La Plata County is expected to implement a six-month moratorium on all new development applications to prepare for adopting a new land-use code this fall.
Megan Graham, spokeswoman for the county, said moratoriums are standard practice for counties set to adopt new codes, so planning staff don’t have to process new developments under two different standards.
La Plata County commissioners are expected to vote on the moratorium May 5, which would be effective immediately if approved. It would last until Nov. 5, according to county records.
“In order to transition from one code to another, we have to have a period where we can’t accept new applications because we’re changing from one set of rules to another,” said Commissioner Julie Westendorff. “I’d like that to be as short as possible.”
But some say a moratorium sends the wrong message to businesses and developers who may be looking to move to La Plata County, especially during a time when the economy is suffering as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It almost gives the sense of not working with businesses, even if that’s not their intent,” said Laura Marchino, executive director of Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado. “This just adds to those barriers.”
The moratorium would apply only to development applications, not building permits, Graham said. So construction of a single-family home or accessory dwellings, for example, would still be allowed.
Development applications are typically associated with larger-scale projects, usually under a Class 1 or Class 2 permit. But if a project was previously approved, it can go onto construction.
“If you have your land-use permit, you can still get your building permit,” Graham said.
La Plata County is also proposing 16 exemptions to the moratorium for reasons such as a project currently in process, oil and gas activities or utility work, among others.
Applicants also have the opportunity to petition La Plata County commissioners should their project not fall within the allowed exemptions.
“Moratorium is an ominous word, “ Westendorff said. “But this is not as ominous as people are thinking it is.”
Westendorff added that with the coronavirus outbreak, it’s likely there would be fewer development applications during this time.
“Realistically, we’re going to see fewer projects anyway because of the instability in the world in general, specifically in business,” she said.
La Plata County has been attempting to update its land-use code, which hasn’t had a serious overhaul since the 1980s, since fall 2016. Graham said county officials expect to release a draft of the new codes in May.
Then, the county will host a series of public meetings to get residents’ feedback, Graham said.
County officials contacted more than 20 developers whose projects could be affected by the moratorium, Graham said.
“If you have an application in before May 5, it will still be processed,” she said.
Marchino said the moratorium will make it harder to entice businesses to be located in La Plata County, an ongoing problem for those in the business community.
Many times, businesses choose to locate in adjacent Montezuma County or northern New Mexico where it’s easier to start a business, Marchino said. A moratorium would exacerbate those issues.
Marchino said given the coronavirus outbreak, the county should be making it easier to attract new businesses.
“Why have any kind of moratorium at this point?” she said.
Elyse Ackerman Casselberry, the community development director for Delta County, which is also rewriting its land-use code, agreed it is standard practice to place a moratorium on development applications during a code revision.
But, she said Delta County commissioners chose not to implement a moratorium because they didn’t want to send a message to the business community that the county wasn’t open for business.
“Our county commissioners felt a moratorium was the opposite of being business friendly,” she said. “That was really why we did not put one in place. But it does pose some challenges, especially at the tail end of adopting new regs.”
Jon Roorda, the planning manager for Chaffee County, said planners used the old code until the new code was finalized and adopted in 2014 during a land-use regulation rewrite. That way, a moratorium wasn’t necessary.
“Our pre-2014 code was in place until the new one was approved,” he said. “So you’re not working from two codes at once.”
In a letter to La Plata County, Jack Turner, who is running for county commissioner in fall 2020, said the moratorium “could not be made at a worse time.”
“If there is a surge of land-use permit applications, it would be a blessing considering the national and local state of the economy,” he wrote.