Affordable housing and money for a new airport terminal are among the issues that area residents will likely hear about often in 2016. County residents might be asked again to increase taxes to pay for roads, and Durango School District 9-R will be considering program cuts. And, with a presidential election, it’s a big year for politics at all levels. Here are some things likely to be in the news in the new year:
City of Durango
Housing shortage: The shortage of affordable housing in Durango will be high on Durango City Council’s list of priorities this year. The council has outlined several possible steps it could take to encourage the private sector to build more housing, including protections for condominium developers, expanding neighborhoods where accessory dwelling units, such as granny flats and converted garages, are allowed and adjusting home-building regulations, such as the number of parking spaces required for specific projects.
The airport: The construction of a new terminal at Durango-La Plata County Airport gained support from Durango city councilors and La Plata County commissioners in 2015. But now the project needs the approval of the public.
Both the city and the county have discussed putting an airport-focused tax increase on the November ballot.
The failure of the road-and-bridge-focused property tax increase in November could impact the discussion about a tax for the airport and highlight the importance for good communication to the electorate, said Julie Westendorff, La Plata County commissioner. The joint boards plan to take up the issue on Jan. 14.
Wilson Gulch Road: This spring, the city expects to finish the estimated $9 million road that will connect the “Bridge to Nowhere” to the end of Wilson Gulch Road near Mercy Regional Medical Center.
The road will be the main access to a new shopping center that could fill with big-box stores, said the city and developers. The city wants the new shopping options to stem the tide of locals who drive to Farmington to shop.
The project was delayed this year by a rainy spring and summer and the need for almost $1 million in additional funding from the city to pay for sidewalk construction and landscaping. The city could not find a contractor to complete the project for the estimated $8.2 million set aside for it by the city, the county and the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Sewer plant: Design work will start on the sewer plant remodel this spring after voter approval of $68 million in debt-financing for the project in November.
The $58 million plant remodel is among the largest projects in the city’s history. It is expected the city will spend $10 million on sewer-related projects, not necessarily at the plant.
Transit department: The city’s transit department will likely search for new funding sources.
This year, it will likely spend $220,000 from savings to cover expenses, but the council would like to see a sustainable funding plan.
The board has been reluctant to cut service because many riders rely on it heavily. Councilors have encouraged the head of the department to pursue creative funding sources, such as contracts with companies to provide passes to their employees.
The department has been successful pursuing grants. But it is likely such funding from the state and federal government could be flat or decline in the future, said Rob Andresen of the Colorado Department of Transportation earlier this year.
La Plata County
Water is coming down the pipe for the county as it moves forward in 2016 with plans for sustaining and conserving the local supply. Earlier this year, the county-appointed Water Advisory Commission brought several recommendations to the commission, including creating incentives to build and maintain water infrastructure. Immediate next steps are to educate the public about the county’s water needs – and the associated costs – and possibly work water-related guidelines and practices into the county’s comprehensive land-use plan.
County staff will continue to update the comprehensive plan, which has been an ongoing process slated to carry through 2016, with an expected completion date in 2017. The plan, which has not been updated in more than 10 years, addresses every aspect of county land use, including extractive resources, housing, recreation and agriculture. Staff members have tackled the plan section by section and are due to consider land use in January.
The commission pushed a maximum 2.4 mill levy increase in 2015 to compensate for declining natural gas revenue, but voters said “no” by a narrow margin at the polls in November. With plans to boost public outreach, commissioners are considering bringing the ballot item back as early as November 2016 in the hopes that the presidential election will attract more voters to the polls.
Because a property tax increase depends on citizens’ majority vote, the county also is exploring the feasibility of imposing road impact fees to supplement the suffering road and bridge fund. Impact fees require only the commission’s approval and would be unprecedented for La Plata County.
Voters in November 2015 did support a local overturn of Senate Bill 152, which frees the county to make use of its Internet infrastructure, and strike partnerships with the private sector to improve broadband for local communities that need it most, such as the Vallecito Reservoir area. Figuring out the next steps will be a priority in 2016.
Special prosecutors from Montrose will retry a former Durango man who was convicted in the 2007 rape and death of his girlfriend, Nicole Leigh Redhorse, 34, at the Spanish Trails Inn & Suites in Durango.
After seven years in prison, the Colorado Court of Appeals ordered the retrial, saying Nakai, a Navajo, spoke limited English and did not grasp the concept of Miranda rights. As a result, he volunteered information to investigators that should have been suppressed.
