Town to seek new planner

The Town of Pagosa Springs faces a gap in its planning department with the recent resignation of Senior Planner Joe Nigg.

Nigg tendered his resignation late last week after accepting a job offer in Minnesota.

Just months after the resignation of previous town planner (and interim town manager) Tamra Allen, Nigg’s resignation leaves a potential lack of experience in the town’s planning department. Absent Nigg and Allen, the town does not currently retain any other employees in planning. As the last planning department employee, Nigg takes past planning history and a knowledge of town issues with him.

The town recently adopted a revised Land Use and Development Code (LUDC), the development of that code due in large part to work by Allen and Nigg. Several recent annexation efforts — the proposed Blue Sky Ranch (BSR), the realized Blue Sky Village (BSV), and the failed Reservoir River Ranch (RRR) annexations — were handled, from the town’s side, due in large part to Nigg’s authorship and research. Furthermore, it was Nigg who provided council with a detailed explanation of how the RRR annexation got away from the town.

Given recent history, any replacement the town hires for Nigg will have a tremendous amount of catching up to do.

If there’s a sliver of a silver lining in Nigg’s resignation, it’s that the vacancy occurs in a moribund economy that has inhibited development, giving his replacement a potentially lengthy learning curve. Considering the current paucity of projects passing through the town’s planning department — and nothing to indicate that situation will soon change — a new hire would most likely have little else to do but get a lay of the land. For the moment, the senior planner has been charged with composing the notice that announces the opening for his position (Nigg steps down May 29).

Although Town Manager David Mitchem directed Nigg to assist in the search for a new planner, the idea of the town employing contract planners has resurfaced from prior Town Council discussions. The idea of using contract planners was initially floated during budget talks last October but was also brought up during talks with the BoCC regarding a proposed building and planning department merger with the county.

However, Nigg said he does not believe a contract planner would be a feasible long term solution for the town, saying, “It’s one option to fill the gap, if that’s what was needed, but ultimately, fees for a contract planner would exceed what the budget allows.”

Whether or not the gap in town planning would bring council back to the table for a merger of town and county building and planning departments and commissions seems doubtful. Although merger, a subject of intense discussions between council and the BoCC from late last year until council outright rejected the idea early last month, would gain a certain degree of political capital that was lacking during merger negotiations, key members on the council remain adamantly opposed to relying on the county for building and planning services.

In fact, Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon did not indicate that Nigg’s absence would be a substantial issue, citing the current economic situation as an opportunity for a new senior planner to “get up to speed,” adding, “it’s not like we’re going to be without a planner for very long, anyway.”

Aragon did indicate that, if needed, the town would be willing to use a contract planner, “as we’ve discussed previously.”

When asked if the council would, given that the town effectively has no planning department, reconsider the proposed merger with the county’s building and planning department, Aragon laughed, saying, “You’d have to ask Darrel about that,” referring to council member Darrel Cotton, arguably the most vocal opponent of the proposed merger.

Indeed, when asked if he would be willing to revisit a proposed merger, Cotton replied, “Not yet. Not having a planning department isn’t good for the town but I’m still opposed,” Cotton said.

Another opponent of the merger, council member Stan Holt, was likewise resolute, saying, “Not for me, absolutely not. There’s several options out there, council just has to bat it around a bit. We’re not under the gun on this.”

Council member Shari Pierce, another merger foe, said, “My vote to discontinue discussions with the county regarding planning and building departments merging was not based on Joe Nigg being our town planner. There were many factors considered in making that decision. That Joe is leaving is unfortunate, but that does not warrant revisiting the proposed merger.”

Rebuilding a town planning department remains, for the moment, a function of time and process. Although the current economic downturn has the serendipitous benefit of delaying urgency for a town planning department, that same downturn, it could be argued by merger proponents, makes combination of services not only a necessity but an inevitability. Yet, with three members of town council standing steadfastly against the merger, combining building and planning remains chimerical at best and most likely impossible.

jim@pagosasun.com