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Wal-Mart design review draws crowd

Local residents attending a meeting of the Pagosa Springs Planning Commission, Board of Adjustments and Design Review Board at the Ross Aragon Community Center Tuesday night witnessed what could only be described as a sea change in attitude from the previous, May 22 meeting.

Hearing suggested revisions of design elements for a Wal-Mart store slated for construction in Pagosa Springs, attendees were much more subdued in their comments opposing the project than they had been during previous meetings.

Furthermore, the board was much more receptive to public comment than it had been during the May 22 meeting.

That reversal did not appear in response to a more civil discourse at Tuesday’s meeting, but in spite of it: Board Chair Kathie Lattin opened up the initial public comment portion of the meeting after speakers (who had signed up to speak prior to the meeting) made numerous comments that were exclusively opposed to the total project or, at least, critical of the process.

Lattin’s approach to public comment on Tuesday exhibited a dramatic change from a highly restrictive policy that angered many attendees at the May 22 meeting. As reported in the May 24 edition of The SUN, when the public comment portion of that meeting finally took place (following almost three hours of presentations by Wal-Mart representatives and consultants), several residents were shut out of the process when Lattin deemed questions or comments “irrelevant” or out of context, often after Town Attorney Bob Cole (sitting with the board) advised board members regarding audience input and questions.

In recent weeks, local residents have been given much more opportunity to engage in the public process, especially after the Pagosa Springs Town Council approved a resolution in early June to add two public comment sections to meeting agendas. That policy was apparently drafted in response to criticism regarding a resolution adopted by the Planning Commission in early May that placed what many residents felt were onerous restrictions on public comment at meetings.

That policy, in place during the May 22 design review meeting, was noticeably absent during Tuesday’s forum. In fact, by the end of the meeting (during a public input section dedicated to comments not relating to the Wal-Mart project), several speakers thanked the commission for holding a meeting that was more open and amicable.

At the start of Tuesday’s forum, Wal-Mart representatives and consultants presented design revisions that had been recommended by the commission at the end of the May 22 meeting. Including elements such as landscaping, delivery and customer access, and snow removal (important since the front of the store is north-facing), the change proposed by consultants that appealed to most attendees (judging by numerous plaudits expressed during the public comment section) was a vastly improved system for handling parking lot runoff.

With the project’s proximity to designated wetlands and migratory bird habitat a significant concern for many area residents (Wal-Mart currently has a permit filed with the Army Corps of Engineers for wetlands mitigation), the proposal Tuesday showed a vastly improved system for filtering pollutants, as well as handling overflow, with an underground detention system.

Nevertheless, while some proposed changes were often met with apparent tacit approval, comments that followed the nearly three hours of presentation were almost exclusively critical of the project — and the process.

Many attendees took the microphone to express dissatisfaction with the fact that, despite numerous revisions to design elements, the overall appearance of the proposed store remained boxlike.

Several others addressed the issue of the public comment policy that had inhibited input during the previous forum, a matter that elicited a positive response when Lattin opened the meeting up to unrestricted public comment (for that portion of the forum).

It was at that point, along with free pizza offered by Pagosa First (a local group formed in opposition to Wal-Mart) and donated by DSP Pizza, that the meeting’s tenor took on an atmosphere that was radically different than previous public Wal-Mart forums.

Indeed, from that point on, while many speakers still spoke critically of the project specifically, and of Wal-Mart in general, the tone became almost lighthearted, with a sense of community shared by nearly everyone in attendance.

As the meeting drew to a close, the board recommended several suggestions brought up by the public as items to consider at the next design review hearing. Those suggestions included investigating a Community Benefits Agreement with Wal-Mart as part of an understanding of what doing business in Pagosa Springs would entail. Another suggestion was to schedule a more comprehensive neighborhood meeting (see related story) between developers and adjacent residents.

Drafting a motion for the continuation of the design review process, Commissioner Cappy White integrated several suggestions raised by attendees while, without tongue in cheek, noting some of the language used by Wal-Mart consultants that employed euphemisms for various elements of the project.

The design review process continues Tuesday, Aug. 14, at 5:15 p.m. in the Ross Aragon Community Center.

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