Westendorff: A new year, a new land use code and time to shape it

Friday, Jan. 5, 2018 4:34 PM
Juli Westendorff

Happy New Year! I hope 2018 is off to a great start for you and that this is a great year for each of you and for La Plata County.

We have already hit the ground running, delivering on our commitment to revise and improve the La Plata County Land Use Code. We have made it more predictable for the community and businesses trying to develop in the unincorporated areas of the county, and made the land use permitting process more timely and cost-effective for project applicants and the county.

This code revision process has been in the works since late 2016, and we just released the draft of Module 1 – the first of three – in November. This took a while because we, as commissioners, our Planning Commission, staff and community stakeholder groups, spent time at the outset shaping the priorities for revising the code which hasn’t been comprehensively updated since the 1980s. The guiding philosophies that are informing the revision are to:

Streamline and improve the land use permitting processIncrease predictability and consistency for property owners and applicantsCreate a code that accommodates a larger variety of land uses – which the current code struggles with – including a focus on commercial and light industrial uses which are much neededIncrease focus on adequate infrastructure – namely water, sewer and road capacitySupport economic development and diversitySustain agricultural production and usesGenerate or improve options for affordable housingImprove the code’s interaction with the 12-district plans across the county. These plans articulate the development priorities for the distinct regions of the county and they are currently being updated.These are wide-ranging priorities that require serious thought and discussion when shifting from today’s code, one that does not provide project applicants with concrete answers regarding what uses may be appropriate for a particular piece of property.

We consistently hear that businesses need predictability when it comes to where they may be able to locate. We agree and recognize that a land use code can and should provide that certainty. It saves time, money and headaches all around.

Under the current code, if someone asks, “Can I conduct this business on this piece of property in the county,” the answer is always “maybe.” The revised code says “yes” to many of the things that are currently “maybes” today, and provides a clear path to “yes” for things that are not even envisioned in the current code.

While there are certainly changes and improvements to make between now and final adoption of a revised code, this first draft gives us a good foundation to move forward. We want you to help make it even better: Your input and assistance are crucial to this process.

Since we released the draft Module 1 for comment and review, we have heard a number of concerns about what the code proposes. Here are some themes that have emerged:

Existing uses: The new land use code will not affect what you are already doing on your property. It is meant to guide new uses going forward. and will not disallow current uses unless they are already in violation and remain so under the new land use code.What it covers: The revised code covers development in the unincorporated areas of La Plata County. Unless a use is specifically prohibited by the code, it is allowed – either by right or subject to a land use permit. It is important to note, however, that other federal, state and local laws may apply. Hunting, fishing and shooting: Nothing in the proposed code restricts legal hunting, fishing or discharge of firearms in the county. Outside storage: The existing code already contains limitations on outside storage – including portable on-demand storage containers. The folks I’ve talked to think that a Zircon or two is appropriate, but agree that 100 is too many without some screening. That’s the kind of input we need so that we can get a code that finds the right balance.Private gatherings: The draft revised code carries over language from the current code requiring permits for special events on private property, triggered by a large number of people and number of vehicles attending.I’m sure there are other questions and recommendations about the draft first module of the revised code, and we certainly want to hear and address them.

Please take some time to review the code, provide your suggestions and ask your questions. Check out the project page at

Julie Westendorff is the outgoing chairwoman of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners. Gwen Lachelt is the incoming 2018 chairwoman. Reach the commissioners at 382-6219.