June 2014

Look to the long term

Why are so many people overweight? The answer, in part, is because we have difficulty sacrificing short-term satisfaction in favor of long-term health. It’s human nature to prefer immediate gratification over a benefit that will only be experienced in the distant future.

So when landowners who chafe at development restrictions on the Dolores River say, “We would never do anything to harm the water,” it rings a little hollow.

The fact is, if it came to a crunch, most of us would, and do, choose personal, short-term reward over vague future contributions to the greater good. We might rationalize our choices by saying, “My deck (or guest house, or concrete driveway) couldn’t possibly do any harm to water quality.” But collectively, a whole lot of such structures might indeed be a detriment.

That’s why there needs to be a set of reasonable measures guiding growth in the Dolores River Valley, which contains just 6 percent of the private land in Montezuma County yet nurtures the river that supplies drinking water to 95 percent of our population.

And there are, in fact, such measures already in place in the form of the Dolores River Valley Plan, whose key provisions are a 100-foot setback requirement for structures, and a system of transferable development rights that restricts base housing density to one residential unit per 10 acres (rather than one per three, as in the rest of the county).

How do these measures protect water quality?

A handout on streamside setbacks in Montana (hardly a liberal bastion) states, “Wetlands and riparian areas act like a filter to reduce the amount of pollutants that enter streams, ground water, and – ultimately – drinking water. . . Toxic substances, including heavy metals, toxic chemicals, and pathogens, can be filtered out or broken down by plants.”

The same handout, which was developed as part of an EPA Wetland Development Grant, states, “A recent review of the scientific literature on riparian vegetative buffer strips concluded that for water quality protection, vegetative buffer strips should be a minimum of 100 feet wide under most circumstances, although buffers should be extended for steeper slopes.”

It also states,” The longer runoff is detained in the buffer before entering a stream or wetland, the better.” In addition, the handout notes, setbacks help protect the public from flooding dangers.

As for the TDR system, it is designed to keep density in the river valley lower than in the rest of the county. Why? Because the more homes, concrete pads, decks, patios, driveways, sheds, and other structures crowd up along the river, the less riparian area there is to act as a filter for toxins. In addition, the more people living along the river, the more they compact the soil and the more they potentially pollute it (albeit accidentally) with fluids such as oil and gas, pesticides and herbicides.

But a few people have complained to the county commissioners that the Dolores Valley’s land-use provisions are too restrictive, reducing their ability to build RV parks or restaurants, add guest homes to small tracts, and construct decks over the water so they can better enjoy the view. And they’ve found a very sympathetic ear in this current board, which is on principle skeptical of government regulations in just about all forms.

Three times, the county commissioners have sent the river-valley plan to the Planning and Zoning Commission to be re-evaluated. And three times, P&Z has come back and said, “We don’t believe it needs to be changed.”

Two of the plan’s most vocal defenders are P&Z Chair Dennis Atwater and Vice Chair Tim Hunter. Time and again, they have said the plan is working well and doesn’t need to be tinkered with. When two gentlemen as deeply conservative as Atwater and Hunter say that certain regulations are necessary, we ought to take heed. And they are supported by the other members of P&Z, except the two newest ones, who were appointed by the commissioners at the beginning of this year and seem to have been selected partly to fight for change in the plan. (One is a river-valley landowner who wants to be able to build additional structures on his property.)

Now, in discussing river-valley regulations, the commissioners have made a very valid observation – that protecting the river shouldn’t stop at the county line. They have noted that Dolores County to the north, and the town of Dolores at the valley’s southwestern end, don’t have regulations as strict as Montezuma County’s. The town, in fact, lets people build right to the water’s edge.

But it’s difficult to undo the planning mistakes of the past. That doesn’t mean Montezuma County should throw out its own protective regulations; instead, it ought to push for a joint planning effort that would include the town and Dolores County that could come up with a more consistent approach for the future.

The county commissioners’ one real concern about the river-valley plan seems to be that, since it was adopted a decade ago, no TDRs have changed hands. But it’s difficult to see why this should be the impetus for throwing out the plan. If the TDR system did not exist, would the commissioners be looking to see whether any land had sold in the Dolores Valley? And if no one bought or sold land in 10 years, would they conclude that something was “wrong” and needed to be fixed? Or would they simply think, “Maybe no one is interested in selling right now”?

The plan was crafted in a long, thorough, grueling process that involved a large, diverse citizens’ working group that met for countless hours over nearly two years. Contrary to what some folks seem to imply, they were not all hypnotized and led astray by then-Commissioner Gene Story. They listened to numerous people with expertise in floodplain management, federal and state laws about waterways, and water quality. To summarily throw out all their work would be an unconscionable slap in the face to the citizens’ group and to all the previous commissioners who have supported the plan. It would be saying, in effect, “We are way smarter than all of you.”

That doesn’t mean there cannot be any changes made to the plan. As it is now, it is very brief and simple. Regulations could be added to give it more nuance, to allow some development latitude for people able to hook up to the town of Dolores’s sewer line, or to provide a building formula that takes into account structure size as well as type.

But if such changes are to be considered, they will need to be done with careful thought, not by just waving a wand and making a motion. Ideally, the commissioners would appoint a small, balanced group to hash out such ideas, or would hire an expert planner or two.

We realize it must be difficult to resist the pressure from the vocal constituency that harbors the knee-jerk view that “all regulations are evil.” But, unfortunately, reasonable regulations are very necessary. Look at China, where rivers run black from industrial pollution; or Rio de Janeiro, site of the 2016 Summer Olympics, where the bay that is supposed to host the sailing and windsurfing events is foul with everything from car tires to sewage to dog carcasses. Until the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the United States also had some very sick waterways, such as the sludgefilled Cuyahoga River in Ohio, which caught fire more than once.

Of course, no matter what our commissioners do, the Dolores River is in no danger of becoming like that. Why not? Because of state and federal regulations that afford certain basic protections. Local land-use provisions such as the river-valley plan, however, add another layer to those general standards and help keep our drinking water safe.

In a May 16 letter to the county commissioners, the Dolores Water Conservancy District board urged caution in changing the plan, saying, “Preventing the loss of our drinking water quality is far less expensive than improving poor water quality once lost.” In a Feb. 11 letter to the commissioners, five land-owning families with large tracts along the river supported the TDR system and the basic framework of the river-valley plan, although they said the board should consider allowing owners to build a second home on existing lots.

Rivers are more than pretty backdrops to a barbecue. They are dynamic entities upon which people, wildlife, and entire economies depend. Protecting the health of the Dolores River and, thus, the water in McPhee Reservoir is of incalculable importance.

If the river-valley plan were to be badly gutted or thrown out, the consequences would probably not be felt for a long time, so it would be easy to say, “See? Nothing bad happened.” But there would inevitably be consequences some day, and they wouldn’t be good.

When thinking about the Dolores River Valley Plan, we hope the commissioners will proceed cautiously, look beyond people’s natural desire for short-term gain, and consider the needs of our community for the long-term future. That’s what leaders do.