October 2013

Think long and hard about the river-valley plan

The Montezuma County commissioners are completely justified in taking a fresh look at the Dolores River Valley Plan, the set of regulations that guide development in the valley.

As Planning Director Susan Carver said at a recent meeting, “Just because a plan is in place 10 years doesn’t mean it’s the best plan.”

However, the commissioners need to proceed very, very carefully, because protection of this river corridor and the quality of the county’s water supply is not a simple issue, nor is it a black-and-white question of property rights vs. protectionism.

The horrific, astounding flooding along Colorado’s Front Range in September should give anyone pause when it comes to considering what development to allow in river corridors. People died, homes were washed away, waters were polluted by sewage, bacteria, oil and gas, and fracking fluids. Granted, this was a one-in-athousand storm, and if something of that magnitude were to happen along the Dolores River, there would be no preventing some horrible consequences, no matter what regulations might be in place. But planning efforts could make things worse or better, particularly during lesser flood events. Simply allowing unfettered development along the river – in essence, treating the river corridor as if it were no different than the plains of Pleasant View – would be absurd.

As journalist Allen Best of Arvada wrote recently in the Denver Post, “This flood once again points to the importance of land-use planning. Where you put sewer plants does matter. You can’t anticipate every natural disaster, but floods have an element of predictability.”

The county commissioners’ call for more information, including water-quality reports and engineering data, is a wise move.

Their insistence on seeking more public comment, through an online survey and possibly through more meetings, is understandable but probably less helpful. Unless people are willing to become thoroughly informed about all the issues involved in maintaining water quality and protecting floodplains, as well as the complexities and possible drawbacks of the TDR system, their comments may not add much to the dialogue.

A question that was added recently to the county’s online survey about the Dolores River Valley Plan is of particular concern.

At the request of Chairman Steve Chappell, the first question in the survey now asks respondents, “Do you own property in the Dolores River Valley Plan area?” and, “How many acres do you own?”

This may have been added just in the interest of obtaining all possible information, but it smacks of elitism. The implication, whether intended or not, is that the number of acres a person owns is somehow related to the validity of that person’s opinion, and we strongly take issue with that.

While it might be pleasant to believe that people with wealth all got that way through hard work and perseverance, this is clearly not the case. There are hard-working people and lazy bums at both ends of the economic spectrum. Wealth and land can be inherited rather than earned.

This country was founded on principles of equality – one person, one vote. People came here to get away from monarchies and plutocracies – the so-called “landed gentry “ who called the shots for the lowly merchants, serfs and other peasant types.

So whether someone owns three acres or 300, their comments should be on equal footing and their value based on their content. (Of course, we don’t know that there’s any way to validate the information people provide, so maybe everyone who answers should claim to own at least 100 acres.)

We’re eager to see how the commissioners move forward with their reevaluation of the Dolores River Valley Plan. If they take their time, use good judgment, and don’t let themselves be swayed by the squeakiest wheels, they may be able to suggest changes that would improve it. Or they may decide to leave it alone.

Some critics have suggested that they are just setting up a sham process, pretending to study the matter but all the while having their minds made up as to what they’re going to do. We certainly hope that isn’t the case, and prefer to believe that it isn’t.

Deciding how to protect that corridor and our water supply is a very complex matter. Public opinion is one factor to be considered, but it should not be the deciding factor.

This is a time when leaders need to lead, and do what’s right – for the general public as well as for individuals, and for the future as well as the present.