Controversy has boiled up over a proposed use of land on the outskirts of Cortez.
The City of Cortez has received an application requesting a change in the zoning for a 10-acre parcel of land at 1050 Lebanon Road, adjacent to Carpenter Natural Area and the Montview residential neighborhood on the north edge of Cortez.
The property was vacant land, where the old drive-in theater used to be, and is currently zoned commercial.
Anthony D. Moore and Mary K. Lancaster of Independent Log Company (ILC) recently moved to Cortez from Alamosa, buying the property in 2021 for $199,000, according to county tax records. They have their business headquarters across Lebanon Road at 10206 Highway 491and purchased the 10-acre parcel next to the west Carpenter Natural Area trailhead with the intent of storing heavy equipment and manufacturing log homes there.
Moore is a Master Log Crafter, professional logger and award-winning wildland firefighter. The narrative he submitted to the City of Cortez in the application for rezoning explained the business plan and reasons for the rezoning, stating: “We will be using this land to store are [sic] Wildland firefighting equipment that we use to assist the USDA forest service with our 54 contracts.We are hopeful for a proposed Wildland Firefighting training facility to help qualify individuals wishing to pursue Wildland Firefighting careers.”
The rezoning request and activities already occurring on the property have generated controversy in the community, with residents and supporters of Carpenter Natural Area generally against the rezoning, while pro-business interests and Moore’s associates in support of the change.
Pam Telleen, a resident of the neighborhood adjacent to the parcel, moved to Driscoll Street specifically because of the proximity to Carpenter Natural Area.
“Rezoning would be in direct opposition to the well-being of the residents,” she told the Free Press in a phone interview. “It’s an old neighborhood built in the 1970’s and it’s not in the public interest to rezone.” She is concerned that having an industrial property so close to her home will deleteriously impact her quality of life.
A public hearing on the four requests by ILC was held at the June 6 meeting of the City of Cortez Planning and Zoning committee, with three members of the committee present (McDaniel, Levy and Weiss). Moore and Lancaster were asking for rezoning and conditional use permits on both of their properties located on both sides of Lebanon road, which resulted in four different resolutions, numbered 7, 10, 8 and 11.
These can be viewed on the city website at: https://tinyurl.com/cy82wan3
Information about these resolutions was presented by Cortez City Planner Nancy Dorsdall, followed by discussion and comments from the public. Equipment storage and manufacturing were addressed at the hearing, but there was no mention of a wildland firefighting training facility, or onsite retail pickup of wood products and manufactured homes as mentioned in the application. The zoning request for the 10-acre parcel has been complicated by the fact that ILC started using the property without obtaining the necessary permits for the kind of uses the company was doing, including grading and filling in a wetland, cutting down and burning vegetation, as well as storing heavy equipment.
Dorsdall, in her June 6 presentation to the P&Z, stated, “We need to disclose that the applicants are already using the property for equipment and material storage for their business. They have been cited for code violation and for operating without permits.”
She also mentioned that ILC had been “issued violation letters for establishing use without permits,” mentioning that “some grading occurred without issuance of grading permits.” Conditional-use permits for grading were subsequently issued after the citations, but no information as to the penalties for these violations was provided.
Residents in the neighborhood and people using the Carpenter Natural Area noticed the grading activity and have voiced their concerns to the city about this planned rezoning, for many reasons.
Teri Paul, a volunteer with the citizens group Friends of Carpenter Natural Area, lives in the nearby neighborhood and walks in the area daily. She told the Free Press, “The grading they already did was not permitted. He had been grading on his property anyway. He completely obliterated the wetlands.It’s a seasonal wetland.”
Deb Silverman, a longtime Cortez resident who regularly visits the Carpenter Natural Area, attended the June 6 hearing and spoke to the Free Press later. She expressed concern about the issues of grading without permits and damaging wetlands.
“There’s no doubt that the wetland extends into that area. There are some levees that got rechanneled and it’s obviously a floodplain.”
Another longtime resident who spoke to the Free Press upon condition of anonymity said, “There was a nice wetland down there. The wetlands came from the natural area, and when it rains or when there is a lot of moisture it kinds of floods over and brings back the wetland. you can’t just cover it over. But when this guy came in, what he started to do was bulldoze over it and fill it in. We watched them do this. And then you come to find out they didn’t have permits.”
Dorsdall addressed this issue in the public hearing.“There was some grading, but according to the engineers, it did not impact the drainage or the wetland on the Carpenter property. Some of the issues hit our conditional-use permit. There is some floodplain on the property, where our engineer has requested they change their plans for use of that portion of the acreage.”
The conditional-use permit for the property (resolution 10) was approved by Planning and Zoning on June 6 as a way to mitigate the uses already taking place there.
Similarly, Dorsdall explained that since the owners have already established use on the property, “If this request [for rezoning] is approved it would bring the property into compliance with the land use code.”
