Town and county propose building and planning merger

Harkening back to the words of Neil Armstrong, members of the Pagosa Springs Town Council and the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners took “one giant leap” during a joint meeting Wednesday when they agreed to consider merging the respective entities’ building and planning departments and planning commissions.

“Very often there are overlapping concerns. The bus doesn’t stop at the border between town and county,” said Archuleta County Director of Community Development Rick Bellis during a presentation to the boards.

Former Town Manager Mark Garcia, former County Administrator Bob Campbell and Archuleta County Commissioner Bob Moomaw launched a similar effort in 2007, although the effort imploded under the weight of political pressure caused by poor pre-merger communication and conceptual preparation, and failure of both boards to buy in to a new hierarchical structure proposed by Garcia.

Although key staff remained committed to the merger, at least in concept, many doubted whether the political will existed, or could be resurrected to make the merger a reality.

That changed Wednesday.

In a presentation many described as eloquent, Bellis galvanized support for the merger with a carefully crafted argument, citing anecdotes, facts and figures concerning the benefits to both agencies.

For example, town planning staff has been whittled down to one, and the department faces large and complex annexation proposals and intense development pressures. Meanwhile, the county has experienced an almost complete standstill in development proposals, but faces an onslaught of oil and gas related permit applications and has acquired savvy staff capable of dealing with complex development proposals.

Furthermore Bellis estimated 85 percent of projects already receive joint departmental review, and the merger would streamline the approval process, cut costs, eliminate duplications of efforts and bring predictability to an arduous and cumbersome land use review and approval process.

“It could cut a lot of time down for us, and I think it could wind up with a better product for you,” Bellis said. “If you want to be competitive on a state and federal level, I don’t think we have a choice.”

While reaching a consensus on a merger of building departments and code enforcement — the town and county have adopted virtually identical building codes — a merger of planning departments and planning commissions is not a slam dunk.

In regard to merging the two planning commissions, council member Jerry Jackson said, “There are two very different perspectives and two different meetings. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but there will be growing pains.”

Council member Darrel Cotton also questioned the planning merger.

“I believe city and county need to be different,” Cotton said. He called for increased coordination but questioned whether the merger would actually streamline processes or if it would create greater inefficiencies.

“The needs are too diverse. I think it would get less efficient,” he said.

Although details are far from finalized, Bellis and town staff will begin the process of forging the merger by drafting an intergovernmental agreement.

At the minimum, the logistics of merging the building and code enforcement arms of both agencies should be hammered out during a joint meeting Dec. 18, while merging planning departments and planning commissions could require extra effort.

Council member Mark Weiler initially recommended an incremental merger with performance benchmarks, although after Bellis’ presentation, Weiler’s tone changed.

“Can you do it by December,” Weiler asked Bellis.

“Yes we can,” Bellis responded.

Time will tell.

james@pagosasun.com