Letter draws criticism from board

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A P&Z member had criticized the board for granting a variance for an illegal deck

DOLORES RIVER SETBACK RE-EVALUATION

Setback requirements along the Dolores River are being re-evaluated by Montezuma County.

A member of the Montezuma County Planning and Zoning Commission who criticized the county commissioners in a letter to local newspapers got a severe tongue-lashing Aug. 5, but a motion to throw him off the planning group failed 2-1 after a heated discussion.

Tim Hunter of Mancos, who has been on the planning group since 2006, had written a letter lambasting the county commissioners’ decision on June 24 to grant a variance to a man who had built a large gazebo within the Dolores River floodplain in violation of a 100-foot setback requirement in the county land-use code.

After receiving complaints about landowner Grant Smith’s construction of the gazebo, the planning department brought the matter before the commission. On June 24, the board voted 2-1, with Commissioner Keenan Ertel dissenting, to fine Smith $1,000 for flouting the rules but to also grant him a variance for the gazebo.

Hunter’s letter ran in the Cortez Journal on July 16 under the headline, “Wealth buys the commissioners’ blessing.” (It was also sent to the Free Press in July, but as a monthly, this paper had not published another issue until this one and hence had not yet printed the letter.)

“Some of the board members were a little tweaked over some of the comments that were made” in the letter, Commission Chair Steve Chappell told Hunter, who had been asked to appear before the board on Aug. 5.

But it soon became clear that it was Commissioner Larry Don Suckla who had particularly taken offense at Hunter’s letter, which said that the gazebo was in violation of the land-use code and criticized the board for fining Smith a mere $1,000.

“Many other landowners along the river have wanted to build within the exclusion zone but have honored the LUC [land-use code],” Hunter wrote. “The paltry fine levied was an insult to those residents and gives the impression that in this county if you have wealth you can buy the rules and the blessing of the commissioners.”

On Aug. 5, Suckla told Hunter that while he embraces differences of opinion, he believed Hunter’s letter to be unprofessional.

“As a planning commissioner, you represent the citizens of Montezuma County, so that entails a certain professionalism,” Suckla said. “We should act in a certain professional way. Your letter that you wrote said that we were bought off, and you used slander and you used libel.

“I’m here today to move that you are unappointed.”

Hunter replied, “There was no slander. There was no libel. I expressed my opinion. I did not say you took money. I did not say any money exchanged hands. I would stand up for any one of you any day of the week.”

Hunter added that he had not signed the letter as a member of the planning commission.

Suckla cited the headline that accompanied the letter, but Hunter said that was written by the Journal, not him. (The letter received by the Free Press did not have a headline.)

Hunter did not back down from his criticism of the board, saying the commissioners in giving the variance to Smith had not followed a process for granting variances within the floodplain that is outlined in a “Flood Damage Prevention” resolution adopted by the county in 2008.

Hunter told the board the $1,000 assessed against Smith was “a paltry fine for something that is a significant issue for a plan that was hashed over for a lot of years.”

“You are not the person to be doing that,” Commissioner Keenan Ertel responded.

“I also have my voice as a citizen of this county,” Hunter said.

Suckla said he wasn’t talking about free speech, but professionalism.

Hunter said he recognizes that he serves at the pleasure of the commissioners, who appoint the planning commission. However, he added that he did not believe his letter writing qualified him for dismissal under any of the six reasons for removal listed in the planning group’s rules, last updated by the county commissioners in 2009: conflict of interest, malfeasance, non-performance of duties, conviction of a felony, being elected or appointed to public office, or moving out of the county.

Ertel, looking over that language, said nothing Hunter had done seemed to fall under those categories. “I understand what you’re saying, Larry Don,” he told Suckla, “but they are very specific in this removal of a planning commissioner and I don’t see where you [Hunter] fit that.”

County attorney John Baxter agreed.

But Suckla said, “I think anybody that is married can get divorced Anybody that is appointed can be unappointed.”

The board refused to take comments from the audience, saying it was not a public hearing. Suckla’s motion to dismiss Hunter then failed on a 2-1 vote.

Hunter told the b o a r d he will refrain from doing anything similar without first coming to the commissioners with his concerns.

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From August 2013.