It’s getting harder for businesses to find space at a time when the La Plata County needs to be broadening its tax base.
Since the 1980s, the number of permits for new commercial buildings in unincorporated La Plata County has trended down, county data show.
In 1985 La Plata County issued 80 commercial building permits, and issuances have declined since then. The last peak was in 2008, when 42 permits were issued. Before that, the last time the county issued more than 40 permits was in 1995, according to county data.
In 2016, the county issued 24 permits and through July 2017, the county has issued 16 permits.
La Plata County Commission Brad Blake called the trend “pretty disturbing.”
Although there is no clear connection between the county’s land-use regulations that went into effect in 1990 and a the decline in permits, a change in the planning process could encourage development, said Jason Meininger, interim planning director.
“We need to broaden our tax base, and we are not able to do that if there is no commercial development,” Blake said.
The county’s budget has contracted dramatically in recent years because of the decline in natural gas prices and production.
But if businesses can’t lease, buy or build new space they could leave the county, he said.
While commercial space is tight, the economy is doing fairly well in La Plata County this summer. In June, the unemployment rate was 2.2 percent, and the labor force participation was at a five-year high at 57.5 percent according to data compiled by the alliance.
Some businesses, particularly light manufacturers, have moved into vacant spaces left by others that have closed or moved. But more space is needed to keep growth on a healthy track, said Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance.
“If we are not adding to the commercial base, how do we create more jobs?” he said.
Sales of commercial buildings makeup about 8 percent of all transactions, while only about 5 percent of new permits are commercial, he said.
“We are building less commercial than we should be based on how the market is behaving,” Zalneraitis said.
One way to address the problem could be through land-use zoning that would give developers greater certainty about their projects, Blake said.
The county’s land-use permitting process can be time consuming because the applicants must prove their project is compatible with surrounding uses. This can be tough when residential homes are scattered throughout the county, Zalneraitis said.
Because infrastructure is limited in the county proving compatibility can include a traffic study, a study of the ground water to make sure it’s adequate and a study of the soil to ensure a wastewater system can be installed, Meininger said.
The uncertainty of the process and the cost of developing the infrastructure make development difficult, he said.
The county could introduce zoning in a revision of the land-use code, which is planned to follow the update of the county’s district plans The updates to the district plans could start this fall and last two years, he said.
While there’s been opposition to zoning in the past, Meininger has heard from residents who are interested in it, in part, because it can add value to property.
At a recent forum this week held by the Durango Chamber of Commerce some of the expert panelists suggest that the city and county make investments in infrastructure to encourage commercial development.
The county doesn’t have the money to invest in infrastructure to encourage development right now, Blake said. But he would support an economic analysis of commercial projects as part of the planing process and the development of a fund to support economically prudent projects. The fund could help pay for infrastructure costs such as water line extensions.