County mulls land use revisions

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The Montezuma County commissioners have backed away from an earlier attempt to zone all unzoned parcels in the county.

Instead, they are considering amending the land-use code to add language that would merely grant future commissioners the authority to implement such zoning.

A public hearing on proposed amendments to the code has been set for Monday, April 30, at 1:30 p.m., in the commissioners’ meeting room in the county courthouse.

One of the proposed changes would add a paragraph in Chapter 3, Section 2, of the code stating that the commissioners are “authorized to rezone Unzoned parcels of land” after giving landowners notice and a chance to respond.

“This gives them the authority to rezone unzoned parcels of land for their actual size and uses,” said county planning director Susan Carver. “The way it was presented before, this would be done and ‘unzoned’ would be taken out of the land-use code.

“Now it’s being presented as giving them the authority to do it. It will also give landowners the opportunity to make a choice regarding the rezoning of their property, which would leave ‘unzoned’ in the landuse code.”

On Dec. 19, 2011, the commissioners had balked at the idea of just zoning unzoned parcels according to their current use, even though they had asked the planning commission and planning department to move in that direction.

When the county’s land-use code was adopted in 1998, it included a system called Landowner-Initiated Zoning, which allowed property owners to choose their own zoning, within certain parameters. However, well over 60 percent of the county remains unzoned today, a situation that has caused confusion both for unzoned landowners and their neighbors.

For instance, many who chose not to zone their property believe this gives them the right to do whatever they want on it. In fact, they are limited to their current use; any change requires them to first come before the county seeking approval.

On Dec. 19, Carver and some members of the planning commission presented their latest attempt at resolving that issue and some other problems in the code, only to have the commissioners send them back to the drawing board again.

Commissioner Gerald Koppenhafer at the time said he was concerned that simply putting an agricultural zone on ag properties wouldn’t reflect the fact that many farmers and ranchers also have home businesses of some sort. He called for a zoning category called “mixed use,” or something similar.

The planners didn’t do that, but came up with another way to try to handle that concern, Carver said.

“Mixed use is not being proposed,” she said. “We and the planning commission studied the land-use code and tried to figure out a plan of how we could handle these historic commercial and industrial uses without coming up with another category, and we went back to reviewing the uses by right.”

The new language would list, include under “uses by right” in each zoning category, any documented actual uses existing on the parcel on July 20, 1998, (the date the code was adopted) and continuing since then.

“It doesn’t cover expansion, just the use on that date the code was adopted,” she said.

Carver said she hopes the changes will protect the county and landowners from unfavorable court decisions regarding controversial uses on rural lands.

“The county has entered into litigation in the past where properties were unzoned or ag [and the county approved another use] where the commissioners’ decision was not affirmed,” Carver said. “Hopefully by adding these as uses by right we will protect them.

“Before, we thought we could address historic uses through special-use permits. The commissioners thought the plan could be improved, so they sent it back for us to work on and to come up with other ideas.

“This is our other idea and I’m glad they sent it back, because I think this is going to work even better. This way [agricultural landowners] don’t have to obtain a permit [for a historic use] — it will just be their use by right.”

Other proposed amendments to be considered on April 30 would:

• Allow the board to create commercial and industrial “overlay” areas where such development would be encouraged through voluntary measures. This would not automatically grant commercial or industrial zoning to any particular parcel, but would give the board the authority to create such overlay areas at a future date.

• Define both “light” and “heavy” industrial uses.

• Add “home occupation” under the definitions of agricultural uses.

• Move some language to different sections of the land-use code to better organize the document and make it clearer.

The proposed amendments may be viewed at the planning office in the county courthouse, 309 W. Main St., Cortez, or online at www.co.montezuma.co.us. (Go to “Departments,” then to “Planning.”)

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From April 2012.