Dorsdall’s information packet to the members of Planning and Zoning included definitions of allowed uses of commercial and industrial zones: “Contractor storage or equipment yards and manufacturing, wood products are similar uses that are listed as Conditional Uses in the “C” zone and permitted uses in the “I” zone, indicating that perhaps rezoning is not required, and a Conditional Use Permit is appropriate to authorize the proposed uses.”
Besides grading a wetland without a permit, citizens have raised other concerns about rezoning the parcel, including noise, property values, traffic at the intersection of Lebanon Road and Highway 491, air pollution, chemicals and their related health concerns, as well the viewshed and future implications of the zoning change if and when the current property owners sell.
“The problem that I have with rezoning is that it opens up other things that need to be permitted,” said Rebecca Levy, Planning and Zoning Commission member, at the hearing. “If you sold the property and left, then it’s not the same conditions associated with your use and suddenly all these other things that are permitted may not be a good fit right next to single-family residential area.” “The biggest issue is not who this business is and what they do – but if we rezone this to industrial next to a residential area – this is a bad precedent to set,” Paul told the Free Press.
Paul Dewitt, speaking at the hearing (which can be seen on youtube), said “This has the appearance to me that the applicant is taking an approach of ‘it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission,’ and then if approved, is that the city planning is trying to make the shoe fit.”
When to rezone
The Cortez Land Use Code, section 6.02 c. states that “the rezoning of land is to be discouraged.” Rezoning is only to be considered if one or more of the following criteria apply: the zoning was in error and current zoning is inconsistent with city goals and comprehensive plan; the land has changed to such a degree that it is in the public interest to encourage redevelopment; the rezoning is necessary to provide for a use which was not anticipated when the comprehensive plan was adopted.
These criteria were addressed at the June 6 hearing, with Dorsdall stating that the original zoning was not erroneous. The third criterion does not seem to apply, since logging operations and equipment storage are not new or unanticipated uses.
But the second criterion is under question, as proponents of the rezoning point to the industrial nature of the surrounding area, across Lebanon Road. to the west and north to the Industrial Park a mile away, while those against the zoning change point to the city’s commitment to open space and development of the Carpenter Natural Area adjacent to the east of the parcel, as well as the residential area to the east and south.
The area is mixed use, and yet the property is bounded by city open space to the north and east, by residential property on the east and south, and by Lebanon Road to the west. There are industrial-zoned properties in the area, but none are adjacent to the parcel, and some are vacant.
Rick Ryan, Cortez citizen commenting at the June 6 hearing, said, “I didn’t see any photos of the residential area. It would have been helpful and fair to see the relationship to the actual homes and the natural area. Take a picture from the homes looking down. The photos [in the presentation] were all to the west and north but not to the east (the natural area) and residences, south. In the initial study maybe there wasn’t enough thought given to the folks who live there. It seems that the committee didn’t check with the folks who were going to be impacted.”
Lorna Leonard, at 905 Ridge Road, told the Planning and Zoning Commission, “I didn’t realize anything was going on. A lot of dirt has been moved up to my property. I’m wondering if a proper survey was done before the digging out. I’m really concerned about my property value with an industrial zone right there. I can see it over my fence, I’m that close.”
‘Still hear the noise’
According to city code, property owners adjacent to a property where a zoning change is being considered must be notified, as well as those who are within 300 feet of the property. The Montview neighborhood sits above the 10-acre parcel in question, and only two residences share a boundary with it, so they were notified. The other properties, such as Leonard’s, are further away than 300 feet. and were not notified of the proposed zoning change, although the residents living there can hear and see the activity below.
Telleen told the Free Press, “I hear everything that goes on. I can hear trucks down there. I’m four blocks away and set back off the edge, but I can still hear the noise. And I did see the smoke when they burned.”
The ILC narrative included in the application for rezoning noted the decibel levels of the various activities planned, stating, “The amount of noise that will be created for this operation is very minimal mostly due to, this is a wide-open area and sound will go off into many directions and be absorbed into ground you therefore you only end up hearing a small part of it.”
ILC will use a Wood Mizer Mill, and chain saws, and Moore told P&Z that, “The spec is 89 decibels. Nobody will ever hear it.”
Lancaster agreed, telling the committee that “Those properties are way up on a hill. We have went up there and we cannot hear what we’re doing up there.”
But Paul disagreed, telling the Free Press, “I can hear when their equipment is going out my kitchen window. For them to say there is no noise problem is just bull.”
These kinds of discrepancies between local citizens and the business owners and their supporters are not limited to noise. Homeowners are concerned about their property values.
Lancaster said she doesn’t think that’s an issue.
Dewitt, a resident on the mesa near the parcel. commented, “I think most people would agree that an industrial zone is not compatible with residential.”
