Montezuma County’s new commission is shaking things up

On April 29, Mark Rogers, a developer and restaurant owner, came before the Montezuma County commissioners to ask what rights he has to develop a five-acre parcel in the Dolores River Valley under the system of Transferable Development Rights in place on that valley.

The conversation soon broadened into a discussion of how well the TDR system is, or isn’t, working. Under the system, which is part of the county land-use code, landowners in the valley have one TDR for every 10 undeveloped acres they own. They can sever those TDRs from the land and sell them to other owners if they choose. But in order to develop, an owner must have one platted TDR for every new home or commercial unit he plans to build.

The commissioners voiced concern that the system, which was designed to protect water quality and preserve the valley’s character, has effectively shut down development. “It has stopped all sales and devlopments up there,” said Commission Chair Steve Chappell.

He told Rogers the board would need to hear from a group of people who had complaints about the system.

“I’ve got over 100 [TDRs] platted, and to my knowledge, no one has ever sold one,” said James Dietrich, the county’s federal lands and community-services coordinator.

“One motion and a second,” commented Chappell, “and. . .” He made a gesture as if he were wadding up a piece of paper and throwing it in a wastebasket.

“Gather your wagons, Mark,” said Commissioner Keenan Ertel. “It’s definitely an issue that may get revisited.”

Fresh eyes

Since commissioners Ertel and Larry Don Suckla came into office in January, the three-man board has appeared eager to make changes in the way business is done, or at least to look at things in a different way from past boards.

“I think that’s a fair statement,” Ertel told the Free Press. “We’re looking at it with a fresh set of eyes, anyway.”

At their very first meeting, they voted 2-1, with Suckla dissenting, to end the county’s 26-year relationship with attorney Bob Slough and seek new representation. That process has had its ups and downs; for months the county had several attorneys juggling Slough’s different duties involving social-services cases and the commission.

But on April 22 the board voted to hire John Baxter, a criminal and civil lawyer from Durango, as county attorney. He will be handling all the duties that Slough did.

The county received a total of two individual applications for the job, Ertel said, plus the firm that was providing interim representation offered to continue doing that.

Another change in the way business is done has been the use of executive sessions. So far as anyone can remember, the county commission had never held an executive session until April of this year – when it had two in two weeks, both to discuss negotiations with Baxter over salary and duties.

The board also had an unusual closed-door session at the end of its meeting on April 8 – a meeting it said was not an executive session but at which no one but the three commissioners and District Attorney Will Furse was allowed to be present. The topic of that meeting, which occurred one day before Administrator Ashton Harrison abruptly resigned, has been the subject of intense speculation around the county ever since.

Debates over grants

Two other recent discussions by the board has have sparked a great deal of conversation among observers.

In the first, the board held off on supporting a proposal to seek technical assistance from the state or the Environmental Protection Agency to do assessments of some potentially contaminated sites, known as “brownfields,” in Montezuma County. The assessments would cost some $30,000 to $50,000 per site and would be to ascertain whether a property was indeed contaminated and what it would take to clean it up [Free Press, April 2013].

Ertel was vocal in his belief that it was wrong to spend taxpayer money to improve private property unless the landowner had to repay the cost of the initial assessment.

In the second, Chappell and Suckla balked at paying $2,075 as a matching grant to obtain more than $40,000 in additional funding for the creation of a county-wide hazardsmitigation plan.

Paul Hollar, the county’s deputy emergency manager, came to the board saying he had received three bids to do the work. He said writing the plan would take hundreds of man-hours, but once it was in place, it would make the county eligible for funding for future mitigation work.

However, Suckla in particular opposed the idea of spending some $2,000 of county monies for an outside firm to write the plan.

“Why the hell do we need Denver to tell us what to do in Montezuma County?” he asked. He said Hollar should either write the plan himself or pay the $2,075 out of his own pocket.

Hollar responded that he didn’t have the qualifications to write it, saying it would be like asking a carpenter to do blueprints.

