County, town consider building, planning merger

When future residents look back on the history of the Pagosa area, 2009 might well be viewed as a turning point, when town and county governments put aside their differences and began working in a unified fashion.

Already this year, the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) has made a commitment to support a greenhouse project with the town and has made overtures toward assisting the town in moving forward with a skate park project.

Building on a renewed spirit of cooperation, the BoCC sat down with the Pagosa Springs Town Council last Thursday in chambers at Town Hall. The purpose of the meeting was to hear a proposal for combining building and planning departments for the town and county, as well as streamlining the building and construction permitting process.

Not unprecedented, combining building and planning departments for the town and county had been proposed before — and was soundly rejected. Whether poorly conceived or politically inconvenient when the idea was brought forward back in 2007, neither town nor county officials embraced the concept, consigning it to a clamorous and swift demise.

Presenting the renewed concept to both boards, Director of County Development Rick Bellis started off by painting a picture of local construction that was neither pretty nor optimistic. “I was at the Home Builders Association (HBA) meeting on Monday,” Bellis said, “And the HBA meeting report indicated that it’s not just a decrease in the number of permits that are coming in but a decrease in the value of homes. The number of lots sold last year was down 50 percent, the number of single-family homes built was down.”

Bellis pointed to the situation in Durango, saying, “There’s more than ten years worth of unsold homes built up. What we’re seeing is, like in the 70s, a lot of land speculation.”

According to Bellis, the local situation was not served by a convoluted and often confusing permitting process.

“I’ve worked in a number of different areas around the country,” Bellis said, “I’ve never seen a process as complicated as we have here.”

In the proposal made by Bellis, combining the building and planning departments for the town and county would work in such a way that:

• Planning and building staff would be located at the Pagosa Springs Town Hall.

• The county would contribute to pay facilities costs at Town Hall.

• The county would commit revenues for the joint department from oil and gas permitting fees.

• The department would seek an intergovernmental agreement with local home owner’s associations for inclusion in the permitting process.

• The county would hire an associate planner, at its own expense, and would be willing to transfer the Director of County Development to oversee the joint department.

• The county would fulfill the role of contract planner for the town, saving the town the trouble and expense of filling that position.

Furthermore, in order to facilitate streamlining the permitting process, Bellis said that the county, “ ... will be willing to amend town and county codes to line up,” although, he said, both codes were close enough and it would not require much effort to complete that part of the project.

Following Bellis’ presentation, members of both boards weighed in with views that ranged from enthusiastic support to cautious skepticism.

Asked by SUN staff about council’s level of support for the idea, member Shari Pierce replied, “I’m concerned with not knowing all the details,” adding, “my biggest concern is that we have a very high functioning planning department and I’m afraid to lose that.”

Council member Darrel Cotton echoed Pierce’s restrained support, saying, “I’ve been accused of being closed-minded on this, but I want to see the details.”

“I’m open-minded,” added council member Stan Holt, “and I’m not going to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay.’ In theory, nobody can argue with it. There’s some problems out there that we’ve got to solve. I want to see some solutions before I put my approval on it.”

Although town staff did not expressly support the idea, the representative members of the town planning and building departments did agree that the idea was not without merit.

“If you’re consistent and people know that,” said town building official Scott Pierce, regarding the plan to align town and county building codes, “that’s half the battle.”

“It certainly would increase efficiency and consistency,” agreed town senior planner Joe Nigg.

No less cautious, support from the BoCC did appear more optimistic.

“I’ve never been a politician before, I was always a businessman,” said commissioner John Ranson. “And a lot of good business deals are written out on a napkin. One thing I noticed during my campaign is people want everyone working well together. This, to me, is a napkin, so please be patient.”

After commissioner Bob Moomaw appointed commissioner Clifford Lucero, Bellis, and County Administrator Greg Schulte to a subcommittee for working out the details of the proposal, and mayor Ross Aragon appointed Cotton, Holt, Nigg, and Scott Pierce to the same subcommittee, Bellis assured both boards that, “All the details can be worked out within one or two meetings, with one or two hours for each meeting, we can get this done.”

The subcommittee plans to present its first report to both boards at the next joint work session, scheduled to convene in the commissioner’s meeting room at the county courthouse, Wednesday, Feb. 4 at 8 a.m., and will present its final report for another joint work session on Thursday, Feb. 19 (location to be determined).

With assurances by Bellis and the subcommittee to hammer out terms agreeable to both the town and county, the prospect of the joint venture was received with enthusiasm by several residents in attendance at the meeting.

Expressing the general tenor of the audience’s response, local contractor Mary Hart said, “This is really exciting and feels very positive. If you go into it with an attitude that you can work it out, you’ll work it out. I’d like to see you go through with this. It seems pro-business, which is pro-community.”

Whether 2009 is viewed as the year the county and town came together to work toward the common good remains to be seen. However, that general view could be determined by the success of the subcommittee and both boards in accomplishing the task of combing planning and building departments.

Despite some skepticism and numerous details to flesh through, Aragon spoke to what could be the lynchpin of the project and the future of the area: “My commitment is to try and work with the county commissioners.”

jim@pagosasun.com