Independent candidate says LIZ needs teeth

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Kerry O’Brien is an independent candidate for commissioner from District 3. His opponent is Gerald Koppenhafer. O’Brien and his wife bought land in the Mancos area in 1989. He has worked for computer firms Honeywell and Digital Equipment in different financial roles. He was interviewed by David Grant Long on Sept. 17.

DGL: What kind of person are you?

KO: I have strong beliefs. I like to think through things and when I come to a decision, I like to take action. I’ve been involved in a number of citizen-advocate issues in the county and I’ve taken a position for my own personal interests as well as my neighbors’.

DGL: What issues were they?

KO: One was the condition and safety of County Road 42 [the road to Jackson Lake]. We’ve experienced an incredible amount of traffic up there and the road’s in pretty bad shape. There were essentially no speed-limit signs on the northbound part. I spearheaded a petition to introduce to the commissioners to chip-seal the road and improve the safety. We had an 80 percent positive response to that, which I think would be considered a landslide in any contest.

DGL: So that’s from people who live along the road?

KO: Yeah, from people in the affected area, basically from where the blacktop stops to the Jackson Lake inlet canal. I conducted, along with the help of some other citizens, a two-month or three-month traffic survey. . . and we found that during the summer months when the tourists are coming to the state park at Jackson Lake as well as the national forest, we were having about a thousand cars a day on that road. So I pretty much spearheaded that and we had some success, we got speed-limit signs along the road.

DGL: Where does the paving stand?

KO: The funding isn’t available. Even though part of the comprehensive land-use plan put in place in the mid-1990s identified CR 42 as one of the top four or five roads in the county that needed to be chip-sealed, almost eight or nine years later, nothing has been done and that’s why I wanted to bring some attention to the issue.

DGL: So are you in favor of the proposed half-cent sales tax for roads?

KO: Yes, I am. With the conflicting intentions of TABOR and Prop 23 [Amendment 23 providing funding for education] and to some extent Gallagher [which lowers residential property taxes] we’ve had increasing numbers of people moving in here and increasing amounts of traffic, but a continuing reduction in the road budget. People have been laid off, the department has shrunk, the machinery is not updated as often as it should be. So one of the only avenues the commissioners have to increase funding is a sales tax that would be earmarked for road improvements, construction, bridge work, intersection work. It makes sense because the property-owners alone don’t have to bear the whole brunt of the mill levy. The dollars come from the sales tax, so not only does everybody get to contribute a little bit, but the visitors that come here and have the effect of degrading the roads through their usage would help pay for it.

DGL: What is the main issue you’d like to work on if you’re elected?

KO: A fair and consistent implementation of the land-use code. Growth is coming whether we like it or not, and that growth needs to be directed and planned, not just allowed to happen in a hodgepodge fashion. In my opinion that land-use code is not being implemented fully and consistently. Certain guiding principles in the code seem to be considered just as window-dressing.

DGL: Could you give an example?

KO: One of the guiding principles on Page 1 is, roughly, that the code is enacted to protect and preserve the rural and agricultural character of the county and the health, safety and welfare of the citizens.

DGL: Have you ever considered limiting growth? Boulder had what was called the Danish plan, limiting the number of building permits you issue a year.

KO: I don’t think that will fly here. But one of the things we can do is try to maintain the health of the agricultural industries so these people can continue to make a living off the land so they’re not forced into selling it, which then results in subdivision.

DGL: What kind of experience have you had that prepared you to govern the county?

KO: I was in the computer industry for a little over 13 years and I managed budgets in the $10 million to $12 million range for a period of time, so I understand the financial aspect of things. I managed a number of people, up to about 15. Other than that I don’t have a political background and I’ve never been in government before.

DGL: Why are you running as an independent?

KO: I’ve been an independent for about 10 years. I’ve also been a Democrat and I think for a short period in my early 20s I was a Republican too. I’m an independent and that’s a position I feel comfortable with. . . . The reason I got on the ballot is I realized the Democrats were not going to field a candidate and the only person running was going to be elected without any competition, without giving people a choice.

