Land use map controversy continues

The Archuleta County Planning Commission will vote whether to amend the Future Land Use map in the county’s community plan with data gathered from the controversial Urban Services Area (USA) mapping project, during a public hearing at 6 p.m. Dec. 3 in the Extension Building at the fairgrounds.

The event marks one of the last opportunities for public comment before the map — if approved — officially amends the 2001 Community Plan.

If the planning commission approves the updated Future Land Use Map as a Community Plan amendment, it will then go before the board of county commissioners Dec. 9 for ratification. The commissioners will take public comment again at that time.

According to the county documents, the map identifies likely areas up to three miles beyond town boundaries where planned unit developments, or other types of developments, could occur — called “Tier 1” areas on the map.

Tier 1 areas are inside the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District Boundary, have access to major transportation routes, and contain parcel sizes (typically larger than 20 acres) appropriate for larger developments. Staff also reviewed whether the land in Tier 1 areas was within a platted subdivision.

In addition to marking certain areas as Tier 1, the map also identifies areas of likely future development — called “Tier 2” areas.

Tier 2 areas include parcels that may not be readily available for development, either because they are not included in the water district or lie beyond parcels that are likely to be developed first. Tier 2 parcels, should the water district lift their moratorium on inclusions, could become likely candidates for “intensified development” according to county documents.

And therein lies the problem.

The words “intensified development” are found throughout earlier iterations of USA project documents and the words, as far as public perception is concerned, have been inextricably linked to assumptions that high density development would occur on Tier 1 and Tier 2 parcels, although the documents do not define “intensified development” in terms of density.

To compound many citizens’ fears, the process resulted in a parcel-specific map depicting a countywide checkerboard of blue and red squares — red for Tier 1, blue for Tier 2 — and many feared the map paved the way for high density project approvals on parcels adjacent to their properties and in areas of lower density residential.

(The map ultimately approved during the Nov. 12 planning commission meeting, deviated from the parcel-specific approach and instead shows shades of yellow for Tier 1 and Tier 2 superimposed on the existing future land use map.)

As a case in point, the map immediately drew the ire of a group of citizens living on Piedra Road, who view the map and the process as a surreptitious move by TreeTops developers to gain back door approval for their project.

The TreeTops parcel is located about 3.5 miles up Piedra Road.

According to the parcel’s current zoning and the Future Land Use Map, high density development with a commercial component could not occur on the TreeTops parcel. However, a number of Piedra Road residents have argued TreeTops’ circumstances would change with an amended Future Land Use Map that depicts the potential for higher density development. In short, they say an amended map would pave the way for TreeTops or other development projects that are incongruent with surrounding land use and would negatively impact wildlife, quality of life and Piedra Road.

Planning staff have vehemently challenged the assertion.

“TreeTops is not driving this process,” said county planner Cindy Schultz. “It’s (the USA map) not guaranteeing any kind of density. It’s not paving the way for any project. It’s not arbitrary. It is well thought out and objective.

Schultz explained that a lull in development proposals has given planning staff and planning commissioners time to examine parts of the community plan that might be tweaked, as a stop gap measure to a full blown plan rewrite. (A full Community Plan update was identified as a priority months ago, although staff and financial shortages have prohibited launch of the project.) And Schultz said the timing is right to reexamine certain parts of the community plan.

“During a development lull is the best time to do planning. If you wait until the pressure is on, the developer gets to decide. Right now, we get to decide where and how development occurs,” Schultz said.

The move to inch the map one step closer to official inclusion in the community plan comes after a unanimous planning commission vote Nov. 12, months of work sessions and a recent series of staccato public education and comment meetings, the pace of which, many citizens have said has left them struggling to keep up.

Archuleta County Planning Commissioner Lesli Allison attempted to alleviate some citizens concerns. “This is not about intensified development. It’s (the USA map) a tool for us to have a discussion with developers,” Allison said.

But one in the audience remained particularly unconvinced. Addressing the commission, William Darling attempted to crystallize the bulk of public concern with a multi-page letter to the planning commission and accompanying oratory.

In his statement, Darling argued how the project and process has failed on numerous points — including insufficient public notice, incomplete documentation, erroneous definitions and criteria and the project’s failure to address quality of life issues.

“The USA Map process is a flawed process and a flawed document. Since staff has not published the proper notices, the Commission cannot act on the USA Map at this time. If the Commission ultimately votes on the USA Map, it should reject it unless both the process and the USA Map are corrected or unless a one or two mile limit is adopted which would correct most of the mistake in the criteria and in the USA Map,” Darling writes.

With a unanimous commissioner vote to move the USA map forward, Darling and other concerned citizens will have an opportunity to make their case again Dec. 3.

In the meantime, planning staff has assured citizens and the press that information will be readily available both in hard copy and on the county Web site in a timely fashion.

Schultz said Internet surfers can find links for the USA map and narrative on the county’s home page at www.archuletacounty.org.

james@pagosasun.com