use code started in early 2016, but La Plata County commissioners have yet to give planning department staff clear direction on if the county should pursue zoning, and what it would look like.
The county is embarking on a series of public meetings to answer these questions, the first of which is Aug. 29.
But despite the particulars of how La Plata County’s codes may or may not look, the concept and goal of zoning is rather consistent in its definition.
Zoning would essentially flip the process, Meininger said, by predetermining what type of uses work in what areas, based on the character of the neighborhood and what infrastructure exists there.
If you’re out in the remote stretches of western La Plata County, a bowling alley is likely not the best use there, Meininger said. But if you’re in a place with access to water and sewer, in a busy corridor, more mixed-uses might make sense.
“You would know all the things you can do on the front end, without having to go through a public process,” Meininger said.
But this is where many ranchers and farmers take issue.
“When someone tries to determine for them what they can do with their property, it gets their hackles up,” said Sheryl Ayers, a former county commissioner whose parents homesteaded the area.
Ayers said many people in the agricultural community prefer the current process where they can apply for whatever they want and then it’s up to them to go through the process and prove it makes sense for the neighborhood.
“Most of these large ag people will think whatever they want to do with their property should be allowed,” she said.
But Meininger said with zoning, there’s a clear list of what you can do. Then, if you want something outside the listed uses, you could apply to rezone part of the land, which doesn’t have to be an overly complicated process.
Weld County, for instance, has a nine-question criteria checklist.
“It can be a fairly simple process,” Meininger said. “But before we get to what it takes to rezone a property, we first need a conversation on if we’re zoning, and what that looks like.”
Delta County is alongside La Plata County as one of the few places in Colorado without zoning – but not for long. The two counties on the Western Slope, in many ways, are mirror images of each other.
Delta County is in the early stages of implementing zoning, after years of public opposition.
The rural county of about 21,000 residents has a nearly identical process for new development, where projects are approved on a case-by-case basis, and there’s no clear standards or predictability for neighbors or the developers.
“It’s a disservice to existing residents because they have no assurance of what may happen next door,” said Elyse Ackerman Casselberry, Delta County’s community development director. “And it’s a disincentive for someone who wants to create jobs because there’s no clear standards or predictability, which requires them to have to put a heavy investment up front.”
The prospect of zoning has historically been an unpopular idea in Delta County, about 130 miles north of Durango. But with incoming growth, many residents there are turning to zoning as a potential solution.
“Folks that we know struggled with the idea in the past are supporting the idea, especially in the ag community as they see residential pressures moving in,” Ackerman Casselberry said. “Zoning will actually create a list of rights we currently don’t have today.”
Fasset and his family raise hay and cattle on Florida Mesa, just south of Durango, on a homestead that dates back to the early 1900s.
There used to be only a handful of mailboxes on his 3-mile stretch of county road. Now, he says there’s more than 100 – a stark reminder the landscape is changing, and he may have to change, too.
“I’ve been lucky enough for 20 years to be able to farm for a living,” Fasset said. “There’s no one that wants to see that go away, but if there’s a point where it’s no longer viable to farm it, there could be times when ground gets divided.”
And Fasset says when that time comes, it shouldn’t be decided by a government entity.
“We as landowners, the folks that own ground, are far more capable and qualified to make decisions about what we do with that than any form of government,” he said.
Barbara Jefferies, president of the La Plata County Cattlemen’s Association, said people move to La Plata County for its rural, pastoral landscapes, which are largely provided by ranchers and farmers.
To preserve the character of the area, Jefferies said it is not a good idea to further burden ranchers and farmers with more regulations.
“It is extremely difficult for a rancher to sell their land, because they love it, they’ve taken care of it for years,” she said. “But if you need the money, you have to make the hard decision.”
Meininger, the county’s planning director, said the message from the agricultural community has been heard loud and clear. In response, county planners are looking at ways within the land-use code and zoning law that would help ranchers and farmers.
“We’re looking at creating a zoning district that would provide significantly more opportunity to diversify an agricultural operation to make money off of the land,” he said.
A tentatively named “ag-plus” zoning district would allow and fast-track projects like small-scale processing facilities; farm equipment sales and repair; storage units; agri-tourism; assisted living and group homes; child care centers; housing for employees; bed and breakfasts; veterinarian clinics; and farm stands, to name a few.
Even projects that now require a Class 2 land-use permit, like small-scale soil and gravel pits, could be streamlined and not require extensive county approval.
“Our current code is not conducive to allowing diversification of operations,” said La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff. “I would like to help entitle ag property owners to more uses on their land than they have today. That being said, I’m also not interested in ramming anything down anyone’s throat.”
The county is working on how it would look if someone wanted to subdivide, Meininger said. The process could be refined to not be as burdensome as many think.
“We’re hearing loud and clear and coming up with real answers to that request: ‘Let us do more with our land without having to deal with the government,’” Meininger said.
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt reiterated sentiments made by the ag community that zoning may not be right in certain parts of a county with extremely different terrains. North of Durango, the Animas Valley and north county have implemented their own zoning standards, which county officials say have been successful.
“We’re going to take public comment every step of the way and work to come up with a land-use code that works for La Plata County and its residents,” she said.
La Plata County Commissioner Brad Blake did not return calls from The Durango Herald seeking comment.
Greer was born in 1955 and has never lived out Southwest Colorado.
He bought his first piece of land in 1974. His father, Pat, is one of the oldest ranchers in the area. Greer now owns land near his father’s homestead, as well as some land bordering his mother’s, Lila’s, homestead farther east.
Greer hasn’t had to sell any of his land, and he does not want to. But times can be tough. Over the past four years, because of intense drought, Greer has had to cut his herd from 200 head of cattle to 20 pair (a cow and a calf).
Just in case, he knows the exact spots on his land that would be, in his estimation, ripe for development.
“There’s a bad piece of ground on every farm, I don’t care where you’re at,” he said. “I’m a country kid, and that’s what I want to do. Honestly, I’d like to see it the way it was back in the ’60s. We wouldn’t be worried about zoning because there was nobody here. But we’re not going backwards.”