By Chris Mannara
A discussion on development within the Town of Pagosa Springs and ways to improve the process was a topic of discussion during a strategic planning work session on July 31.
During the work session, survey responses were presented to the Pagosa Springs Town Council with one question in particular being addressed first, pertaining to whether or not the town is development friendly.
According to meeting moderator Yvonne Wilcox, four survey respondents responded yes to that question, three responded no and two were “so-so.”
“I think we need to stay true to our development code,” Wilcox said, reading a survey response. “But we also need to support interesting business ideas. One complaint heard frequently is that you have to spend a lot of time and money before you know if your project will be approved.”
Staff should encourage early discussion with developers and decision makers to avoid some of those issues, Wilcox read.
“I’ve heard similar things from other people and I can only imagine, especially smaller projects, where you’re just trying to figure it out and you’re dumping more money into something you’re not really sure is going to fly would be incredibly frustrating and risky,” town council member Mat deGraaf said.
Town Manager Andrea Phillips added that the town’s Land Use and Development Code (LUDC) should be streamlined and simplified so more people can read it and understand it.
“I think personal communication is really important,” council member Nicole DeMarco said.
Communication is important for local businesses, but some might want special treatment or think that some things do not apply to them, Phillips noted.
Issues do come up when businesses don’t want various codes enforced on their establishment, leading to calls being made to the town expecting something to be done differently that would not apply to other businesses, Phillips added.
“If business support means that it changes how we enforce our code, I think we need to really think about that,” she said.
Another survey response agreed that the town is not development friendly and that the town needs to switch its mindset from “What can we get?” to “How can we help?”
Streamlining the LUDC, hearing what developers are requesting and seeing what other communities are offering to developers that come in and offer something new to a town were also part of that response.
“I think updating the land use code would be huge; also for the council to be very clear in the direction it wants to go so that staff can feel more comfortable helping with initial discussions with developers,” Wilcox read.
One survey response suggested finding a balance between simplifying the LUDC and maintaining safety in the community’s building code, according to Wilcox.
“Regulations in and of themselves can be confusing, especially when we live in a society where exploration of loopholes is encouraged,” deGraaf said.
By simplifying the LUDC, the town can take care of some of the problems that are confusing developers, council member Shari Pierce explained.
“I don’t even know if I like having wiggle room. Maybe having parameters between this and this, but I think if you’re going to have a code, you’re going to say this is what it needs to be,” Pierce said. “If you call it wiggle room, that’s where we get into trouble with interpretation.”
Going through the development process and the town is easy in the beginning, but eventually it feels like “you’re being used by the town as their personal piggy bank to get items done as they see fit,” council member Rory Burnett explained, citing his experiences.
“We need to come in as strategic partners and that’s one thing I’ve heard from several developers, that it hasn’t felt like the town is partnering in a lot of ways,” Burnett said.
Sometimes it feels like the town is relying on developers to solve its problems, council member Madeline Bergon added.
Burnett also added later in the meeting that, through conversations with developers, that council should not allow “naysayers that come through in public meetings” or “the loudest voices in the room to dictate away from a comprehensive goal.”
By sticking with the town’s comprehensive plan and goals, it will create confidence in leadership from developers, Burnett noted.
“There has been some uncertainty and inconsistency that has happened over the years,” Burnett said. “We’ve seen developers come and go and do nothing, and there is a very strong reason and reality to that. I think a very easy goal is to make the comprehensive plan goals our top priority.”
Another factor to consider is not just the town’s role with enforcing the LUDC, but the town’s various advisory boards, as well, Phillips noted.
The boards play an important role, along with staff, in enforcing the LUDC, she added.
Wilcox later raised the question on whether or not, based on survey responses, costly fees were a reason why the town was not development friendly.
deGraaf highlighted that the fact that impact fees are gone now is a big step toward those costs being lowered.
Another possible factor leading people to believe the town is not development friendly, based on survey responses, could be because of “poor staff customer service or interaction,” Wilcox explained.
“I don’t think we have a poor staff. I’ve never experienced poor customer service at the town,” deGraaf said, adding that it could be tied into people not liking regulations.
Some projects can be complicated, but the town should be able to clearly explain the process and expectations to developers, Phillips explained later.
“If we’re using people’s developments to try and leverage too much, and it’s causing things to not move forward, we might want to take a look at that,” Phillips said.
Getting an easement for a trail is one thing, but requiring people to build other things that aren’t related to that trail could be out of line, Phillips added.
“Developers are not magicians,” Burnett said. “If this was just an easy game you could make a ton of money at, everyone would be doing it.”
Survey responses also addressed the amount and type of development within the town, Wilcox noted.
Some responses encouraged the town to do more infill and mixed-use areas to encourage neighborhoods, Wilcox explained.
Other comments highlight respecting the historic portions of downtown Pagosa Springs as well as protecting businesses.
“We want to try and have an open mind,” Phillips said in a follow-up interview on Aug. 11 in regard to the town and development, noting that the town might do a survey of the development community.
The town as a whole wants to have better communication with the development industry and have a clear and concise process for those who want to submit or proceed with development applications, Phillips explained.
“It shouldn’t be a mystery as to what people need to do if they want to develop their property,” she said.
Phillips again highlighted the process of rewriting the town’s LUDC and noted the town is in the process of writing a request for proposals for a consultant to help with the job.
“The land use code is really important because it sets that vision for how we want to develop as a community and it should be tied into the comprehensive plan that we’ve adopted plus our other master plan,” she said. “It’s really important that it be clear and easy to understand for people who are wanting to make changes on their property.”
The town wants to be consistent with its comprehensive plan goals, Phillips reiterated.
“Our advisory boards are important, as well. Just making sure that our advisory boards understand the goals of the comprehensive plan and town council’s goals and initiatives and that they are making sure that when developments are coming forward that they are reviewing those in light of those goals and also with the Land Use and Development Code,” she said.