The lay of the land
Updated county land use code aims to take guesswork out of development

The lay of the land

The Animas Valley is one of La Plata County's 12 distinct districts. The plan for this district north of Durango was actually codified and incorporated into the county's official land use code. This makes it the only district plan with regulatory backing. All the others are considered advisory and serve only as guidelines when it comes to land use and planning decisions./Photo by Jennaye Derge

Tracy Chamberlin - 12/07/2017

The biggest change is zoning. Under La Plata County’s old land use code, the only thing a property was zoned for – or a property owner was allowed to build – was one single-family home. Anything else, whether it was commercial or residential, needed to be requested through an application process. Once the application was submitted, county officials would decide if the project and the zoning request was feasible.

La Plata County was one of only four counties in the state to do things this way. Megan Graham, public affairs officer for the county, described it as performance-based and very onerous. But, that is all about to change.

“The idea is to create a lot more certainty,” she said.

The first part of La Plata County’s updated land use code was released last week for public review. This section, also called a module, creates zoning districts, design standards and more. And, although it does detail zoning – what the designations are and which areas fall under each – it does not include a map. County Planning Director Jason Meininger said that won’t happen until the end of the process, which is expected to be next fall.

He explained the one thing residents would notice immediately is the format of the draft code. It’s very different from the county’s old one, which was last updated in the 1990s. It is, however, similar to other communities across Colorado and expected to be more efficient and cost effective.

The updating process began in October 2016 with some stakeholder meetings and surveys. Meininger said the biggest take away from that initial outreach was residents wanted certainty. Not only about their land, but the lands around them.

“People want to know what they can do,” he said. “And, what their neighbor can do.”

This updated code, he explained, responds to residents and gives them that certainty. “I’m actually really excited,” he added.

Besides creating certainty for those involved, the new code will create more consistency throughout La Plata County. Instead of scattered development, Meininger said, similar projects, businesses and communities would be able to consolidate efforts.

He thinks the zoning and code clarifications would also lead to more development. When a business or developer

knows where and what they would be able to build, they can plan ahead. “It becomes less of an odds game,” he added.

Another key point in the updated code is projects that have been pre-approved, completed or just started under the old code will be grandfathered in – even if the project is not consistent with the updated zoning designation.

Meininger said, however, it’s unlikely a pre-approved or existing project would be in a different zone because those projects and developments actually influence zoning designations. One of the key factors guiding zoning decisions, for example, is infrastructure. If the water, sewer and electric is in place for construction on a pre-approved project, it’s likely to encourage similar development in that area. Therefore, it’s likely to have a similar designation.

The other key factors guiding zoning decisions are the La Plata County Comprehensive Plan, which was officially completed this summer after years of controversy, and the county’s 12 District Plans, which county officials will be updating over the next two-plus years.

Although the district plans won’t be complete until after the land use code, Meininger said the two documents are unlikely to conflict. Not only are both guided by the Comp Plan, they’re both flexible and set up to adapt.

“Zoning and regulation are always changing,” he explained. “Today’s zoning is not the same as it will be in a couple years ... because our community is changing and growing.”

It turns out, zoning and regulation won’t be the only things changing. The other big change is in the way 

county officials will get feedback on the draft code.

Residents can get involved in all the typical ways – by attending public meetings, of which there are two in the coming week, sending emails or calling county officials. What they can also do now is comment directly on the document itself.

Meininger said it’s often difficult to take public comment on lengthy, regulatory documents like the land use code. People typically need to spell out which page or section they’re referring to, sometimes even copying it in their letter or email. Then, county staff has to reconcile those suggestions.

This new tool, which is available on the county’s website, changes all that. For the first time, residents can type suggestions or comments directly into each section of the draft code. Meininger said he could even pull up the code and see each comment.

In just the first four days of having this option on the county’s website, they’d already received eight comments. And there is still plenty of time to review the first part of the code. Public input will be accepted thru Jan. 12.

County officials don’t just want general comments about the code, though, they’re looking for specific suggestions for how to improve it. “We really want people to dive into this,” Graham said.

The draft code will be presented to the public in three stages, or modules. This first one covers general land use. The next one will focus on procedures and process, and the third on development standards. The second and third modules are expected to be released in the coming year.