USA project draws ire, at the wrong time and place

A standing room only crowd packed the commissioners’ meeting room Oct. 29, with many in the audience there to object to a county plan that, if approved, will pinpoint areas suitable for “intensified development.”

Called the Urban Services Area (USA) project, the goal, according to county planner Cindy Schultz and Director of Community Development Rick Bellis, is to identify parcels beyond town limits with the potential for increased residential density and “neighborhood level” commercial uses similar to those currently allowed under the existing land use code.

In short, the project attempts to identify areas suitable for infill development and to provide an arguably much-needed update to the county’s 2001 Community Plan — particularly the future land use map — which county planning commissioners and staff say conflicts with portions of the county’s land use code, thus creating a defacto moratorium on growth in Archuleta County.

“We need to find a way to direct that growth, which is inevitable, in a way that is appropriate for the community,” planning commissioner Lesli Allison said.

And Bellis expounded on the legal ramifications of the conundrum.

“We can’t agree on where growth might occur, so lets not permit it,” Bellis said is an inappropriate tack, but it has become the tacit modus operandi, when key planning tools are left in conflict.

“It’s a lawsuit waiting to happen,” said Bellis

In addition, Bellis attempted to debunk a common local fallacy: that the future land use map found in the 2001 Community Plan actually depicts future land use patterns.

“We’re locked into a future land use map that is virtually obsolete,” Bellis said.

And Schultz explained, the future land use map covers areas that are already platted, and contrary to the moniker, doesn’t depict future land use patterns at all. In fact, Schultz said, the map depicts reality on the ground when the plan was adopted in 2001.

However, while staff and the planning commission grapple with the complexities of the project — such as defining criteria that might identify a parcel as a suitable candidate for denser development — the plan’s detractors have cried foul on the process, citing incomplete or unavailable information, scant public notification, a nearly nonexistent scoping process, and a clandestine effort on the part of county planning staff to keep letters of concern or opposition from members of the county planning commission.

In addition, and despite Bellis’ assertions, many opponents say the USA map designating certain parcels as potential candidates for intensified development, flies in the face of the Community Plan — a document drafted and adopted after collecting comments from citizens during a 22-meeting public scoping process.

And lastly, many in the audience viewed the plan as a surreptitious move by the TreeTops developers to gain “backdoor” approval for their project by coercing the planning commission to rewrite county regulations for their benefit.

Incidentally, the room held a number of property owners living adjacent or near the TreeTops parcel who expressed concerns regarding “intensified development” (yet undefined), wildlife impacts, quality of life issues and impacts to Piedra Road should intensified development occur.

TreeTops has already received two denials from the county planning commission. The parcel is located on Piedra Road about three miles from U.S. 160.

“This is not project driven in any sense,” said Bellis. “That (the TreeTops parcel) is a speck on the map compared to what we are dealing with.”

When asked about the public scoping process, Bellis said, “I would agree there hasn’t been a lot of notification, but there hasn’t been a product to present until recently.”

Bellis explained many of the discussions between staff and the planning commission on the USA project have occurred in work sessions. Work sessions, Bellis said, are open to the public but aren’t the appropriate forum for public comment, because many project details remain in flux, and no binding decisions are being made.

For example, the USA map presented Oct. 29 has gone through at least three iterations since a Nov. 4 work session.

But all that is about to change.

Bellis said staff and the planning commission continue to fine tune project details, including holding another work session last night. Following the work session, county staff and the planning commission will hold a public hearing Nov. 12, where citizens are invited to provide comments on the map and plan.

On Nov. 18, Bellis said the map will go before the board of county commissioners, and the public will have an additional opportunity to weigh in.

And Bellis clarified a key point: The map identifies areas where development will likely occur, but does not change existing zoning, and does not guarantee uses other than what is already allowed under the current zoning.

Any change in land use or zoning Bellis said, must go through planning process, and ultimately be approved by the board of county commissioners.