Durango — On Jan.17, an estimated 1,000 to 1,400 people came to the La Plata County Fairgrounds for a special meeting of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC). They came to air their concerns about the county’s new proposed land use code.
“That’s the biggest meeting that anybody’s ever had in La Plata County for anything,” said Ignacio rancher and former County Commissioner J. Paul Brown. Brown ranches sheep and cattle on about 1000 acres in La Plata County. He served two terms as state representative for House District 59 in 2010 and again in 2014.
The public response was triggered by the county’s Dec. 8 public release of one of three new proposed land use code modules.
After hearing a presentation by county staff, about 30 to 40 people spoke, mostly in opposition to the new code, says Christi Zeller, Executive Director of the La Plata County Energy Council, a non-profit oil and gas trade organization who attended. The meeting lasted from 7:00 pm to nearly 11:00 pm.
A week earlier, on Jan. 9, 300 to 400 people showed up at the Oxford Grange community center on County Road 172 outside of Ignacio for a meeting set up by Brown.
Alarmed by the content of the draft code module Brown called a farm bureau meeting at the Ignacio public library so rural residents could discuss the matter. After receiving dozens of phone calls from concerned community members he moved the meeting to the larger Oxford Grange. It turned out not to be large enough.
“The grange was packed full. They pulled the fire trucks out and people were standing outside the open windows to hear what was going on,” said Zeller.
“Two of the commissioners and the county staff ended up coming and then they went ahead and grabbed [Brad] Blake, the county commissioner who’s got some common sense, and he went and demanded that they set up this other meeting that they had on the 17th where between 1,000 and 1,400 people showed up,” said Brown.
Citizens feel kept in the dark
Brown was part of a group of stakeholders chosen by the county in late 2016 as representatives of the various interests of the community. They provided pre-draft input to county planning staff and the Kendig Keast Cooperative, a Texas land-planning consulting firm hired by the county to develop the code.
In late 2016 county staff scheduled two listening sessions to receive input from stakeholders. The invitation-only meetings were poorly attended. Only 49 of 135 people invited showed up. Both Brown and Zeller said that at the meetings stakeholders were segregated into general interest groups, invited at different times and were never allowed to speak with other stakeholders or comment as a group.
While the county was open with the public that a new land use code was being drafted, nothing was released to the public until Dec. 8, 2017, more than a year after the stakeholder input sessions. No open public meetings were held and no input was solicited from the general public as part of the scoping and pre-drafting process.
Citizens are upset at the piecemeal roll-out of the plan. Only the first module has been released and it focuses on land use. The second module is supposed to focus on the public process and the third on development standards.
Citizens complain that it’s unfair to expect them to properly inform themselves and comment on the proposed plan as a whole when two-thirds of the plan is still undisclosed. They also complain about the small window of opportunity to comment on a plan that’s taken more than a year just to produce the first of three modules.
The original county timeline calls for two “open door” public meeting to take input on the first module and one such meeting each for the other two modules. One hearing each before the Planning Commission and the BOCC are scheduled prior to adoption. However, according to Zeller, they have not met any of the scheduled milestones and the process is already about eight months behind.
When asked if it was appropriate for the county to enact only one module at a time rather than waiting for the entire code to be released and commented upon, Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said, “That will be up to the commissioners as a whole to decide.”
Lachelt came to Durango in 1981 as a student at Fort Lewis College and graduated with a degree in political science. She was elected as a County Commissioner in 2012 and has three years left in her second term.
Outdated information taints the process
Naomi Dobbs of Bayfield says that the county isn’t following its own process for replacing the land use code. “Many of the district plans haven’t been updated since the 1990s,” she said.
La Plata County is divided into 12 districts. The purpose of the districts is to give residents the opportunity to tell the planning commission what they envision for their area. District boards were originally set up by residents with representatives of their own choosing charged with formulating district land use plans and objectives that would be integrated into the county’s comprehensive plan by the planning commission.
Lachelt said, “In 2011 the county went through another very lengthy public process to develop a comprehensive plan and a lot of concerns came out about Agenda 21 and the UN trying to take over La Plata County. Again, that plan failed to pass the planning commission so last year the county, after a three-year process, adopted a new comprehensive plan and now that we have that guideline document in place we’re rewriting our land use code.”
The county adopted the new comprehensive plan in May of 2017. The last successful update before that was in 2001.
In a June 3, 2017 op-ed in the Durango Herald Commissioner Julie Westendorff wrote of the process, “The county will be working with residents to capture community-specific input to update the district plans that neighbors crafted in the late 1990s… Each step – from comprehensive plan to land use code to district planning – takes a lot of work, conversation with residents and time.”
But this is backwards according to Dobbs. She says that the process calls for the district boards to update their district plans first, then those plans are integrated into the county comprehensive plan by the planning commission and only then is the land use code drafted to comport with the comprehensive plan, not the other way around.
Everyone agrees that the comprehensive plan that emerged in the 1990s and amended in 2001 is outdated.
The problem, say Dobbs, Zeller and Brown, is that five of the district plans haven’t been updated since the late 1990s. One district plan doesn’t exist, and county records say that the rest have been updated variously between 2005 and 2017. But it’s unclear if those plans were properly updated. Zeller says that some of the district board members cannot even recall the last time they met or the last time they sent in a formal report to the county. Some of the board members have moved away and some have even passed away says Brown.
Repeating past mistakes
A lack of adherence to its own policies and procedures and piecemeal approach to revealing the new code has rural residents feeling betrayed and disrespected.
“They’ve done it four or five times and spent millions of dollars doing it,” said Brown, “We got up in arms just like we’ve done now and the next thing we know they put it in the trash can. They didn’t follow through with it. But we still didn’t solve the problem that we have right now with the regulations that are just unreasonable.”
Changes in elected officials and a near-complete turnover in the planning department staff between 2007 and 2009 exacerbated the problem. The BOCC balked at instituting the plan developed between 2004 and 2007 because they felt it didn’t do enough to prevent sprawl and had become outdated before it was ever formally approved. On Feb. 18, 2009 the BOCC voted to shelve the 2007 plan and returned to the pre-2004 code.
From then until now the county has patched the code with more than 20 different revisions leading to, by its own admission, a burdensome process that elevates the requirement for compatibility to a level that makes it extremely difficult, uncertain and expensive for applicants to get all those who must be consulted to agree.
Explaining the county’s decision to redraft the land use code Lachelt said, “Folks who want to develop in the county currently don’t have the predictability or the certainty to know if their projects are going to get approved after they go through a very lengthy and extensive and expensive process through our current land use code. Our current code is based on compatibility and it does not give developers certainty that their project is going to get approved.
Of the new code Lachelt said, “We’re committed to going through a lengthy public process to try to get it as right for folks as we can.”
But Brown said, “They want predictability for the developer and the neighbor, but the predictability that they are giving to the agricultural community is ‘you’re in agriculture, you’re going to stay there and you’re going to provide that scenic view for tourists and that’s it. We’re not going to pay you for it.’ That’s the predictability we’re going to get. We’re absolutely going to fight that tooth and toenail.”