May 2012

The unfortunate need for zoning

There’s an old saw that goes, “If you want to be able to say what happens on the property next to you, then buy it.” But such an attitude is patently absurd, as it implies that only wealthy people have any right to live in neighborhoods where they aren’t plagued by obnoxious smells, noises or other impacts.

It’s the desire to protect oneself that leads to calls for zoning and other land-use regulations. And over the years, Montezuma County has gradually moved to implement some modest rules, starting with its land-use code and Landowner- Initiated Zoning system in 1998.

Now, as the county commissioners move toward adopting some amendments to the land-use code to clarify the current zoning system and encourage landowners to select a zone, the process is causing some discomfort among the sizable portion of our populace that would rather not see any regulations at all. They remember a time just a few decades back when there were almost no regulations relating to land use, when subdividing was all done with variances from the county commissioners and people could do pretty much anything they pleased on their land.

Unfortunately, things just couldn’t continue that way. It was easier to “live and let live” when there were just 16,000 or so residents in the county, as there were back in 1980. Now there are more than 25,000, and that number will continue to grow, particularly as the economy picks up.

Farmers and ranchers who own large tracts understandably want to retain the freedom to subdivide those tracts for a profit, or use the land for some type of business. Their money is mostly tied up in their land, and they want to be able to access that money if they need it.

But, as ag producers have subdivided in the past, they have created the means for people to move into the county from other areas, many of whom are used to stricter regulations. A lot of those folks want some kind of protection of their own assets. If they pour their retirement savings into property in Montezuma County, they don’t want their enjoyment of that property ruined by incompatible uses on adjoining tracts.

It’s all a balancing act, and the county commissioners have struggled to teeter along the tightrope between over-regulation and a free-for-all that invites numerous lawsuits.

The latest amendments to the landuse code represent another effort in that balancing act. There is no mandate for landowners to select a zoning category, but there are incentives to do so, such as a waiving of the regular $500 fee. There is a proposal to change the zoning category called “unzoned” to “historic use zoning” to clarify something that has caused enormous confusion. (Many people believe if they are unzoned, they are unfettered, but in fact they are locked into their current use and have to come before the county to seek a change.) Another part of the amendments adds to and clarifies the uses by right that owners of agricultural or residential properties possess.

There is also a plan to allow future commissioners to designate “commercial- industrial overlay areas” where commerce and industry will be encouraged — again through incentives.

The code amendments are practical, common-sense changes that do not place more restrictions on county residents. Although libertarians would prefer that the county go back to its unregulated past, they need to realize that these particular changes aren’t adding rules, just clarifying them.