Debate still raging over Dolores River Valley Plan

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Commissioners press reluctant P&Z to make changes

It’s back to the drawing board for the Montezuma County Planning and Zoning Commission, which is still endeavoring to come up with a version of the Dolores River Valley Plan that will satisfy the county commissioners.

DOLORES RIVER RAFTERS

Rafters float past homes in the scenic Dolores River Valley. Photo by Wendy Mimiaga

On Jan. 27, the county commissioners summarily dismissed an idea P&Z had come up with to stimulate growth and development in the river valley. That idea, which was just a rough concept, was to leave the existing river-valley plan intact, with its setback requirement and system of transferable development rights, but allow the county to act as a “bank” that could sell transferable development rights that had not been claimed by private landowners. Any funds the county acquired would have been returned to the public – possibly by creating a disaster-relief fund, developing more public access to the river and public lands, or something similar.

But the commissioners took a dim view of that concept, worried it was over-reaching. Commission Chair Keenan Ertel said it made the hair stand up on the back of his neck, and Commissioner Steve Chappell said talk of benefiting the general public sounded like socialism.

Compelling reasons?

P&Z Chair Dennis Atwater reiterated to the board that the planning commission had prepared a report on the river-valley plan in September and unanimously supported keeping the plan intact. The county commissioners had questioned the plan’s requirement that structures have a 100-foot setback from the river, and had also voiced concern about the system that generally establishes one transferable development right, or TDR, for each 10 acres. Anyone wanting to build a residence needs at least one TDR to do so; TDRs can be separated from the land and sold to people wanting to develop.

On Jan. 27, Atwater told the commissioners there are 10 counties in the state with significant river-valley issues, and five of them have 100-foot setbacks.

“The setbacks are based on science,” he said, adding that there are provisions for variances based on good cause. “There’s no place where one rule fits all. It needs to be processed for individual consideration and that’s already in the ordinance.”

He said TDRs are a planning tool that have been used successfully around the nation since 1917. “TDRs give families the option of holding onto land and selling the TDRs to pay inheritance taxes,” he said, adding that, “Unlike conservation easements, TDRs can be bought back.”

Regarding the fact that no TDRs have yet been sold in the Dolores River Valley, Atwater noted that the economy has been bad for nearly a decade and real estate hadn’t been moving anywhere in the county. He said 101 of the TDRs had already been platted at the landowners’ expense, which indicated there was some interest in eventually selling them.

And he said while a small number of people in the valley say that their land values have eroded because of the TDR system, this is not so, according to the assessor’s office.

Atwater said the river-valley plan, adopted in 2008, “has continuously fulfilled its purpose.”

“What are the compelling reasons to change the plan?” he asked. “To date, no one’s come up with any.”

He said the bank proposal could be “a win-win for the county, for the Montezuma Land Conservancy [which holds some conservation easements in the river valley], and for landowners.”

He said using the sale of TDRs to generate a disaster-relief fund made sense and wouldn’t require using tax monies.

‘Red flags’

But Ertel said the idea of the county handling any TDR transactions seemed like “we would be creating money out of the air.”

“The whole idea is scary to me,” Ertel said.

Atwater replied, “New ideas are.”

Chappell said that when he hears talk of “win-wins” and of something being done “for the benefit of the public, all the red flags go up” because it sounds like socialism.

Atwater said P&Z believes the plan should stay in place “exactly as it is” and therefore needed direction on how to proceed.

Chappell asked if he’d thought of decreasing the acreage required for TDRs. The original river-valley plan, based on engineering recommendations, found the carrying capacity of the valley to be 620 TDRs, but that number decreased by about 200 when steep slopes were removed from consideration.

Ertel said, “Steve is right. If 200 TDRs are not buildable they should reduce the acreage on TDRs to six acres.”

“Smaller and less,” Chappell told Atwater.

In a phone interview with the Free Press, Atwater said Chappell’s comment about socialism bothered him, but he had resisted the temptation to debate that at the time. He said it was “uncalled for” and “showed disrespect for the planning commission.”

“The importance of the general welfare is mentioned in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution,” Atwater noted, adding that the planning commission had specifically discussed it at their recent meeting.

“It makes me wonder if he thinks the founding fathers were socialists,” Atwater said.

He added that the bank idea “seemed to make perfect sense” to him. “The process is used all around the country.”

The commissioners “want to change the basic program in the Dolores Valley – it was apparent from the beginning,” Atwater said.

‘Can of worms’

At its regular meeting Feb. 27, the planning board said they were disappointed the commissioners had so swiftly rejected the bank concept, but agreed to schedule a work session to discuss other options.

“They want us to reduce the TDR size,” Atwater said. “We will all have to give this some careful thought.”

He said the general public seems to support the valley plan, as indicated by feedback P&Z had received.

“We’ve conducted public meetings and heard from the public during our online survey, and I think we all have some feeling about what the public has said, even though there are differences among the public.”

Tim Hunter, vice chair of the planning commission, said it would “open up a can of worms” to change the TDR size because it would require rewriting the whole valley plan.

Planning-commission member Kelly Belt said rewriting the plan could take a year, considering the necessity for public input and hearings.

Hunter said regulations regarding the Dolores River are “not just an issue of personal property rights” but “an issue of protecting a county-wide asset.”

“I am all against over-reaching regulation, but when you have general public consent, which has been proven several times now,” the regulations make sense, Hunter said.

Atwater questioned what it would mean to the people who have already platted their TDRs at the 10-acre size to have the TDR size be reduced to six acres, as the county commissioners had suggested.

“There’s 101 of these that are now platted, so how do we ask those people – if they have made financial decisions, which we are mostly not aware of – how do we wash that with those folks?” he asked.

The planning commission then agreed to hold a work session on March 20 specifically devoted to the Dolores River Valley Plan.

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