A proposed upheaval: Montezuma County is mulling major changes to its land-use plan

The Montezuma County commissioners are considering making drastic changes to the land-use plan, which has been in place with many of the same provisions since 1998.

Changes suggested by the Planning and Zoning Commission include reducing the minimum lot size for landowners by two-thirds – from three acres to a single acre. The three-acre minimum has been set since 1998 with the idea that it was necessary to keep the county from being overrun with septic systems.

However, concerns have been voiced that some residential landowners have trouble taking care of three acres and would find a single acre easier to maintain.

Lowering the minimum lot size could boost population growth and bring benefits for large landowners, developers, and construction companies. It could also result in changing demographics in the county, with numerous people moving in from other places.

An even more striking change being proposed is scrapping the Dolores River Valley Plan, which manages that environmentally sensitive area. “The Dolores River Valley should be treated no different than any other areas of the county,” the proposed new language states.

The proposed changes are available online at https://co-montezuma-co.smartgovcommunity.com/Public/DocumentsView

The Dolores River Valley Plan was adopted in 2003, following a lengthy process that involved a citizens’ working group of about 15.

“There was a diverse group of stakeholders, big and small property owners living along the river,” said Pat Kantor, a resident of the valley who served on the working group.

Two members of the county planning commission, a county commissioner, and the mayor and vice mayor of the town of Dolores were also involved. They met about 18 times, she said, and all the meetings were open to the public.

“At the beginning of each meeting we had an expert in a certain field presenting to us. Then we’d have discussion,” Kantor recalled. “We learned about rivers and river systems, wildlife, fish, the whole workings of valleys.”

The group developed the river-valley plan with the goal of protecting water quality and the watershed. They came up with a 10-acre minimum lot size in the river valley, along with a requirement that properties be set back at least 100 feet from the river’s streambank and that any lot had a minimum of 30 percent developable land, which includes slopes of less than 30 degrees.

“The whole economy of the county – farming, ranching, municipalities, outdoor life, tourism – depends upon the quality and quantity of water in the river,” Kantor said. “The groundwater depends on river flow. We became aware of so much.

“As [former Commissioner] Gene Story always said, it’s the lifeblood of the county. Whatever is done in the river valley affects the water in the river that everybody is dependent upon. To not appreciate the critical importance of the river valley to the county is preposterous. There is a tremendous difference between the river valley and the rest of the county, because the valley really takes care of the river.”

The proposed changes would get rid of requirement regarding a river setback and steepness of slopes.

Kantor said the setback was developed for a reason.

“If people build closer to the river and there’s flooding, stuff they have stored – chemicals, gasoline and whatnot – as well as stuff from septic systems would go into the river and down to the reservoir.”

Population density is a major concern in the valley, she said.

“Density has broad implications on water quality. With climate change it’s possible the flows will be less and the water will be even more precious.

“In addition, the river valley is only accessed by a two-lane highway without other connections. If there are wildfires or floods, dealing with this winding narrow highway for evacuations is a real concern. And the access for emergency vehicles is a concern. You have tourists, trucks and campers going up that highway. Additional population density creates a critical situation.”

Kantor said the Dolores River Valley is especially vulnerable because of its slope.

“This river valley has been deemed among the highest of vulnerability to danger because of the gradient of river flow. It’s greater than many other rivers in the United States. It comes down from the mountains.”

The Planning and Zoning Commission has set a public hearing on the proposed changes at its meeting Aug. 13. The county commissioners have set a public hearing on the proposed changes for Tuesday, Aug. 18. Because of the pandemic, it’s not possible to hold a public hearing in quite the traditional way, with a packed room.

However, members of the public can come to the commission meeting room in the courthouse until it is filled to 50 percent capacity. Then there could be an overflow room set up at the county annex, Administrator Shak Powers told the Four Corners Free Press.

Comments will also be taken electronically via Zoom or Youtube, he said, though those may not be available to the public immediately. Comments that appear during commission meetings aren’t always posted instantly because people tend to get into private squabbling matches rather than directly addressing the board, he said.

The commissioners could designate a place on their website where comments submitted ahead of the public hearing could be posted, Powers said.

Additionally, any emails sent to the county clerk will be forwarded to the board, he said.

The commissioners are not planning to make a final decision on Aug. 18 but to perhaps make modifications and have a continuation of the hearing, they said on July 21.

The only major change to the original Dolores River Valley Plan was made six years ago. After a lengthy public hearing, a system of transferable development rights (TDRs), intended to limit development in the more sparsely populated upper valley and concentrate it nearer the town of Dolores, was removed from the county land-use code on a 2-1 vote, with commissioners Steve Chappell and Larry Don Suckla voting in favor of the motion and chairman Keenan Ertel against.

Ertel voiced concerns that there were questions that still needed to be answered before making the change.

The commissioners at the time left intact the provision in the code limiting lot size in the river corridor to 10 acres.

“Some 120 residents turned out for the hearing, the majority clearly in favor of having the commissioners follow the lead of the county Planning and Zoning Commission, which four times had recommended leaving the river-valley plan in place, or possibly amending it to allow for a modest increase in density near Dolores on properties where sewer hookups were available,” said an article in the Four Corners Free Press. (https://fourcornersfreepress. com/county-scraps-tdrs/)

Forty-five people spoke at the podium, with 40 of them favoring keeping the plan.

Four former commissioners had also written a letter explaining the history of the plan’s development and why they wanted to keep it intact.

“The valley is not just another piece of real estate in Montezuma County, it provides the life blood of our whole county, WATER,” the four — Kent Lindsay, Gene Story, Kelly Wilson and Dewayne Findley – wrote to the Journal and the commissioners at the time.

The event that triggered the plan’s development was a proposal by developers to build a Tamarron-style 400-acre resort on the river with an 18-hole private golf course, a 15,000-square-foot clubhouse, a pool, tennis courts, 10 cabins, luxury residences, two bridges over the river, 50 horse stables, and more. That proposal eventually fell through but led the county to believe it needed appropriate regulations to deal with any similar future proposals.

From August 2020. Read similar stories about .