September 2014

A land-use question raises thorny issues

Questions of race, religion, and culture rarely come up in discussions by the Montezuma County Planning and Zoning Commission. But a case that raised such issues was presented to them at their regular meeting Aug. 28.

Emery and Mirna Namingha came to discuss their concerns about a proposed expansion of the Fairview Cemetery that would extend it along the entire western fence line of their property. Emery, who is Native American, and Mirna, who is from Honduras and has Mayan ancestry, say they do not want the cemetery adjoining the length of their land – partly because they have a cultural aversion to graves and the dead, partly because the cemetery would be what they see out their living-room window, and also because it might affect their future plans for the property. (They have spoken of having a bed-andbreakfast or a multicultural farming school, both of which they believe would be negatively affected by proximity to a cemetery.)

At the hearing on Aug. 28, a couple of citizens spoke in support of the Naminghas, saying a distaste for burial grounds is genuine among some Native cultures and that ignoring the Naminghas’ concerns was disrespectful. Mirna even raised the question of racism in the decision-making about the expansion along their property.

The question before P&Z, however, was not about the merits of the proposed expansion but merely whether it required a change of zoning from the “historic use” zone currently assigned to the new parcel, and the board decided to recommend that it did not. The county commissioners, who previously approved the severing of the new tract from a larger farming parcel, will now make the ultimate decision, but will likely give the go-ahead to the proposal.

Quite frankly, we can’t see that they’re wrong to do so. Although it’s clear that the Naminghas’ beliefs are sincere and strongly held, there is nothing in the landuse code that provides for a proposal to be turned down because of an adjoining landowner’s religion or culture. Even attempting to do such a thing would set a disturbing precedent. What if a fundamentalist Muslim objected to having a Christian church built next to his property? What if a fundamentalist Christian didn’t want a gay couple living next door? You simply can’t make land-use decisions based on such factors.

Of course, if the Naminghas can show that proximity to a cemetery would result in dramatically lowered property values for their land, they may have more solid grounds for challenging the proposal, but religion alone should not be the basis for rejection. (And they have not said that it should be.)

We aren’t quite sure why the cemetery needs to expand along the entire western fence line, though there may be a good reason. If not, it would be a gesture of neighborliness to leave the Naminghas an acre or two open, but that’s up to the cemetery board to decide.

The situation raises several issues, one of which is the absence in the county land-use code of any provision addressing government-owned developments such as cemeteries and community centers. (Special districts are a form of government, since they are taxing entities.) The P&Z chair, Dennis Atwater, promised the Naminghas that he will try to see that this deficiency is remedied in the future.

But another issue that the situation spotlighted is the lack of diversity in the various forms of governance throughout the county. Watching the hearing on Aug. 28, we couldn’t help thinking that it would have been nice if there were one, just one, person of color on the P & Z commission to provide another perspective on the question.

Boards in Montezuma County are homogenous to an astonishing degree. Everywhere you look, it’s a sea of white (most of them male, of course). A quarter of the county’s population is either Hispanic or Native American, yet those folks are greatly under-represented.

We’ve raised this issue before, but it needs to be raised again, because it’s a serious matter.

Now, we don’t believe this is the result of a grand conspiracy or widespread racism. Many boards, such as those for special districts and nonprofits, have difficulty finding enough people to serve at all, particularly for uncompensated posts. Board members tend to ask friends and acquaintances to fill empty seats, and if you’re white, many of your friends probably are, too.

However, this isn’t quite the case for boards such as the county P & Z. People apply to be on it, and in recent years, there has been some stiff competition for open seats. We know of at least one person of color who’s applied and been turned down, even though he would appear to be well-qualified.

This certainly isn’t a criticism of any of the current members of P & Z, who work very, very hard in an often-thankless job. But in the future, diversity needs to become a consideration in the development of boards and commissions. We need to start actively seeking people of color to serve instead of just perpetuating the status quo. Lack of representation is a recipe for people to feel excluded from their own communities.

Citizens from minority populations should step up and start applying for positions on more boards and committees, and when they do apply, they must be given serious consideration. We need to hear the voices of all the groups that make up Montezuma County, not just one or two.