Don’t look now, but summer suddenly disappeared on us. With cool mornings and evenings beckoning the coming fall foliage, jumping in leaf piles and sipping apple cider are replacing summer time sprinkler runs and lemonade stands.
I am excited to report that we recently marked an important milestone for La Plata County commissioners and staff in our priority effort to revise the county’s land use code. Our current set of regulations was adopted 30 years ago. It has gone through some changes over time, but it is still a code that is designed to approve and permit residential subdivisions, but not does not contemplate commercial, industrial or mixed use projects.
As we seek to facilitate economic diversity in the face of declining oil and gas development, a land use code that effectively manages growth where infrastructure exists or is planned is critical.
This land use code revision project began as an effort to address challenges that business owners face in bringing projects to unincorporated areas of La Plata County. Specifically, the board of county commissioners in 2016 identified a number of goals for the code revision, including what I believe are the most critical:
Provide predictability to land use permit process, so that when an applicant proposes a project, there is clarity about whether permit approval is likely; right now, a proposed project’s compatibility with surrounding uses is determined at the end of the process, which can be time-consuming and costly.Articulate clear development standards. Doing this will help with the first goal: If the standards are clear and project applicants can meet them, there are fewer hurdles in the review process.Facilitate growth in appropriate areas, where infrastructure exists and “compatibility” is easy to accomplish. This is probably my top priority. I have often said, “We’ve got to find a way to make easy, easy.” That means if the infrastructure is there, or growth is already occurring in an area, the answer as to compatibility should be obvious and quick to conclude.Though the code revision process has had challenges along the way, the board of county commissioners has dedicated itself to a concerted community engagement effort since January 2018. We have heard, understood and acknowledged the concerns that folks have brought to our attention. In response, we have modified the scope of the code revision, while ensuring that our original goals can still be met.
On Sept. 4, the commissioners held a work session to provide staff with direction on how to move forward with the code revision effort, as well as to recount the work that has been done since the project became staff-led rather than outsourced to a consultant. The board has given staff direction – after thorough public input and vetting – on how to address portable storage containers and special events in the code revision. Also – again after public education and input – we directed staff to draft regulations governing “Areas and Activities of State Interest” for board consideration. These regulations allow counties a seat at the table when significant developments such as airports, highway interchanges and major utilities are proposed. We have also been reviewing proposed amendments to water standards, and will consider those for adoption.
The board of county commissioners remains committed to achieving the goals of predictability and a more efficient process in land use permitting, just using an approach that differs from that envisioned back at the beginning. Specifically, the board of county commissioners gave unanimous direction to the staff that the revised code will not pursue traditional “Euclidean” zoning, county-wide. Where it exists already – namely the Animas Valley – it will not change. Instead, the revision effort will focus on improving the existing “performance-based” zoning system so as to meet the goals of better predictability and certainty.
Finally, the revision will create a process to identify and designate “economic development areas” – those spots where “easy can be easy.” In those areas already ripe for economic development – Gem Village is a model – there will be streamlined application review processes and development standards to expedite and facilitate the path to “yes.” We will look to the new district plans, as well as other community input, to help inform where EDAs should be designated. Additionally, after conversations with our large-acreage agricultural producers, the board anticipates expanded uses by right on those lands to help diversify economic opportunities for those families.
The county commissioners’ unanimous direction on Sept. 4, though a different route, is consistent with the original goals. Even more important, it reflects our commitment to seeking and considering public input while achieving important economic development goals for our community as a whole.
I appreciate all the thoughtful comments we have heard throughout these conversations, and look forward to more input once draft language is available for review.
Julie Westendorff is chair of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners. Reach her at (970) 382-6219.