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Big Box regs on way out

Despite public calls to the contrary, the Pagosa Springs Town Council repealed on first reading its Big Box regulations, thereby moving to delete what Town Manager David Mitchem described as “a rigorous and impossible set of requirements,” that had blocked economic growth in Pagosa Springs.

With the vote July 23, the ordinance will go before council again for second reading and final approval Aug. 20.

“I believe the current writing of this code is unneeded and blocks all retail development above 40,000 square feet,” Mitchem said.

And council members Darrel Cotton, Stan Holt and Mark Weiler agreed, the trio casting votes in favor of repealing the regulations, while Mayor Ross Aragon and council member Shari Pierce dissented.

Council members Jerry Jackson and Don Volger were absent.

“I can see no reason not to repeal this section,” said Cotton, and he held to his argument that the market — not government — should dictate commerce in Pagosa Springs.

With many residents shopping at large-format retailers in Durango and Farmington, Holt said council was compelled to staunch the flow of sales tax dollars out of the community.

“We need to start capturing this lost revenue. I concur with council member Cotton,” Holt said.

Weiler said that past town policies and actions had caused Pagosa Springs to become pegged as an “anti-business” community and that it was time to send a different message.

“The economic climate that existed when the Big Box regulations were drafted no longer exists. The lights are on, the door is open, but the land use and development code (with the inclusion of the Big Box regulations) says exactly the opposite,” Weiler said.

Aragon and Pierce cited reasons of their own for voting against a full repeal of the Big Box code.

“I’m a realist,” Aragon said. “As we are, right now, with the town and county in financial chaos, why would a large retailer want to come here. We don’t have the density, we don’t have the population base.”

Speaking to the standing room only crowd, Aragon added, “You do not have to fear. There will not be Big Box here in your lifetime or my lifetime.”

According to Mitchem, and perhaps contrary to Aragon’s assertion, the call to repeal the regulations came after a representative from an undisclosed large format retailer contacted Mitchem about development opportunities in Pagosa Springs.

“The town has received an inquiry from a representative of a large retailer. They have an interest in the community, but let me make it clear that they have not committed to come,” Mitchem said. However, Mitchem added that with the Big Box regulations in place, the town was “not going to be considered.”

“I believe we should respond effectively to that large format retailer that wants us in the competition for the next store,” Mitchem said. Hence the call to repeal the Big Box regulations.

In a follow-up interview, and when asked who made the inquiry, Mitchem said the representative asked for confidentiality and would not disclose the store or it’s possible location.

“I think the call is real, the inquiry is real. They wouldn’t waste their time if they weren’t interested,” Mitchem said. “I’m trying to place us to be competitive. I am certain they are looking at a variety of communities throughout Colorado.”

During his presentation, Mitchem asserted that a large-format retailer would bring as many as 200 jobs to the Pagosa Springs area and that the town and county could each grab an additional $2 million in sales tax revenue.

Although some in the audience commended Mitchem for his research, Lee Murphy, among others, remained unconvinced.

Speaking to Mitchem and council, Murphy said, “One of the things that strikes me is that the conclusion is already reached. I’m disappointed with the (Mitchem’s) study and I’m disappointed with the research. All I saw here today is that Big Box was the solution and you were going to cram it down our throats.”

As an alternative to repealing the Big Box portion of the code, Archuleta County Director of Community Development Rick Bellis encouraged the council to identify the sources of sales tax leakage and then create an economic incentive plan that would target reducing that leakage.

Mitchem’s primary argument for a full repeal of the Big Box regulations was predicated on his assertion that redundancies existed between the Big Box section of the land use code and the land use code as a whole, and that the remainder of the code, after the repeal, could adequately regulate “the look” of commercial development.

Pierce suggested instead of a full repeal, town council should carefully examine the Big Box regulations, identify redundancies and extract those that are onerous or anti-business.

“Instead of repealing, I would recommend that we not repeal the entire thing, but look at things that are anti business,” Pierce said, and she moved to fine tune the Big Box portion of the regulations.

Pierce’s motion gained little traction, and ultimately died for lack of second.

Cotton then moved to repeal the entire section, Holt seconded, and the motion passed.

james@pagosasun.com