DGL: What do you think of the county’s Landowner-Initiated Zoning system?

KO: I’ve read that code about 10 times and I can’t really see how it benefits anyone. Some of the objectives of [LIZ] are [to] give landowners an idea of what they can expect in the future, it gives county government a sense of where infrastructure is going to be needed, and yet the way I’ve seen it implemented, it seems to have no bearing at all. There’s no teeth in it, nothing binding. A person can have a piece of property that’s agricultural and the people next door can as well, and with a simple permit application, that can all be changed and the character of the neighborhood can be altered tremendously.

DGL: It sounds like you’d like to change it, then.

KO: I think we need to come up with something that’s more firm. I realize there’s a culture in this county of having little government involvement. People don’t want government getting in their way. But if we’re going to have a future that makes any sense in terms of the way the land is used, we’ve got to do a better job at planning it and directing it.

DGL: Enforcement now is pretty much complaint-driven. If you want a firmer zoning code, how would enforcement be achieved? Would the county hire an enforcement person?

KO: The county commissioners and the planning commission have to be more proactive. When they become aware of something going on in violation of the code, I think it’s incumbent upon the planning commission to bring that to light and insist that that code is enforced.

DGL: But who would enforce it?

KO: The county commissioners can enforce it through giving that direction to the planning commission. The planning commissioners really are serving in almost a voluntary status. They get paid very little and they’re not responsible for very much, which is fair. But the effect of that is that high-impact statements and PUD requests are submitted and no one is chartered to go off and verify the information on these applications. I’ve seen applications where there are inaccuracies or information that is not filled out. Make sure you’re clear on this part: I think the planning-commission people are doing a wonderful job, given what they’re allowed to work with and the money they’re paid. What we have to do is change that process where those people are paid more and they’re asked to take more responsibility in the whole process.

DGL: There’s a lot of support for private property rights in the county, I’m sure you know. . . .

KO: Private property rights are a very emotional issue and rightly so, in that people buy that land with their money and pay the taxes on it and they should have the right to reasonable use and enjoyment of that property. However, those property rights definitely in my mind end where the next person’s begin. Beyond that, and this the part that’s going to be tough, people’s properties do not exist in isolation and the welfare and quality of life of the overall community has to be considered in any issue where property rights are concerned. That’s already recognized in most law, where they refer to it as takings. If for the good of the community they need to put a road through the edge of your property, that can be done. Certainly we want to minimize that kind of thing but the principle is the same – that the well-being of the community is more important than the personal aspirations of one particular property owner.

DGL: Most of the commissioners in the past have had other jobs – ranchers, business people. Do you think the position should be a full-time job?

KO: No, I don’t think it has to be. I think there are commitments that people who are in business or who have busy practices have, that impact the time that they spend. But I think the commissioners need to be accountable for what their responsibilities are. . . .

DGL: Historically the commission has been made up of white males. Do you see a need for more diversity?

KO: Diversity is a good idea. It’s a concept I became familiar with in the computer industry and it definitely remains true that when you bring people from diverse backgrounds together, they bring a different perspective.

DGL: Well, what do you think is preventing it?

KO: I have no history on who’s run for what positions in the past, but we have a female county recorder and we now have a female candidate for the commission, so maybe it’s been a matter of females haven’t pursued the positions yet. And I think there’s a cultural thing too. I think in the past either there weren’t women to pursue it or they perhaps were discouraged because of a culture that’s at times a bit backward.

DGL: Cheryl [Baker] has advocated televising commission meetings. Would you favor that?

KO: I’m neutral. I don’t know that it’s necessary but I don’t object to it.

DGL: A lot of people, especially because the commissioners meet during the day, don’t have an opportunity to see the county government at work. So it would give people a chance, if done on a delayed broadcast in the evening, to see what’s going on.

KO: I’m not in opposition to it, I’m just not sure of the value. Cheryl’s the only one I’ve ever heard express the interest. So if there were some indication from people that that was something they wanted, I would not be opposed.

