Volunteering is usually a good thing.
It helps other people and it helps you. There are so many needs in this area and if you have the expertise to help, why shouldn’t you volunteer your services?
That’s what I finally did last summer when no one stepped forward to lead a group that was updating a land use plan.
Land use: There’s a subject few people want to read about! Could I spark some interest by telling you I was sued for $3 million by developers when I was trying to stop urban sprawl in Oregon? What I was doing was perfectly legal, but I was sued anyway.
I lived in the Grants Pass area of southern Oregon, a beautiful region of forested mountains, salmon-spawning rivers and small farms. Unfortunately, county commissioners were rezoning prime forest and farm land for subdivisions, something that was prohibited by their land use codes. I spent 10 years filing appeals, all of which I lost locally, but mostly won at the state level. That was too much for certain developers, so they sued me. Three million was a whole lot more money than I had, was very scary and didn’t help my marriage, either.
It’s probably no surprise that when I moved to Durango, I vowed to never get involved with land use again. One frightening lawsuit was enough. And then... no one stepped up to lead the Florida Road District Planning Group.
A little background: La Plata County is divided into 12 planning Districts. Back in the ’90s, citizens of each district were given the chance to create plans reflecting what kind of development they wanted. In other words, if they wanted their rural atmosphere or any other quality to continue, their plans would communicate this to the officials in charge.
Recently, it was determined that the 12 county district plans needed to be updated and open houses were held to solicit volunteers for the process. In my Florida Road area there were a lot of people who wanted to preserve the rural values, but no one came forward to lead the group. Finally, I broke my vow and agreed to lead them.
Big mistake, as it turns out!
We held many spirited meetings, threading our way between people who wanted to do whatever they liked with their land and those who thought our rural values needed to be protected.
We were progressing well until I found out the real reason for creating district plans. It’s to make people think they have a meaningful say in how their areas develop, when actually they don’t. It turns out that the Planning Commission is all powerful and does whatever it likes when it comes to development. If you thought the Planning Commission would follow the district plans, you’d be wrong.
In the most blatant recent example, the Planning commissioners approved a land use change that will allow the creation of a city more than half the size of Bayfield on Highway 160 between Elmore’s Corner and Gem Village. They approved it even though it violated the residents’ wishes in their district plan, it violated La Plata County’s Comprehensive Plan and it was recommended for denial by the County Planning Department
Their approval allowed exactly the kind of urban sprawl I had fought so hard against in Oregon. It hit me that if they can approve a city on 160, there’s nothing to stop them from doing the same thing in my district between Edgemont and Helen’s Store.
Obviously, the Planning commissioners don’t really care what district residents want; in fact, the whole district planning process is just a sham to dupe residents into thinking their opinions matter.
I should have investigated more before I agreed to lead the Florida Road group. Now I realize all our efforts were a waste.
It doesn’t matter what the Florida Road plan or any other plan says, because the Planning commissioners will do whatever they want. If you haven’t seen the sprawl in California, think of the highway between Aztec and Farmington. Their actions show that this is what the Planning commissioners intend to give us.
Land use planning in La Plata County is currently a bad joke that won’t be fixed by zoning or anything else as long as the Planning Commission is in charge.
I don’t know what the solution is, but the present situation is destroying the La Plata County we love and should make people think twice about what they volunteer for.
Steve Doob practices tai chi in Durango. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.