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Ordinance change may prompt development

The Pagosa Springs Town Council passed the second reading of two ordinances Tuesday night meant to facilitate further development in the town: one amending certain aspects of the 2006 International Fire Code (IFC), the other allowing county residents to serve on the town’s Planning Commission board.

By town charter, ordinances require two readings, as well as public notice.

Unfortunately, although the first ordinance frees up the ability of builders to sidestep certain aspects of the IFC, it does so at the expense of the town’s relationship with the Pagosa Fire Protection District (PFPD).

The first ordinance was the result of months of consideration and extensive legal counsel, responding to the needs of local contractors and builders who had been hamstrung by portions of the fire code. Essentially, inadequate infrastructure was unable to meet sufficient water flows necessary to meet code; furthermore, those infrastructure shortfalls had also been unable to provide adequate spacing for fire hydrants as stipulated in the same code.

Last spring, the town had attempted to enter into a memorandum of understand (MOU) between the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District, the county, and the PFPD in order to temporarily waive portions of the IFC for development, then prioritizing that development to eventually meet IFC requirements.

However, concerned with liability to the town due to requirement waivers, council tabled the MOU and assigned council members Darrell Cotton and Stan Holt to a subcommittee investigating the issue further, with town Building Inspector Scott Pierce charged with advising the subcommittee on elements of the town’s Land Use and Development Code.

By fall, Pierce and the subcommittee made it clear to council that the town’s attorney would need to be consulted in order determine the town’s liability in issues relating to the IFC when issuing building permits and inspecting new construction.

On Dec. 16, town council passed the first reading of the ordinance, to the dismay of the PFPD. According to PFPD Chief Ron Thompson, the amendments accepted by council Tuesday night essentially negate the PFPD’s authority to enforce the code.

“If we’re involved, we get all the liability and they (the town) get all the credit,” said Thompson.

“The fire board looked at the ordinance, our attorney looked at it, and the inferences of the amendments is that inspection and enforcement falls under the authority of the building inspector of the town.”

Thompson added that the board had warned the town that, “If it passed, we would no longer enforce the code within the town limits.”

However, Pierce and Holt denied Thompson’s assertion during Tuesday’s council meeting, saying that, although the town would be responsible for initial inspections, the PFPD would retain the authority to enforce code violations after construction was completed.

“We’ve spent a great deal of time with legal counsel modifying the code ... under this ordinance,” said Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem. “The fire district would have the authority for subsequent enforcement.”

However, no discussion was devoted to Thompson’s main concern regarding the amendments: the assignment of liability for the amended code. If Thompson is correct, while the PFPD would retain the authority (if it wished) to enforce the code, an amended code would put the district at increased liability and, as such, would refuse to participate in code enforcement within the town.

“The way the amendment is written, the town’s building official could countermand any decisions made by our inspector,” Thompson said.

While it is not clear if the town would invite the PFPD to inspect and enforce code after construction is completed within the town (“That’s a different discussion,” Thompson said), it is less clear who would have the ultimate authority (and potential liability) for code enforcement. Furthermore, it could be property owners themselves who would face the expense of uncertain code enforcement through significantly increased insurance premiums.

Despite misgivings by the PFPD, council approved the amended code with a unanimous vote.

Council also approved an ordinance, on second reading, allowing county residents who own a business in the town (and the related property) to serve on the town’s planning commission.

Responding to a lack of interest and qualified candidates to serve on the commission, the planning department drafted the ordinance to expand eligibility for board participation.

The ordinance opens two spots for county residents: one for a county resident who owns a business (and its related property) within the town limits and one for the chair or co-chair of the county planning commission.

The ordinance amends section 2.5.2.B.1 that restricted planning commission members to town residents. The ordinance passed with unanimous consent.

The second ordinance will most likely see vacancies on the town’s planning commission board filled in a timely manner. The first ordinance, however, while it may facilitate further development in the town (the MOU proposed last spring was drafted in response to two expansions rejected by the PFPD due to IFC violations), it could lead to further complications down the road.

jim@pagosasun.com