The three Democrats on the county commission have found themselves at odds with local landowners, developers and businesses over what appears to be a biased and self-interested land use planning process. 

by Marjorie Haun

The La Plata County, Colorado Board of Commissioners has been embroiled in controversy in recent years. One such controversy resulted in a 2018 effort to recall the most controversial of the three-person commission, Gwen Lachelt, an environmental activists whose position has been dogged by apparent conflicts of interest. Most recently, a new centralized zoning proposal that would terminate 12 long-standing, citizen-led planning districts has left locals infuriated.

The three Democrats on the county commission have found themselves at odds with local landowners, developers and businesses over what appears to be a biased and self-interested land use planning process. 

For nearly 30 years, La Plata County has worked under a de-centralized planning model, with the county divided into 12 planning districts. Led by citizens representing certain geographical regions of the county, with each district having the opportunity to create land use plans suitable to the particular characteristics of that district, as well as the kinds of development desired by those living there. The districts, many of which have their own boards of directors and bylaws, have acted as planning advisers to the county. The planning districts were to be integral in the development of the county’s overall land use code. It appears that the current La Plata County Commission has a very different vision than the citizens of the county, and so input from the planning districts has been ignored.

In January of 2018, the citizens of La Plata County, which is dominated economically by agriculture and tourism, rejected the county’s new draft land use code (Module 1.), in part due to its potential negative impact on private property rights. Interestingly, the county spent about $180,000 on a consultant to help formulate the draft land use code, but failed to adequately consult with the citizen-led land use planning districts. The seeming unwillingness of the commission and its planning department to listen to the citizens of the county caused a backlash, and people residing in the districts began to organize, attend meetings, and push back.

With citizen-led districts turning up the heat on county officials, last June the La Plata County Planning Department started meeting with the commissioners to devise a centralized county-wide zoning plan. Citizen groups took notice, understanding that if a county-wide zoning plan was implemented, the county could then abolish the planning districts and quash citizen input. Some in La Plata County believe that the county, now fearing that the planning districts are becoming too organized and too influential, intends to do just that.

As the La Plata County Commission and Planning Department comes to loggerheads with the citizens of Durango and surrounding towns, a series of questionable actions have taken place over the last few months:

In late October of 2018 the county put out a zoning survey obviously slanted in the county’s favor.

On December 4th there was a public hearing on zoning which was attended by a large number of landowners and people from rural districts who opposed the centralized zoning plan. Instead of making a decision at that hearing, as was previously planned, on the zoning plan, the county extended the comment period.

According to some accounts, the county and its planning department has been acting in bad faith. It has been reported:

It may take up to 4 years for building and other permits to be approved.

Expensive studies are required in the permitting process, which, in some cases takes so much time, that requirements change requiring the studies to be redone.

It is reported that the county planners have made false statements to the public during district land use meetings, and that they flaunt their power over those citizens trying to get approval for certain projects.

The county has not communicated properly about their zoning meetings. There have been about five county commissioner meetings where zoning has been on the agenda.

In many cases public agenda notice has been issued just 24 hours prior to the meeting.

In several cases, the recordings of the meetings were cut off while citizens in opposition to the county plan were making comments.

Other times, the recordings were of strangely poor quality. The county claims they were experiencing technical difficulties.

In one case a person at a meeting wanted to see if the live streaming was working. Bizarrely, she found that they were streaming video from a past meeting not the current one. This person went to the county media room and found a staff person editing the video and audio.

In many cases, meeting minutes are being approved and posted up to nine months after the meeting, which violates Colorado law. For those living in rural areas who can’t attend meetings during the day,  reviewing meeting minutes is their only option.

In some cases county, memos on zoning were removed from their website.

One Land Use District Planning Board formally asked to be recognized by the county commissioners in May 2018. To date there has been no response to their request.

The county deleted a number of public comments submitted on zoning.

Against the wishes of residents, and in violation of the La Plata County Comprehensive Plan, the county planners approved a land use change that would allow for the creation of a new city within the county.

As a result of ongoing county missteps, citizens have formed a number of activist groups:

The La Plata Liberty Coalition formed (February 2018) to address controversial actions by county government. They led the effort to recall Commissioner Lachelt, and ran winning candidates for the electric co-op, La Plata Electrical Association (LPEA).

Landowners of La Plata Inc. (LOLP) was formed to develop solutions specifically related to land use issues. In partnership with Stillwater Technical Solutions (STS), LOLP produced a report called “Evaluation of County Regulatory Processes and Recommendations for Land Use Planning and Government Reform.” That report was delivered to the county commissioners on October 9, 2018. LOLP has also had several high-level meetings in Washington D.C., including one with Colorado Congressman Scott Tipton.

A new LaPlata County citizens’ group called Free Counties presented a Property Rights Resolution to the Board of County Commissioners to prevent negative impacts to private property that may result from county policies. Their website is FreeCounties.com

The STS reports takes the Commission to task on a number of points. First, the County adopted the de-centralized planning model in 1990, and reaffirmed it in 2017, thus the consideration of a centralized, county-zoning plan betrays both the citizens as well as the history of La Plata County.

The events of this issue in La Plata County are still unfolding, and the county Planning Director, Jason Meininger, submitted his resignation just last week. According to a Feb. 4 article in the Durango Herald:

Meininger has worked at La Plata County’s planning department since 2008. He was named interim planning director in June 2017 after then-director Damian Peduto took a job in Eagle County. Meininger became permanent director in October 2017.

Meininger was at the center of La Plata County’s attempt to update its land-use code, which has not been overhauled since the 1980s, to take into account rising development pressures.

The process to update the code faced fierce resistance from some county residents.

In fall 2017, the planning department released a draft version of the updated code, created mostly by an outside contractor, Texas-based Kendig Keast Collaborative.

The draft code immediately received backlash. Many residents decried certain regulations as an infringement on their property rights, pointing out limitations on outdoor storage containers and a requirement that residents obtain permits for large parties on their property.

Free Range Report will post updates on this story in coming days.


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