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Wal-Mart: Wetlands and traffic issues

Local residents seeking another bite at the apple regarding comments on a preliminary design review for a proposed 93,000 square-foot Wal-Mart store for Pagosa Springs will have an opportunity to be heard Tuesday, July 10, at 5:15 p.m. in the Ross Aragon Community Center when the Pagosa Springs Planning Commission considers that design and hears public comments.

Additionally, residents have a chance to provide input on wetlands issues pertaining to the Wal-Mart project — an opportunity signalled in a public notice recently posted by the Army Corps of Engineers.

A posting by the Corps on May 31 on the ACoE website stated, “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Sacramento District, (Corps) is evaluating a permit application to construct the Aspen Village Reconfiguration Phase 4 project, which would result in permanent loss to approximately 0.29 acre and temporary impacts to approximately 0.02 acre of waters of the United States, including wetlands.”

That posting went on to say, “This application is being evaluated under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act for the discharge of dredged or fill material in waters of the United States.”

Specifically, the postinf noted that, “The applicant is proposing to reconfigure Phase 4 of Aspen Village,” and added, “The impacts associated with Phase 4 Reconfiguration would result in cumulative projects impacts to 1.25 acres of waters of the U.S. (0.96 acres of original impact plus 0.29 acre of proposed impact).”

The notice concluded, “Written comments, referencing Public Notice SPK-2005-75448 must be submitted to the office listed below on or before June 30, 2012.”

According to Kara Hellige, project manager for the ACoE, interested parties, “Are welcome to request a public hearing if they can provide information that has not already been submitted and pertinent to the wetlands issue, they need to explain why a public hearing is appropriate.”

Hellige said that information needs to be specific, “To the Clean Water Act and the wetlands issue. If it’s socioeconomic issues or anything else, that’s outside our scope.”

At the same time, the Colorado Department of Transportation is dealing with an access permit filed by Wal-Mart traffic consultants; that process is not public.

In fact, according to Nancy Shanks, CDOT regional public relations manager, “Since it’s not permitted, it is confidential at this stage.”

Shanks explained that the application process, “Basically consists of the property owner submitting the permit, CDOT reviewing it, it possibly going back to the property owner as Wal-Mart with revisions, requirements and then it’s sort of a back-and-forth process until a permit is acceptable.”

One issue that CDOT will have to confront is the jurisdiction of Alpha Drive, the main roadway connecting U.S. 160 to the dedicated Wal-Mart site, with that intersection entailing most of the improvements proposed by project consultants.

Shanks said, “CDOT would respond with concerns if the town or county connects with that road to Highway 160 and there are traffic issues.”

CDOT would be dealing with the county regarding Alpha Drive, even though the Wal-Mart site is within town boundaries.

According to Archuleta County Attorney Todd Starr, Alpha Drive bisects two separate annexations undertaken by the town, with the road a thin sliver of county property between properties in town.

“It appears to be a road within the county,” Starr said.

Pagosa Springs Town Planner James Dickhoff confirmed Starr’s assessment, saying that Alpha Drive is, “Definitely within the county.”

Stating that the road was recorded as Plat Number 146 in November 1972, Dickhoff added that the recording, “Dedicated Alpha Drive for public use,” and, “Indicates that it’s a county road.”

Thus, residents will have several new issues to inquire about when attending the July 10 Planning Commission meeting: wetlands mitigation, highway permits and whether it will be the town or county that addresses traffic flows on Alpha Drive.

It remains to be seen if July’s Planning Commission meeting will be more amiable to public input. As reported in the May 24 edition of The SUN, when the public comment portion of a May 22 Planning Commission meeting finally took place (after nearly three hours of presentation by Wal-Mart representatives and consultants), several residents were shut out of the process when Commission Chair (and Pagosa Springs Town Council member) Kathie Lattin deemed some questions or comments “irrelevant” or out of context, even though most of those questions or comments were later addressed by commission members.

Furthermore, at the May 22 public hearing, town staff circulated a copy of a document titled, “A resolution adopting a policy concerning public recording, public participation at meetings, and public hearing rules and procedures,” legislation placing limits and restrictions on the public’s ability to speak out at Planning Commission meetings, rules that many attendees at that meeting said suppressed the public’s right to be heard.

Following the article in The SUN and subsequent public outcry, the Pagosa Springs Town Council adopted a policy that expanded the opportunity for public input. However, the Planning Commission has not revised its rules of public engagement.

The Corps’ process for public input is far more restrictive, but it is also straight forward.

The May 31 ACoE public notice stated, “Any comments received will be considered by the Corps to determine whether to issue, modify, condition, or deny a permit for this proposal. To make this decision, comments are used to assess impacts on endangered species, historic properties, water quality, general environmental effects, and other public interest factors listed above. Comments are used in the preparation of an Environmental Assessment and/or an Environmental Impact Statement pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act. Comments are also used to determine the need for a public hearing and to determine the overall public interest of the proposed activity.”

The process was specified in the notice, which reads, “The Corps is particularly interested in receiving comments related to the proposal’s probable impacts on the affected aquatic environment and the secondary and cumulative effects. Anyone may request, in writing, that a public hearing be held to consider this application. Requests shall specifically state, with particularity, the reason(s) for holding a public hearing. If the Corps determines that the information received in response to this notice is inadequate for thorough evaluation, a public hearing may be warranted. If a public hearing is warranted, interested parties will be notified of the time, date, and location. Please note that all comment letters received are subject to release to the public through the Freedom of Information Act. If you have questions or need additional information please contact the applicant or the Corps’ project manager Kara Hellige, 970-259-1604,”

Anyone wishing to weigh in with comments regarding impacts of a Wal-Mart buildout on “endangered species, historic properties, water quality, general environmental effects, and other public interest factors listed above,” should direct written statements to:

Kara Hellige, project manager

US Army Corps of Engineer

Sacramento District

1970 E. 3rd Ave., No. 109

Durango, CO 81301

Written comments can also be directed to the e-mail address listed above.

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