August 2009

Where could Montezuma have an industrial area?

By Gail Binkly

The Montezuma County commissioners’ decision July 21 to grant industrial zoning for a 43-acre tract at Highway 491 and Road L brought to the forefront once again the thorny issue of how to handle industrial activities.

Over the objections of neighbors, the commissioners voted 3-0 to allow Empire Electric and Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company to create a two-lot planned unit development west of Highway 491 and north of Road L.

The county planning commission had earlier struggled with the question, taking three votes to clarify their final position. On April 23, at a hearing that had been continued from the previous month, the board rejected 3-2 a motion to grant commercial zoning to the tract, then voted down industrial zoning 5-0, then passed a third motion 4-1 to deny either zoning to the applicants.

Like many other hearings about industrial activities in the county, this one pitted convenience and cost savings for the applicants against residents’ concerns about compabitility and property values.

“This piece of property is the most member-friendly property Empire can find,” said Empire General Manager Neal Stephens. “It has the most convenient and safe access.” Other sites that had been suggested, such as on Highway 145 toward Dolores, near the fairgrounds, or on a more remote county road, would cost extra millions for improvements, he said.

Scott Ehmke, operations manager for Empire, said the co-op is running out of space at its aging facilities at 801 N. Broadway. He said the plan is to keep Empire’s headquarters there for now and move the maintenance shops onto the new property, leaving much of the tract still as open space. However, in the future, Empire will have to expand, he said.

A number of neighbors objected to the proposal.

Danny Wilkin voiced concern about the precedent that would be set by approving the first industrial zone in the neighborhood. He noted that the landowner selling the property to Empire, Keith Cole, still owns some 40 acres to the south. “If he decides to sell off the next part, you have the industrial- zoning precedent there. We dont’ want this to be a piggyback deal.”

Neighbor Shawn Wells said the key is balancing private property rights with property values. “I would agree with protecting his [Cole’s] rights but not at the cost of sacrificing my right to enjoy my property,” he said.

“Industrial zoning next to residential property takes value away. . . This is incompatible with the current use, the current zoning and the neighbors.”

Wells, like many others, called for the county to develop a designated industrial area. “Simply taking a half-mile swipe out of completely residential land is spot zoning,” he said. “There is no industrial land north of Cortez for three miles. If there is no industrial activity at all within the neighborhood, how is that not spot zoning?”

Wells said when he looks out his window, he sees “pretty green pastures with cattle grazing and hay being produced. It’s quiet, it’s dark, it’s peaceful, deer graze — it’s not an industrial park.” Now, he said, Empire will be “moving in steel buildings, gravel pads, chain-link fence and lights.”

Planning-commission chair Jon Callender said his group recommended against the proposal based on its concern that the zone would extend a half-mile west of the highway. He also noted that “industrial and commercial zoning is a target, an attractor. It creates precedent for the future.”

But the commissioners decided to approve the project over the planning commission’s recommendation.

In explaining his decision, Commissioner Gerald Koppenhafer said he did not believe Empire had another viable location for its facility. “I can understand your issues with moving south of town and I wouldn’t build a business there for anything and have to go through that port of entry,” he said, adding that the port “is in the wrong location as far as I’m concerned.”

He also noted that much of the area surrounding the new location remains unzoned. “If you people want to control what’s in your area you need to zone your property,” he told the audience. “I’d like to see all these parcels along the highway zoned, especially the commercial parcels, the sooner the better. . . .

“If we’re going to just shoot everything down, stop all types of movement in this community, we’re going to kill it, period,” he continued. “If you stop all growth, this community is going to die.”

But Jerry Giacomo, a building designer and certified building-code inspector who is active with Montezuma Vision Project, a local group promoting land-use planning, warned the commissioners that the issue of where to put industry is going to keep coming up.

“If you don’t deal with this, it’s going to keep coming back to bite you,” he said.

New definitions

The debate over where to allow industrial activities within the county has grown more and more intense in recent years. Public hearings about gravel pits, asphalt plants, and a proposed treatment facility for energy-production wastes have all drawn large crowds and heated comments.

In most cases, the commissioners have approved the applications, though they did turn down the oil and gas waste facility near Hovenweep on a 2-1 vote in June.

Recently, the planning commission began having meetings to gather public input about possibly revising the county’s comprehensive plan. County Planning Director Susan Carver said that at the two meetings held so far, industrial uses have come up often as a concern, with people calling for a defined industrial area and more regulation of industrial uses. “People say, ‘If I would have known what somebody could do next door to me, I wouldn’t have bought property there.”

Carver said the planning department and planning commission have developed 19 proposed amendments to the land-use code, one of which would change the definitions of commercial and industrial uses.

Carver said she hopes the commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed amendments in early September — “the sooner the better,” she said. “I believe it would help the planning process in establishing what zoning could be allowed. Right now the definitions in the code are unclear. The proposed definitions are more precise.”

But clearer definitions won’t solve the problem of residential landowners objecting to industrial activities starting up in their neighborhoods. Many people have called for the county to designate a space where such activities — at least the ones that aren’t tied to a particular site, such as gravel pits or gas wells — could be concentrated.

However, developing such a place is far easier said than done.

Port problems

Commissioner Larrie Rule told the Free Press that choosing a location for a large designated industrial area or industrial park in the county is a real challenge.

