Town rejects planning merger

A proposed merger of county and town planning and building departments and commissions met a swift demise Tuesday night when the Pagosa Springs Town Council made a unanimous decision to “cease and not pursue an IGA (intergovernmental agreement) with the county.”

First proposed last November, the merger was initially intended to fully merge the respective entities’ building and planning departments and planning commissions in order to streamline permitting processes for local developers. As proposed then by Archuleta County Director of Community Development Rick Bellis during a presentation to council and the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners, the merger would eliminate apparent redundancy in the permitting process that often frustrated builders and developers attempting to navigate the process. During that meeting, 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.

By December, council and the BoCC agreed in spirit to take a closer look at merging their building and planning departments and commissions, to determine how such a merger would operate and what steps would be necessary to affect it. However, work on the merger stalled as the BoCC awaited the departure of two lame-duck commissioners and the swearing in of two new commissioners. With the seating of commissioners Clifford Lucero and John Ranson on the board, the BoCC again picked up the matter of a merger with renewed vigor.

In late January, the BoCC and council sat down again to discuss the proposal and it was then apparent that substantial differences existed between both boards. While the BoCC exhibited a unified and unqualified support for a merger, council was split, with Mayor Ross Aragon, along with council members Jerry Jackson and Mark Weiler, appearing to support pursuit of a merger, Darrel Cotton, Stan Holt, and Shari Pierce opposing a merger, and Don Volger open to a merger but unwilling to oppose the proposal outright.

Given council’s reticence concerning a merger, both boards agreed to convene a subcommittee to work out details with commissioner Bob Moomaw appointing Lucero, Bellis and County Administrator Greg Schulte to the subcommittee, and mayor Ross Aragon appointing Cotton, Holt, town senior planner Joe Nigg and town building official Scott Pierce. At the end of January’s joint meeting, Bellis assured both boards that, with the subcommittee in place and willing to work toward a common goal, “All the details can be worked out within one or two meetings, with one or two hours for each meeting, we can get this done.”

In retrospect, Bellis’ assessment was unduly optimistic. Although the subcommittee met twice outside of two additional joint council/BoCC meetings in February, and despite numerous proposed concessions from the BoCC for the merger, council not only remained intransigent but appeared to move farther away from the idea of a full merger. Despite a show of unanimous support for the merger at a public forum in February (with numerous audience members chiding council for reluctance to pursue the merger), council indicated that it would not consider merging departments outside of the urban service area (USA) boundaries. Furthermore, rejecting the idea of a full merger, council stated it would only entertain a limited IGA as opposed to creating unified departments or commissions.

At the Feb. 19 mid-month council meeting, council approved charging Schulte and town manager David Mitchem with drafting an IGA, for limited unification of building and planning responsibilities. Having met with the BoCC earlier that same day where Holt and Cotton expressed opposition to a merger and stated that the town would only pursue an IGA limited to the USA, council agreed to at least entertain some cooperation with the county.

Unfortunately, for merger proponents, an IGA appeared to be no more attractive and by late March, council was no closer to reaching an agreement with the county, much less finding comity amongst members of the board. Indeed, at the last joint town county meeting on March 26, the only decision reached was that council needed to decide if it was interested in even pursuing an IGA.

Thus, it was with dispatch that council rejected the IGA. Introducing his motion, Holt said, “It was a very simple IGA with only three conditions and it addressed the urban services area only. The agreement prevents builders and developers from playing the town against the county.”

Commenting on the fact that the county had rejected the town’s draft of the IGA, Holt continued his rationale for the motion, saying, “Since the urban services area are those that are adjacent to the town it was recommended that we apply the town codes and standards and regulations. The county rejected the IGA.”

However, the schism between town and county regarding disparate visions for planning and building became apparent as Holt continued explaining the reasoning of his motion, saying, “Subsequently they (the county) went into discussions with Reservoir River Ranch for development of that property under the county code.

“So, Mister Mayor,” Holt finished, “I move we cease and accept the county’s refusal of the IGA and not continue with an IGA.”

Aragon opened the matter up to public comment, to no avail, and the board was likewise reticent. With no further discussion, council consigned the matter to an abrupt end.

Having attempted a similar effort in 2007 when Moomaw, former Town Manager Mark Garcia and former County Administrator Bob Campbell proposed a merger of building and planning departments and commissions of the town and county, the record for proposed mergers holds a 0-2 record. Nonetheless, Bellis remains confident that the county and town will eventually have to combine forces in some way.

“We’ve always worked with their (town) staff,” Bellis said, “And we’ll continue to work well with them. Currently, we have two projects going with them. Given the current economic situation, it’s just a matter of time before this comes up again.”

jim@pagosasun.com