Passions run high over river-valley regulations

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When it comes to how development should, or shouldn’t, be managed in the Dolores River Valley, one thing is certain: People have strong opinions.

Even members of the citizens’ working group that recommended the rules currently guiding growth in the valley continue to disagree a decade after their work was finished.

Bruce Lightenburger, who owns 622 acres upriver from the town of Dolores, believes the county’s current prohibition against building within 100 feet of the river is “ludicrous.”

“It’s ludicrous that someone can tell you what size of deck your wife can sit on in your own back yard,” Lightenburger told the Free Press. “It’s those types of things that I find repulsive. I want to protect the water quality, but under the guise of protecting water quality, they are telling us that we can no longer build on our lands.”

He said there are too many layers of bureaucracy already restricting development along the river, including requirements of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, state regulations concerning water wells, county rules about septic systems, and more. The county’s setback requirement and TDR system are too much to add to the mix, he said, and create hardships for valley landowners.

“There’s some people who own three acres [on lots created before the TDR system] and with the hundred-foot setback, they only have 30 feet to build on,” he said.

He likewise believes the current system of Transferable Development Rights, which allows landowners in the Dolores River Valley to build just one home for every 10 acres they own unless they can purchase TDRs from someone else, is absurd.

But Pat Kantor, another valley landowner who served on the working group, said the restrictions are reasonable to protect the river and the water it sends into McPhee Reservoir.

“The [valley] plan was put in place for the people who use the river, who depend on the potable water, who economically depend on it – farmers and ranchers, even in Dove Creek and that whole area where irrigation is supplied, hunters and outfitters, Cortez residents and businesses, the Ute Mountain Utes,” she said. “It wasn’t put in place for the people who live up river. It was for a greater good, the good of the county.”

She said at the time the group was working, there was concern about the possibility of a large golf-course and resort development on the river and the pollution it could cause. The group heard from various water managers who said that correcting pollution problems is expensive and time-consuming, so it’s better to prevent them in the first place.

“A lot of education and time went into the development of that plan and to have things changed without appropriate information behind decision-making would be very tragic,” Kantor said.

Lightenburger, however, said it’s possible to have growth and maintain water quality.

“Not one person that lives on the river wants the river polluted,” he said. “It would be killing the goose that lays the golden egg.” He and his wife bought their property some 15 years ago, he said. “It was an old gravel pit and all we have done is rehabilitate it. We care about the valley.”

However, he said the rules are too restrictive. Under the TDR system, he said, someone wanting to build a relatively small, 50- seat restaurant on the river outside the town of Dolores would have to own 150 acres, or the TDRs for that many acres.

However, according to the planning department, such a restaurant would take closer to 60 acres, although it could require more depending on slope and whether land is in the floodplain. The restaurant would not even have to be located on the 60-acre parcel itself, so long as the owner had a 60-acre parcel in the valley.

“Those rules are killing any development,” he said. “TDRs stop building and commerce.” Lightenburger pointed out that since the rules were adopted into the county’s land-use code in December 2003, not a single TDR has been transferred in the valley.

Kantor said that is largely because of the recession. “TDRs haven’t been exchanged, but look where the economy has been these past years,” she said. “Waterfront property is precious and we have beautiful land here and good water quality. As soon as the economy turns around things are going to change. There could be large acquisitions of land along the river and we have to be prepared for that.”

But Lightenburger maintained that the TDR system is strangling growth and should be abandoned, letting density in the valley be regulated according to the county-wide minimum of three acres per lot. Allowing just one home per 10 acres promotes sprawl, he said.

“I don’t want it to be like Los Angeles up and down that valley, but I want the rules to be loosened to where if somebody wants to build a house for their aging mother-in-law they can do it.”

He questioned why, if the stricter regulations are necessary to protect water quality, they haven’t been imposed on the Mancos River or McElmo Creek, adding, “Because if we did it county-wide, the people would go berserk.”

But Marianne Mate, a Dolores town resident who was mayor from 2002 to 2006 and also served on the valley plan’s working group, said she sees the issue from the point of view of a public servant.

“I respect private property, but when private property impacts public safety, I think you have to look at the greater good. I understand people don’t trust the science, but in the long run you have to look at what’s best for the population that will be impacted.”

She said she doesn’t see anything wrong with the rules as they are. Any structures built within the floodplain are going to come floating down the river in a flood, she said, causing damage and creating hazards.

“When you do something up the river and you put a structure on the river, you are impacting the people that live below you and you are impacting more than just your own family,” she said.

In situations where someone who owns a small, grandfathered lot has difficulty finding space to build on, or where someone’s property within the setback is 50 feet higher than the floodplain, she said, “That’s what variances are for.”

Lightenburger and others have pointed out that numerous structures have been built next to the river within the town of Dolores, which because it is incorporated is not subject to the county’s planning regulations. Mate said that’s because the town is more than 100 years old and when it was incorporated nobody worried about floodplain protection.

“You have to look at what mitigation you can do,” she said. “The library has done some.”

During the roughly two years that the working group met, members learned a great deal about water quality, rivers, and floodplain protection through presentations from different experts, according to Kantor and Mate.

“People came together realizing for today, tomorrow, 10 years from now, 20 years from now, the importance of the water in the Dolores River Valley for the sustenance and maintenance of the county,” Kantor said.

One of the things they learned, Mate said, was that too much density along rivers can impair water quality. For instance, in Cottonwood, Ariz., planners allowed too much growth to be concentrated along the Verde River, and there were numerous exceedances of water-quality standards for contaminants such as e. coli.

Lightenburger said regulating density isn’t the answer. What the river valley really needs is a sewer line, he said, and regulations requiring all new homes to tap into the line.

“If they wanted to help water quality, they’d find a way to run a sewer line and a water line up the river. There are grants for that.” Then, he said, the county could reconsider whether stricter density limits were necessary, or it could look at every development individually. “One rule doesn’t fit all.”

“I think responsible growth can be done on the river. I’m not talking about condos and golf courses. But if someone wanted to do some nice apartment buildings with parks and livable spaces I think it should be looked at. I’m not saying to do it, just look at it.”

At present the county is looking only at loosening setback regulations, Lightenburger said, but it should reconsider the TDR system as well. “First we’ll get the setbacks and then we’ll go after the TDRs,” he predicted.

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From September 2013.