Nakai was sentenced to 48 years in prison after being convicted of aggravated sexual assault and another three years for criminally negligent homicide.
The case drew considerable public attention for its brutality. In addition to Nakai, two other men were convicted of participating in the rape and death.
Redhorse, a member of the Navajo Nation who graduated from Dartmouth College, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.47 at the time of her death, almost six times the legal driving limit, rendering her incapacitated to consent or to stop the sexual assault. At some point, a blunt object, possibly a broken hammer handle, was used to assault her vaginally, and the injuries led to her bleeding to death.
Superfund: In the new year, officials in Silverton will begin negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency over a Superfund designation for the leaking mines responsible for deteriorating water quality in the Animas River.
When the EPA triggered the release of 3 million gallons of orange wastewater in August from the Gold King Mine, it also propelled a decades-long issue of inactive mines polluting waterways into the national spotlight.
La Plata County and city of Durango officials have long maintained their support of the EPA’s hazardous cleanup program, but only recently have San Juan County and Silverton Town Council embraced a Superfund designation, seeing no other option for long-term water quality improvement.
In January, Silverton is set to meet with the EPA to begin discussing the terms of the Superfund status: where will the boundaries be? What is the best method of water treatment? Who will pay?
And, many in Durango are interested to see what effect the spring runoff has on sediment sitting on the bottom and edges of the river. Will the river run orange again?
BLM master plan: Where to put 3,000 new gas wells?
That’s the question the Bureau of Land Management is looking to answer in 2016. The BLM recently released a long-term outlook that estimated it needs to plan for 3,000 new gas wells over the next few decades, causing immediate backlash from Archuleta and La Plata County officials, as well as those opposed to the sight of a gas well next to huge tourist draws, namely Mesa Verde and Phil’s World biking park.
The BLM then asked those counties to set up panels of various stakeholders to discuss how many new wells they think is reasonable, and what areas should be designated for the new drills.
The BLM scheduled meetings for public comment, including on Feb. 11 in Durango and Mancos, and March 16 in Cortez and Hesperus.
Durango School District 9-R: The district will begin 2016 with public meetings to ask residents what programs should be cut to balance the budget. The district has run at a deficit for the past two years, and the board of education and its Finance Advisory Committee have said the district cannot continue to dip into its reserves. The district is about $465,000 over budget for this school year.
The 9-R board also is considering adding a mill levy increase or bond question to the November 2016 ballot, but the program cuts still must be made for the 2016-17 budget. If the board decides to go for a bond for capital projects rather than a mill levy for operating funds, expenditures might include buying new buses for an aging fleet and an infrastructure upgrade to allow strong WiFi accessibility in all classrooms and libraries.
Standards and assessments also will be on the minds of both K-12 educators and those in higher education. In a surprise move, on Dec. 23, the Colorado Board of Education switched from the ACT to the SAT test to be given to all Colorado 11th-graders this spring. Tenth-graders will take the Preparation SAT. Districts such as 9-R that like to measure progress from year to year will be starting a new baseline. Preparing 10th- and 11th-graders for the SAT will likely require recalibration of the test preparation class.
Fort Lewis College: The college is working toward higher standards for admission in 2019, with concerns that Colorado’s high school graduates may not improve performance as much as is needed to meet those standards.
The college also is working to increase enrollment, as state funding continues to be an issue. The college has hired a recruiting firm to enhance efforts and also has added staff to review the significantly higher number of applications. The number of acceptances at the beginning of December was more than double that in 2014 at the same time, but the proof of the pudding will be how many of those accepted students decide to enroll at Colorado’s Campus in the Sky and pay tuition.
Workforce shortage: Filling positions could remain a struggle for businesses through 2016. The unemployment rate in La Plata County was less than 3 percent in November, and workers were not moving to town in droves to fill jobs. Instead, the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance estimated more people left town.
It is a trend that could make it tough for businesses to grow, Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance, predicted earlier this year. One of the challenges to combating this problem is the lack of available housing for new residents.
The Powerhouse Science Center: The center closed its doors for four months as its board and supporters rebooted the organization. Among the changes:
The nonprofit signed agreements with the Durango MakerLab, which is creating its new PowerMaker after school programs along with bringing more experiential Maker-themed science, technology, engineering and math programming to the center.
Received funding from BP for the Science Collaboration so the Powerhouse can rejoin Durango Nature Studies in providing programming and field trips to kindergarten through fifth-grade students in La Plata County.
