Frustration boiled over this week as some La Plata County ranchers and farmers opposed a new land-use code, which some see as an example of government overreach and an infringement on property rights.
“This (the proposed land-use code) locks us in and that devalues our property,” said J. Paul Brown, an Ignacio rancher and former county commissioner. “We see that as taking our property.”
Late last year, the La Plata County Planning Department released the first draft of the long-awaited revised codes that haven’t been updated since the 1980s. This version is the first “module” of three, which specifically addresses land use.
La Plata County planners have reasoned the new codes provide predictability for property owners and what they can do with their land, especially at a time when the county is expected to see unprecedented growth.
With the current process, property owners or developers who want to develop land must go through a lengthy process to find out if what they want to do is an acceptable use, which can be costly and deter growth, said La Plata County Planning Director Jason Meininger.
And, after all that time and money, the answer can be no, he added.
These new land-use codes, Meininger said, aim to let developers know exactly what they are buying and what the land can be used for, a benefit to the developer and neighbors.
“We’re not restricting growth,” he said, “we’re focusing growth.”
But some members of La Plata County’s agricultural community see the codes more as an attempt to take away property rights, discourage ranching and promote urban sprawl.
The county has adamantly denied this.
“Those comments are not reflective of a knowledge of the code and what’s in it,” said county spokeswoman Megan Graham. “A lot of this is a philosophical resistance to the notion of land-use planning.”
On Wednesday, more than 30 farmers and ranchers brought their concerns to what they thought was a public meeting hosted by the county – which turned out not to be the case.
The meeting was supposed to be a continuation of a limited stakeholder meeting made up of the agricultural community, with members selected by La Plata County commissioners, which have helped advise the drafting of the land-use codes since 2015.
Notice of the meeting, however, was spread through email and social media as being open to the public, drawing far more people than the small boardroom could accommodate.
For nearly 30 minutes, ranchers and farmers packed the lobby of the planning department’s office at 211 Rock Point Drive, persistently questioning county staff members that at times became a heated emotional conversation on the ideology of codes and regulations.
Many in the lobby called for, among other demands, a drastic reduction in the codes, for the county to delay its September deadline for adoption and to simply discard the land codes.
Rancher Doug Davis said the new codes, which place certain restrictions on outdoor lighting and road standards, will negatively affect his business.
“It’s our land, it’s our blood, our sweat, and I don’t need anybody telling me how to farm,” he said. “If you don’t like cows and farm equipment, don’t live next to a farm.”
Brown said the land-use codes affect the agricultural community far more than other county residents.
“We’re the ones going to be hurt as far as property rights,” he said. “And then we end up having to sell the whole ranch, which isn’t good for wildlife or open space. But that’s what we have to do.”
Graham said the code focuses on where infrastructure is available and encourages and facilitates development where it makes sense.
Still, a select portion of the community is opposed to regulations.
Bob Witt, a local rancher and member of agriculture interest advisory board, likened the codes to an act of communism, as well as a subversive way to stifle ranching and to promote development.
“You’re fixing to shut us down,” Witt told the planning staff.