“I didn’t know we were hiring you to hire experts,” Chappell told Hollar, likening that to “us hiring a lawyer and he hires an expert when an issue arises.”

Hollar said writing the plan was not part of his job description, but Suckla said he would find another county’s plan that Hollar could use as a template.

When Ertel made a motion to approve spending $2,075 to obtain the larger grant, the motion died for lack of a second, and Hollar was left to write the plan himself, though he said it would take him several months.

The decisions about the brownfields funding and the emergency plan led many observers to question whether the county was backing away from seeking any grants that required a county match. At one meeting, Chappell made the offhand remark, “I really get pushback on grants from Libertarians.”

But Suckla told the Free Press it is “not true at all” that the board is opposed to grants.

“I am 100 percent for grant money if it benefits the county as a whole,” Suckla said. “If you don’t take the grant, somebody else will.”

As an example, he said the board just applied for $2 million in Colorado Department of Transportation funding to add acceleration lanes at the dangerous intersection of Highway 145 and Road P. That could require a $400,000 match from the county.

“We were against a deadline and I said, ‘Let’s get our name in the hat and two years down the road we’ll figure out where to get the money if we’re successful’,” Suckla said.

Ertel likewise told the Free Press the board will consider grants on a case-by-case basis. (Chappell could not be reached for comment.) In regard to the brownfields situation, Ertel said, that “is a very unique grant.”

“I admire the brownfields grant. I think that’s a positive thing,” he said. “I do have disagreement with using government, taxpayer money to go to a private individual that’s irresponsible with his property. You’re paying individuals to be irresponsible, that’s my rub with that.”

He said he understands the other side of the issue – that the properties can become a permanent blight on the community – but believes that does not outweigh the injustice of irresponsible owners potentially profit ing from taxpayer funds.

Suckla said no decision has been made yet about the brownfields cleanup and the board has been told there are some provisions to the grants that prevent irresponsible owners of contaminated properties from getting a “windfall” through taxpayer funds, so the issue is still open.

Regarding the hazard-mitigation plan, Ertel said he “could have gone either way.”

“I think it’s a very needed thing for our county, but I agree with Steve and Larry that we have a gentleman hired here and paid a very handsome salary to do that kind of work.

“I don’t think they were in disagreement with using grant monies, but why should we take taxpayer money when we have a gentleman that is capable of doing the work?”

Suckla said a recent trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with representatives of other counties had convinced him there was no need to hire an outside firm to do the hazard- mitigation plan. The vast majority of the county officials he met said their own emergency managers write the plans, Suckla said.

Ertel said he is not opposed to accepting grant dollars, provided they are used in a responsible manner.

“I hate to say it, but they’re an essential part of running government today,” he told the Free Press. “We don’t have enough revenues in our coffers to do everything the state and federal governments want us to do.”

Ertel said he did not know enough about the Dolores River Valley’s TDR system to comment on it, but that he would be willing to re-examine it, “especially if we have a good number of people that live up the Dolores River Valley that find that to be either a handicap or an enhancement.”

Suckla said the idea of changing or scrapping the TDR system “was just a discussion because Mark Rogers came in” and wasn’t something the board would do lightly.

“There might be a possibility, but like Steve said, you would have to have a lot of people that would sign a petition that said they would want to do something different.”

Suckla said he doesn’t necessarily agree that this board is doing things differently than previous commissions would have. He said he isn’t trying to make major changes, just good decisions.

“My philosophy is I want to do what is best for the health, welfare and safety of the taxpayer, and to protect their rights,” Suckla said. “I don’t want to blow their money. I want to spend it wisely. I think the other two commissioners are the same.

“I do see a lot of waste in different programs, so I look real hard at those things.”

As the only unaffiliated candidate ever elected to the commission, Suckla said he isn’t beholden to anyone, except that, “I owe 26,000 people — it doesn’t matter what party they’re from.”

From May 2013.