Received grants from the Durango Educational Foundation and Conoco-Phillips to participate in Park Elementary School’s Power-Up Program.
The Nonprofit Management Certificate Program: This provided training for the area’s 300 to 400 nonprofit leaders and managers, and it lost its home at Fort Lewis College as the school shuttered its Continuing Education Program for the second time in the 21st century. The Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado has begun bringing in training from the Community Resource Center in Denver, and the certificate program is being redesigned by new Director Susan Lander and Program Director Paulette Church. They plan to offer two- to three-hour classes in the Durango Adult Education space in the Commons Building in March.
The Legislature will convene Jan. 13. Lawmakers are facing a presidential election year, in which several members are seeking higher office, so it is unlikely that many controversial bills will make it through the process this year, as control is split between Republicans and Democrats.
Several issues are expected to come up this year, including:
Allowing terminally ill people to request life-ending medication.
Taking aim at Planned Parenthood in the wake of a mass shooting at a clinic in Colorado Springs and videos that allege the abortion provider trafficked fetal body parts.
Addressing local control for oil and gas regulations.
Providing funding for crumbling roads and highways.
Balancing the state budget given constitutional conflicts concerning state spending. Lawmakers will need to close an estimated $373 million gap.
Offering relief to victims of the Gold King Mine spill by pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency to settle claims quickly.
Allowing Colorado residents to collect rain water from their roofs.
Addressing construction-defect lawsuits in an effort to spur affordable housing construction.
The political climate in Colorado is sure to intensify in this presidential election year. Who will win Colorado? Will Coloradans favor establishment outsiders, such as Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders? Or, will the state stick with more mainstream contenders, such as Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Marco Rubio?
Caucuses in Colorado take place on March 1. Voters have until Jan. 4 to register with a political party to be able to participate in the process.
Colorado voters also will weigh in on a U.S. Senate race, in which Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet is fighting for his seat. Republicans have had a hard time finding a formidable candidate to challenge Bennet. The GOP must narrow a crowded field of primary contenders.
So far, only one ballot question faces voters in 2016, which would create a universal health care system in Colorado. But several others loom, including:
Allowing the sale of beer and wine in supermarkets;
Reforming the congressional redistricting process;
Cracking down on the oil and gas industry;
Allowing terminally ill people to request life-ending medication;
Requiring divestments from Iran for public funds.
Fort Lewis College men’s basketball: Longtime Fort Lewis College men’s basketball coach Bob Hofman is serving as head coach emeritus for one final season with the Skyhawks. The team has been led by his successor and longtime assistant and former player, Bob Pietrack. On Feb. 12, when FLC hosts Western State, where Hofman served as a head coach from 1995 to 2000, the Skyhawks will rename the court inside Whalen Gymnasium in Hofman’s honor.
Iron Horse Bicycle Classic: The 45th annual event will kick off with the road race May 28. Local legend Ned Overend is likely to compete at the age of 60 after winning the overall title a year ago and placing third in the road race last year. Top women’s rider Mara Abbott may return in an effort to top Overend’s record of five road-race championships.
Fort Lewis College football: Ed Rifilato will take over the Fort Lewis College football team after John L. Smith left the program after serving as head coach for three seasons. FLC had its first winning season since 2006 in 2015 with a 7-4 overall mark. Rifilato was the head coach of that 2006 team and had served as a coordinator for the Skyhawks under Smith.
The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro: This year’s Games could feature several cycling athletes from Durango. Todd Wells could make the men’s mountain bike team for a fourth time, while Durango native Howard Grotts looks to be a lock to make his first Olympic mountain biking trip at the age of 23. Women’s road cyclist Carmen Small has a shot to make the women’s road team when the Games begin in August. All of the riders must prove themselves this spring to earn a spot. Durango runner Laura Thweatt, the top American woman at the 2015 New York City Marathon, also could compete in track events in Rio if she has a strong spring track season.
The Bayfield High School baseball: The football team won a state championship in 2015, and many of those same athletes will take the diamond during the spring baseball season. After a strong showing at the baseball state tournament a year ago and the confidence built after winning a football title, the Wolverines will eye a second state championship ring in a second sport this May.
The 2016 Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run: Spain’s Kilian Jornet will look to make it a three-peat in one of the world’s toughest ultra marathons, which starts and ends in Silverton on July 15. Jornet has won the two previous years, setting course records running both directions in the process. Also, New Zealand’s Anna Frost, who now calls Durango home, will look to win her second consecutive Hardrock 100 on the women’s side.