But the county commissioners, I believe, have open access to newspapers. They could write articles explaining what’s going on, and the fact that our commissioners don’t do that is, I think, a missed opportunity. We should be out there engaging the community more. The commissioners in La Plata County have a little road show they do once or twice a year where they get to the outlying part of the county. I would support that. We could get out to Pleasant View or Yellow Jacket and let people have a dialogue with us.

DGL: You hear the term “good old boys” thrown about in reference to the county commissioners. What does that mean to you?

KO: The good-old-boy concept to me means there are a group of individuals who are in a position of power and influence and those people tend to elect people who serve their purposes, who are part of that group.

DGL: Do you think there’s any validity to that perception as far as the Montezuma County government?

KO: Yes.

DGL: Do you have any examples?

KO: No, not exactly. I don’t want to go out on a limb with something I don’t know with any certainty. I think the phenomenon exists, I just can’t point to a chapter and verse of where it’s been demonstrated.

DGL: What’s your position on the proposed development at Echo Basin Ranch?

KO: I’m against that. I assume we’re talking about the 100 homes or 80 or 90. I’m opposed for a number of reasons. One is there’s a proven lack of water, or at least that’s being settled in the courts, to supply that kind of a subdivision up there. There’s some water available but its intended use is historically agricultural. If that water is used for that kind of subdivision then, when times are lean – i.e., a drought – the [agricultural] people will find now they have junior water rights because it’s more important for people to have water to drink than to water their fields.

That’s just one area. Here’s another. Echo Basin Ranch sits at the edge of the West Mancos River Canyon and the canyon, unlike the Dolores River Canyon, has no roads that run alongside of it and I don’t believe there’s any public roads that cross it from Highway 160 all the way up to the foot of Mt. Hesperus, probably 10, 12 miles. So what we have there is a riparian habitat, a wildlife corridor, including marmots, black bear, mountain lion, bald eagles, golden eagles, owls, the whole gamut. It’s a rich and healthy ecosystem. Arizona, which is thought of as canyony, is also very mountainous and has the largest stand of ponderosa pines in the world. And in the whole state of Arizona there are probably three or four pieces of canyon that are the equal of the West Mancos River Canyon. This is something that should be preserved. To take something essentially half the size of the town of Mancos and put it within half a mile of the national forest in a nearly pristine area I think is managing our natural resources wrong.

And the benefit is not so people that live around here can have some new housing. This will be a playground for the rich and famous, make no mistake. These will be very expensive homes.

DGL: Do you think the commission was right to postpone the public hearing [on commercial activities at Echo Basin Ranch] till after the election?

KO: I’ve really thought about that. Here’s the two sides of it. I feel it was a good idea because it will take away any unsavory ideas that the election had anything to do with it. If a good decision is made, it won’t be able to be challenged on the idea that there were politics involved.

The other side is the commissioners gave due time to everyone, made public notice that this hearing would occur, and not all the issues involved had anything to do with an election or with the petition signed by the neighbors. Some of the issues involved park-model sales and leasing on that property –

DGL: They’re almost like trailers?

KO: Yeah, they’re like trailers, and they’re going to be set up, or at least we believe the intention is – and when I say “we” I’m talking about the planning office – that they would be set up as long-term leases, which turns them into something that’s not just recreational and temporary but would have permanent residents, with all the water and sewage issues that are being contemplated in the Echo Basin Acres proposal.

DGL: So this would be in addition to the subdivision.

KO: That’s correct. So public notice was given; the county had already sent a letter regarding the park models perhaps weeks before this petition came up and indicated to the principals at Echo Basin that they were not in compliance with [state law] as regards subdivisions. For the commissioners to back off — I don’t think they should allow a developer to determine the terms and conditions and time frames of their meetings.

DGL: So you think it was postponed at the request of the developer?

KO: It definitely was. [A letter from the Bjorkmans, owners of Echo Basin, to the commission demanded that the meeting time be moved because the Bjorkmans could not attend and also because they believed it would be better after the election.]

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From Election, October 2004.