The area south of Cortez, either along South Broadway or near the airport, is often mentioned as a good location. However, there are several problems.

One, as Koppenhafer said the Empire hearing, is the port of entry, located at the intersection of Road G and Highway 491. Any truck weighing more than 16,000 pounds empty that comes within a 5-mile radius of the port is supposed to go through it, a fact that has proven to be a hassle for local businesses that haul gravel, mix concrete, use large repair trucks, and so on, Rule said.

“It’s the craziest thing,” Rule said. “Any kind of [large] commercial vehicle has to go through there. We’ve fought with the state of Colorado over that for years. Why does this town have to do that when other cities don’t?”

Echoing complaints often heard by truckers in the area, Rule said having to be processed through the port can delay drivers a long time. “Those DOT [Department of Transportation] inspections are so stringent, they’ll tie you up for hours over nothing, like a tail light or an oil leak. It’s become a bigger and bigger issue.”

Mark Couch, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Revenue, which oversees ports of entries, said there are free temporary permits available for local trucks working on special jobs, but it is true that every local truck, whether in a fleet or not, must go through the port whenever within the 5-mile radius.

Shifting soils

Another problem with the area south of Cortez is its expansive, shifting soils, a factor that spawned a lawsuit several years ago between the Cortez Sanitation District and the contractor it hired to build its new building. The contractor received a $1.35 million settlement based partially on its claim that it was given bad data about the soils.

“Anywhere south of town, it would cost you three to four times as much to build,” Rule said. “Sometimes you don’t have to go but 2 feet down and it will just sink on you. People say, ‘Move it down by the airport,’ but that’s the worst place in the world. They have trouble with the runway because the ground is bad and the water pushes up. The runway constantly has to be repaved.”

An additional issue is that the city of Cortez has approached the county about designating a 2-mile “airport influence area” to conform with Federal Aviation Administration requirements. The area would extend 150 feet above the highest runway elevation and in a 10,000-foot radius from the center line of the end of the runway. Within the area, no new structures could be more than 35 feet high and nothing could be built that would interfere with radio or electronic communications between the airport and aircraft.

Clearly, this would preclude some industrial operations; Empire Electric, for instance, is planning a 65-foot communications tower with its new facility.

According to Carver, the planning commission is scheduled to take up the airport influence zone — which would have to be adopted as part of the land-use code — at its meeting Thursday, Aug. 20, at 7 p.m. in the county courthouse. Also at that meeting, the group will be talking about the sketch plan for Empire’s development.

Rule said there is often mention of other likely industrial areas, such as along Highway 160 east of Cortez, but not a lot of land is available there, and the price can be high.

Rule noted that the city of Cortez has an industrial park on Road L, built some three decades ago, and it still has two or three lots vacant, although they are too small for some industries.

Durango has an industrial park on its east side, Bodo, and Dolores County has the Weber Industrial Park, site of a facility that processes plant seeds for cooking oil. But Montezuma County officials past and present, for whatever reason, have shown little interest in developing either an industrial park with established infrastructure or just a general industrial area.

“Where would you put it, and who’s going to pay for it?” Rule asked. “Unless you can get somebody to donate something, the county can’t afford to buy a bunch of land. You have to pay a fortune to put in infrastructure.”

He said many businesses would rather buy their own tract and develop it as they see fit. “It’s probably going to cost any business three to four times as much to build in an industrial park because they would have to design roads and everything. A piece in Bodo Park costs five times as much as any piece in Montezuma County, but they have the business for it over there.”

Industries in Montezuma County now have the option of creating their infrastructure to suit their needs, Rule said. For instance, Tuffy Securities south of town has “a nice gravel road,” Rule said, “but if they’d gone in an industrial park they would have had to have a paved road.

“It takes a lot of money to set up the structure and design for an industrial park, and I don’t see anybody stepping up to the plate,” Rule said.

Also, Rule said, no matter where the county might try to develop an industrial area or park, there would be opposition from neighbors.

Rule said ideally, if existing subdivisions and the port of entry were taken out of the equation, a good place for an industrial park would have been toward the San Juan Technical College campus east of Cortez. But available land is scarce there now.

‘A hodgepodge’

Giacomo, however, told the Free Press he believes the issue must be dealt with, not ignored.

“My feeling is it’s a hodgepodge right now and unless we define certain industrial areas, it’s going to continue that way,” Giacomo said. “Even Archuleta and Dolores counties have an industrial park, and they’re sparsely populated.”

Giacomo said the area south of town has highway access and some existing industry such as Belt Salvage, Fraley Gas, and the airport, “so I don’t see what the problem is.” He said he isn’t convinced that the soils are so bad they can’t be worked with. “Things may have to be properly engineered, but you can still build.”

Giacomo said it’s not too late to create an industrial area, even though there are now homes throughout the county. “They could create buffer zones [around the industrial area] — that might be a way to resolve it.”

He called for the commissioners to form a working group to study the issue. “Unless we locate a place for industrial use that meets the criteria, we’re just going to continue to have these applications for industrial-type uses in areas where they are incompatible.”

Certainly the county has had not seen the end of controversial land-use applications. On Aug. 27, the planning commission will consider a proposal for an asphalt operation at the Noland gravel pit west of Mancos. That meeting, also at 7, will be held in the county annex because of the anticipated high attendance.