But Larry Don Suckla, local business owner, stated, “I believe this would be a positive business and the industrial rezoning should be approved. When they built the industrial park, the houses were already right next to it.”
At the hearing, a total of nine people spoke against the zoning change. Five live in the neighborhood adjacent to the parcel, and four are regular visitors to Carpenter Natural Area.
Four spoke in favor of the change, including Julie and Larry Don Suckla, as well as two firefighters who mentioned the need for the ILC’s business, since storing heavy equipment used to fight fires in the area would help local firefighting efforts.
The ILC provided a lot of information about their firefighting experience and award-winning activities. Many of the people who commented at the hearing said they were supportive of firefighting and acknowledged the importance of this activity.
Residents against the rezoning do support firefighting.
“We’re not against this type of activity but it is in the wrong place,” Deb Silverman told the Free Press. “We have an industrial park – they could operate there. It’s a false choice to make us look like we’re anti-business. The thing is, once it is zoned industrial, it’s for all time. This is very short-sighted land use. Paul told the Free Press, “We have these codes and regulations so that we all get along and are good neighbors to each other, so that we can be a good community. I am not against business, but this should be miles out of town. The purpose for residential districts is to be sheltered from incompatible and disruptive activities.”
There was no discussion of possible impacts on the busy intersection of Highway 491 and Lebanon Road.
The need for firefighting
One of the criteria for zoning change mentioned in Dorsdall’s presentation was that of need, and firefighting equipment and services were considered to be a need. No one interviewed by the Free Press or speaking at the June 6 meeting denied the importance of firefighting. The questions instead were why this business needed to be located next to a natural area and a residential area, especially since the zoning change could impact the future of these areas. When or if ILC sells the site, other industrial activities would be allowed if the zoning change is approved.
“The city is presently at cross purposes,” Telleen told the Free Press. “Cortez had a great reputation for having great parks, a rec center, ball fields and courts, and a desire to protect these. Carpenter was set aside for people to enjoy the high desert in the city limits. It’s a gem. However, at this point they seem to be in opposition to their mission. The city needs to decide if it’s going to continue on the progressive path or succumb to special interests. This business belongs in a more suitable location.”
The Carpenter Natural Area is on the east side of the ILC property and proposed industrial zone. It consists of 180 acres of wetland and bluff, next to the George Raymond Geer Natural Area on the north and the Montview residential neighborhood on the south.
The Carpenter family donated the original 76-acre preserve to the city of Cortez in 1993 to be preserved as a public park, natural area and wildlife sanctuary. The city purchased an additional 80 acres and designated 60 as part of the preserve.
And in 2017, a 50-acre conservation easement was created between landowner Keith Evans and the Montezuma Land Conservancy, to provide long-term stewardship and management.
The preserve has more than 10 miles of hiking and biking trails, as well as a paved mile-long trail providing disability access. It is near the hospital and used frequently by hospital employees and neighborhood residents as well as people from all over Cortez and the county. There are wetlands, birds, foxes, deer, archaeological sites, picnic areas, and native plant education signage. Accessed by trailheads on the west side, near the ILC property, and on the east side by the hospital, as well as from the north, people use the area to find peace and quiet in the midst of the city, with many calling it “a gem.”
Changing their route
Since ILC has started using the property, some residents have curtailed their visits. Chris McAllister, a resident within walking distance of the area, told the P&Z that the activities of the ILC have “definitely changed the character of the viewshed of one of our favorite trails.We noticed a lot less wildlife in that area. We have changed our route because it’s not as attractive. I have no problem with the company but not right there.”
Telleen told the Free Press that she too has changed her route: “I have recently not driven to that west entrance because it’s so upsetting to run along all the trucks and the grading.
“It doesn’t fit. I stay away from that area because it’s not attractive, and it’s not conducive to the quietness of the area. When it was open space, it wasn’t full of trucks and trailers. Now I avoid that entrance.”
In response to the comments and concerns voiced at the public hearing, Mary Lancaster said, “I want you to want us. We can compromise. We hear what you guys want.
“It’s just a small inlet where that Carpenter area is. We’re wanting to be on the same page. Everything we do, we put it back natural, we’ll put in the native grasses, we work with the Forest Service so we know how to do that. We make sure we’re in compliance. There will be no issues with ILC.”
After almost two hours, including Dorsdall’s presentation, public comments and discussion, as well as poignant moments of silence while committee members pondered the issue, the Planning and Zoning Commission tabled the zoning request for the 10-acre parcel (resolution 7), leaving it to be addressed their meeting on July 18 at 6:30 p.m. in the city offices on the corner of Roger Smith Rd and Montezuma Ave.
At this meeting it is hoped that all five members of the commission will be in attendance and there will be another public hearing on the issue.
The commission will make a recommendation on this issue, and then forward their recommendation to the Cortez City Council, which will meet on July 25.
The City Council will ultimately decide on whether or not to approve the rezoning request.