La Plata County’s revision of its land-use code won’t be as extensive as previously thought, but county officials said Wednesday that making improvements to the current system will help fix the main issues within the outdated regulations brought up over the past three years.
In early 2016, La Plata County commissioners voted unanimously to update the land-use code, which hasn’t been revamped since the 1980s – a timespan in which the population has nearly doubled and growth has spread to other parts of the county.
The main issue, county officials say, is the current codes – known as “performance-based zoning” – require anyone who wants to develop land to go through a costly and time-intensive process to draft things like engineering studies and building designs.
After all the front-end work, which in some instances can take up to a year and cost prospective developers tens of thousands of dollars, the county then reviews the proposed project to determine if it is a suitable fit for the area – and it could be denied.
Commissioners in 2016 laid out goals for updates to the land-use code to provide more predictability to people who want to develop and residents who want assurance the character of their neighborhood won’t be compromised by a proposed project.
The county explored the idea of shifting to “Euclidean” zoning, which essentially flips the process by predetermining what types of uses work in what areas, based on the character of the neighborhood and what infrastructure exists there.
But the prospect of Euclidean zoning, one of the most common types of zoning in the country, was met with resistance by some La Plata County residents who said the system would pigeonhole uses on their land.
Looking for a way to fix the issues the current code poses to developers, while at the same time recognizing that some members of the public oppose Euclidean zoning, county staff suggested in recent weeks trying to improve the performance-based system in place.
County Manager Chuck Stevens said at a work session Wednesday, attended by about 30 members of the public, that there are ways to improve and tweak performance-based zoning that could provide the predictability to developers that commissioners called for in 2016.
One possible solution, Stevens said, would be to require a compatibility study for any proposed projects as the first step in the development process. That way, prospective developers will have a better idea if their project will be approved before investing more time and money.
He also said the current code could be adjusted to streamline development.
“We’re trying to make it faster and reduce the cost to the developer,” he said.
Commissioner Clyde Church called the proposal from county staff a reasonable “middle ground” between the pursuit of Euclidean zoning, which provides the best predictability for land uses, and some residents’ opposition to it.
“The improvements staff is recommending are significant,” he said. “We won’t have exact specificity (of what development can occur where), but we do have the ability to fast-track.”
Commissioner Julie Westendorff said the idea from the outset was never to zone the whole county. But, she said economic leaders have made clear the current way of doing things has to be fixed.
“To be endorsing continuing performance-based zoning … that’s a hard pill for me to swallow,” she said. “But I think it’s a different way of phrasing what I envisioned us doing anyhow. … I’m going to be really persistent in making sure whatever the code looks like, it achieves our goals.”
Commissioners directed county staff to pursue improvements to the current system, as well as establish a process for identifying and creating “economic development areas,” essentially predetermined growth hubs where infrastructure and development exists and future growth makes sense.
One example of an economic development area, county staff said, is Gem Village, just west of Bayfield, where proposed development goes through a streamlined process.
Stevens said the next step in the land-use code rewrite process is finalizing 12 individual district plans in November, which allow individual communities to set a vision for growth in their neighborhoods and should be used in the proposed compatibility study.
In the meantime, he said county staff will start drafting “boiler plate” language in anticipation of larger code revisions.