March 2007

Planning board says no to 44-lot subdivision

By Gail Binkly

ROAD TO GRANATH MESAA 44-lot subdivision with no water source other than residential cisterns got a resounding no from the Montezuma County Planning Commission in late February.

The planning commission voted 5-1 to recommend denying the developers’ request for AR 3-9 zoning (agricultural/ residential lots of 3 to 9 acres) on 160 acres atop Granath Mesa outside Dolores. A crowd of about 45, many of whom spoke against the development, attended the public hearing.

The developers had 30 days to decide whether to appeal to the county commission, but as of press time they had not sought to be on the agenda.

It is unusual but not unheard of for the planning commission to reject a project outright. Usually it seeks to work with the developers to mitigate neighbors’ concerns.

In this case, worries about fire danger, access, the water situation and a conflict with the town of Dolores’ plans all proved too big for the board to ameliorate.

Tim and Peter Singleton of 4 Corners Properties had argued that their Summerhaven Subdivision would help satisfy a growing demand for small acreage lots in the county.

Tim Singleton said 3-acre tracts are selling for $75,000 or more in the county, “making these lots out of reach of the majority of working families.”

But they also said the subdivision would fill the needs of wealthy retirees and second-home owners wanting small, manageable tracts.

“I’m dealing with people coming into my office looking for property,” Peter Singleton said. “These are retirees and second-home owners that we’re trying to draw. We definitely need more of these people with disposable income to spend.”

Tim Singleton said, “We feel there’s no better place in Montezuma County for a project of the type we’re proposing.”

But a number of area residents disagreed, saying the site was a terrible one for a high-density subdivision and that it could prove disastrous in the case of a major wildfire.

The property lies along roads 31 and W on Granath Mesa north of Dolores. The mesa is reached via the town’s 11th Street, which turns into County Road 31 and winds steeply up Dunlap Hill above the town. The tract sits across from the Sophia Lodge and also along the road that leads to the Boggy Draw area of the San Juan National Forest.

Tim Singleton told the planning board he felt the road was adequate to handle the subdivision’s traffic.

“Road 31 was built by the Dolores Project, to handling logging trucks and such,” he said. He called it “the best road in the county.”

He said the area where drivers descend the switchbacks into town and a school zone is “very well marked.”

“The speed limit is 30 mph in Dolores, and if there’s children present it slows to 15 mph,” he said. “We have a school crossing sign there.” He said they would work with the town if needed to improve safety, however.

He said he did not think the threat of fire was excessive, pointing out that the subdivision would be “way inside the boundaries of the Dolores Fire Protection District” and that a hydrant was 1.5 miles away and the fire station itself 2.8 miles away.

Tim Singleton said they had worked with Natural Resource Consulting to prepare a fire-mitigation plan and had contacted the Dolores Fire Protection District for advice.

However, Dolores Fire Chief Don Setser told the board he had concerns.

One is the number of buildings allowed per lot — two primary residences (one a guest house) and three accessory buildings, he said.

This could create exposure problems if one building were on fire, he said.

He said another part of the covenants states that all RVs and horses on premises must be screened from view by shrubs and trees. “It seems like this would require pretty dense plantings on a 3-acre lot, which could compromise wildfire-mitigation efforts,” Setser said.

He questioned whether part-time residents of the subdivision would keep up with brush-clearing efforts, particularly regarding tenacious Gambel oak.

Setser also said access poses a serious problem. “Being as there’s no central water supply, all our water for firefighting purposes is going to come with a tanker shuttle up that hill,” he said.

In a letter dated Feb. 20, Setser wrote, “The Forest Service road to the north (commonly called Norwood Road) could be considered an emergency egress route for residents during the summer months but could not be an emergency response route as the distances are too great. . .” He also pointed out that the road is not plowed at night in the winter, and Dunlap Hill can be extremely slick and sees frequent rock slides.

But Tim Singleton reiterated that they were just 1.5 miles from water. “Fire is something that we have to live with every day,” he said.

Several neighbors also argued that the 3-acre tracts would not fit with the surrounding area.

The Singletons said the area has a mix of uses. They said a neighboring property is already zoned for AR 3-9.

But Planning Commission Chair Bob Riggert said the neighboring property is not zoned AR 3-9; its owners have merely expressed a preference for that zoning. The county has not approved it.

Attorney Jon Kelly, representing resident David Doran, said there was precedent for the county to turn down the zoning request. He said in 2001, AR 3-9 zoning for another property on the mesa was denied as being incompatible with the neighborhood.

Lori Raney, another neighbor, said she owns 35 acres on Road W that was going to be a subdivision in the ’90s. But the development with its 3-5-acre lots, was turned down, she said.

John Cowell, a resident of Granath Mesa, said average home water use in this country is 6,900 gallons per month, which would total 303,600 gallons a month if all 44 sites were occupied. He said that would require 25 pickup trips per day to haul water.

He also said the subdivision would produce 11,550 gallons of effluent a day and that this could affect an inactive geologic fault in the area.

Tim Singleton responded that cisternusers are more water-efficient. “You live differently when you have a cistern,” he said. He said Dolores has plenty of water available to sell.

He also said the developers had specifically excluded wells from the subdivision because they did not want to affect the neighbors’ water.

“By doing cisterns, if water was to come up the hill we have a block of people that are ready and would tap into that if it came up,” Peter Singleton added.

Commission member Casey McClellan also expressed concern about the town’s objections.

In a Feb. 8 letter to the county, Dolores Town Administrator Ronda Lancaster said the town’s comprehensive plan calls for its “R-35” future land-use category to be applied on Granath Mesa, with maximum density not to exceed one dwelling unit per 35 acres unless alternate access becomes available.

Tim Singleton said he did not see how the town could specify what development happened on the mesa. “There isn’t a town in the country that has an R-35 zone,” he said.

County attorney Bob Slough clarified that in the commission meeting Feb. 26, saying a town can make decisions regarding objectionable land uses within 1 mile of its boundaries. A town’s influence beyond 1 mile but within 3 miles is limited to making sure county development does not conflict with a town’s master street plan, Slough said, though a town’s comments can certainly be taken into account.

But the planning-commission members decided other concerns were sufficiently grave for them to recommend rejecting the development.