The Montezuma County Planning and Zoning Commission is in something of a bind.
Its members have been asked by the county commissioners to scrutinize the decade old Dolores River Valley Plan, possibly with an eye to relaxing or scrapping its provisions. But the planning group’s members by and large don’t believe the river-valley plan needs to be changed.
At a work session Jan. 30, they agreed to take to the county commissioners a new idea they believe might both facilitate development in the valley and still keep protecting the riparian environment and the river’s water quality.
The idea, which is just a rough concept at this point, would leave the existing river valley plan and its system of transferable development rights (TDRs) intact, but would allow the county to act as a “bank” that could sell TDRs that haven’t been claimed by private landowners.
“This is by far the best we’ve come up with,” commented planning-commission member Kelly Belt.
The group decided to take the concept to the commissioners for their reaction before working to flesh out any details.
Most of the planners continued to emphasize that they do not believe the Dolores River Valley Plan is in need of changing. The county commissioners, however, have said they are worried that the plan, which was adopted in September 2003, is stifling development in the valley, as evidenced by the fact that no TDRs have changed hands yet.
“I find no compelling reasons to change anything in the Dolores River Valley Plan,” said Planning Commissioner Tim Hunter at the Jan. 30 meeting. “The quality of water [in the river] has been maintained due in large part to the plan. . .Property values have fared much better during the recent economic downturn than in the rest of the county. . . .
“Just because these processes take time and the money might be in debate is no reason to just throw the plan out. No one is being harmed by the current Dolores River Valley Plan as far as I can see.”
Hunter said anyone who buys property in the valley should know about the TDR system, which in general limits people to building just one home per 10 acres. People with larger parcels can choose to “sever” their development rights and sell them to someone else; for instance, the owner of 50 acres with just one home on that tract could sell four TDRs to another landowner who wanted to build more homes but didn’t have any additional development rights.
“TDR programs allow property owners to be compensated for some of the value of their land without actually having to sell their land,” states a worksheet handed out at the Jan. 30 meeting. “In areas with high demand for development, TDR programs can eliminate sprawl by encouraging higher density in areas where growth is desirable.”
Hunter, who serves on the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Southwest Basin Roundtable, also spoke about the fact that the state is projected to face water shortages in coming decades as the population grows. He said it’s critical to protect the Dolores River because it is the water source for most of Montezuma County as well as part of Dolores County.
“I’ve been on this state board for eight years,” Hunter said. “The Dolores River Valley Plan is brought up on a regular basis as an example of a collaborative plan that has worked well in a disparate community.”
Of the push to revise or scrap the plan, he said, “I just want to call this what it is. It’s an attempt to make it easier to develop the Dolores River Valley, and I think that’s an agenda being pushed by a few landowners there, not the general public.”
Most other planning-commission members agreed. Bob Clayton said “those were my thoughts,” and Belt said he doesn’t think there has been enough time and study to justify changing anything in the valley plan. Gala Pock said feedback from the public shows that the majority don’t want changes to the plan.
Michael Gaddy, one of two people who joined planning commission in January, said he had “a lot of catching-up to do” before he could give an informed opinion.
Dennis Atwater, who was re-elected chair of the group by acclamation at its meeting Jan. 23, said claims had been made that people’s property values were being harmed by the valley plan, but that the county assessor said values had “held up very well” in comparison to the rest of the county, even during the economic downturn.
“Who or what is being harmed [by the plan]?” Atwater asked.
But new member Mike Rosso, who was present via speaker-phone, disagreed. “Who’s being harmed is the private property owners and their rights,” he said.
“There’s enough government involvement in private owners’ rights,” Rosso added. “I think we should consider discontinuing the TDR system.”
“The Dolores Valley is a unique part of the county,” he responded. He said considerable science and data had gone into creating the plan, which was developed by a citizens’ working group that met over a two-year period. “There’s a limit on what can be developed out and still maintain the quality of the river. . . There’s got to be some limit to the development that goes on in there or it’s going to affect every water user in the county.”
Those concerns had been echoed by a member of the audience at the Jan. 23 meeting. Ken Curtis, an engineer with the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said the DWCD board is paying attention to the discussions about revising or scrapping the river-valley plan.
“Our concerns are water quality,” Curtis said. “All of the municipalities are drinking out of that bucket. We see it as a protective plan of the watershed we’re all drinking out of.”
The plan’s intent, he said, was to limit density, and without TDRs there would be smaller lot sizes.
“Right now water quality is fairly good in the Dolores River,” Curtis said, “but septics are a real issue. TDRs put a cap on density. There is probably some density [level] that has dire consequences. I don’t know what that is. Land use is a county issue, but we’re interested in protecting the water quality.”
If the river-valley plan is scrapped, density would revert to the three-acre minimum that exists in the rest of the county, Atwater said.
The plan covers 31 miles of the river, and 22,788 acres of river valley divided among 547 parcels owned by 392 different owners. Land with slopes over 30 degrees is not considered buildable.
Without TDRs in place, he said, the valley could be built up to 1000 percent of the level in 2002, which would mean up to 2,495 more units, based on the three-acre minimum.
An engineering report done at the time the plan was created estimated that 620 TDRs – the number that was set in the valley – was a good level for protecting water quality, Atwater said.
Lower density is considered beneficial because it means fewer people and structures to possibly contaminate the water with gasoline, fertilizer, and other foreign substances.
Also, it means less compaction of soils, meaning the floodplain is better able to absorb sediment and slow the velocity of water in the event of a flood, and fewer structures that might become debris if the river surged.
“Is [the plan] really stifling development in the Dolores River Valley? I don’t see a single indicator that it is,” Atwater said.
But some property owners along the river have strenuously objected to the TDRs and the 100-foot setback also mandated in the river-valley plan, saying these provisions make it difficult for owners to get the full use and value from their property.
The idea that was discussed on Jan. 30 was for the county to issue TDR certificates to all current landowners who qualify for them under the plan. Any additional TDRs not assigned to landowners would then be held by the county. People who wanted to purchase a TDR could do so from a private landowner or from the county, which would act as a bank and a broker for TDRs.
“The county would have TDRs in the bank,” Atwater said. “The private sector would own the TDRs but the public would own the bank.”
Carver said overall density would not exceed that established in the original plan. Landowners would save money because the county would survey the land for them rather than their having to do so, and they would be sent a certificate listing the TDRs they owned.
Any funds acquired by the county by selling TDRs, Carver said, would go back to the public. For example, they could go into a disaster-relief fund for flooding, or could be spent to protect and develop public-lands and river access, water rights and rights-of-way. Such a system has been used by other counties and county attorney John Baxter has said it is legal, she said.
“It’s a market-based system,” said Jon Callender, a former planning-commission chair, who had discussed the county-bank idea with the planning staff. “It doesn’t take away rights from landowners, it adds them.”
People who build outside the floodplain or hook up to an existing septic system could perhaps be given a discount when purchasing a TDR, he said.
The group said there were a number of issues that would have to be worked out if such a system were adopted, such as how the value of the TDRs would be set and how the rights that had been “extinguished” through conservation easements would be handled.
But they said they liked the general idea enough to take it to the commissioners for direction on how to proceed. They said it might help clarify the TDR system for the public and make it easy for TDRs to be bought and sold.
“We have found out over time with public input and meetings and surveys and studies that have been done that this [plan] does work,” said Belt, “and now we can focus on clarifying this part of the plan.”