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Town, county, districts hold joint work session

A joint work session held last Thursday, involving the town of Pagosa Springs, Archuleta County, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) and the Pagosa Fire Protection District (PFPD), revealed several things: economic development in the area remains moribund; immediate development in the area is scanty; and plans for future development appear bogged down in uncertainty and lack of communication between governing bodies — a situation, all agreed, that does nothing to ameliorate the situation.

The biennial meeting began with the PFPD calling for a need for infrastructure and water for firefighting, the implication being that recent developments had outstripped the PFPD’s ability to adhere to International Fire Code (IFC) stipulations (e.g. a structure being within 60 feet from a working fire hydrant). Therein, the tone was set for the meeting.

“International code allows code to be softened,” said Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem, “to be softened in rural and small communities. This matter cannot hold up development.”

At issue were two proposed renovations delayed by the PFPD for more than three months, due to nonadherence to IFC mandates.

“Sometimes,” Mitchem continued, “you have to take tankers in there, pump trucks,” adding, “we need to figure out a solution, among all of us. We may need a general policy that will take some time. The incentives the town and county have put in place are for nothing if we can’t resolve these issues.”

Mitchem was referring to the seemingly entrenched position by the PFPD to adhere to IFC regulations. Mitchem did not refer to the fact that he, and the town, had asked the PFPD to waive impact fees as part of economic development incentives, without direction to the district, or mention of how the PFPD would address IFC mandates with fee waivers.

“Obviously,” said Director of County Development Rick Bellis, “there is a need for coordinated development.”

Bellis raised an important point: In the town and county’s determination to build a way out of economic doldrums (despite indications the area had been overbuilt to begin with), a lack of coordination between governments and districts had created a patchwork of potential redundancy.

PAWSD Manager Carrie Weiss reiterated that position, saying, “Our concern is with the development process, with the town and the county.”

Recent proposals for development (e.g. Tree Tops and Dutton Creek Ranch) have been pushed through the initial planning processes with some alleging various districts have not been fully consulted regarding infrastructure capacity.

Answering the concerns of PAWSD, Bellis conceded that the concern went both ways. “Developers are concerned because of the turnover in the town and the county,” he said, referring to the resignation of several key players in high-level administrative positions, and to how those resignations would affect the time involved in processing development plans. Appearing to seek a silver lining, Bellis added, “I applaud the town with how it dealt with vesting.”

Bellis was referring to the precedent, set in 2008 by town council, regarding so-called vested rights, allowing BootJack Management five years to move on development of downtown properties over the three years mandated by policy. The town later granted 20-year vested rights for the proposed Blue Sky Village and Reservoir River Ranch developments, stipulating performance benchmarks in return for an agreement to gradually provide infrastructure. Applauding vesting, Bellis was implying that, if town and county government couldn’t provide continuity for developers, vested rights could.

Seeming to reinforce Bellis’s point regarding the rationale behind the drawn-out vesting process, PAWSD Project Manager Gregg Mayo said, “We’ve been working with Rick over a Piedra corridor development plan.”

Mayo was referring to a plan by which PAWSD would provide a water backbone for future developments, one that could be served by PAWSD for water and sewer without overbuilding infrastructure. According to Mayo, the water and sewer mains providing the backbone could be “sleeved” as required by development (according to Mayo, overbuilding on the front end creates maintenance on the back end) with minimum interruption to traffic and almost no need for road reconstruction. Bellis reiterated the basics of the plan.

It was at that point the tenor of the meeting appeared to change, with a spirit of cooperation and progress evident.

PAWSD reported that the decommissioning of the Highlands Lagoon (secured as a result of $9.3 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – ARRA – funding) would not only give one-third of the work to a local contractor Hart Construction, but could provide leftover equipment from the decommissioned lagoon to the town for its attempt to retrofit its wastewater system — potentially saving the town tens of thousands of dollars.

Mitchem said he’d run the idea past the Pagosa Springs Sanitation District manager and, riding the glimpse of sunshine, added that the town and county had entered into a Council of Governments (COG) agreement with other Four Corners counties to secure a half-million dollars in fiber-optic, high-speed Internet connection (part of ARRA rural broadband funding). The potential, he said, would be to turn Pagosa Springs into “one giant hot spot” for Internet connectivity.

“This is news to us,” said Weiss. “Does the grant include all government entities? Who is included in this COG”

Mitchem said that, with matching funds, a government entity could probably be tied into the system, although he was not certain what was required for COG inclusion.

“Five thousand? Ten thousand? This is the first time I’ve hear about this. I want to know how we can get in on this,” Weiss said.

Mitchem said he’d apprise PAWSD of the grant, COG membership and the conditions for getting connected on the initial fiber optic network.

In the meantime, economic development, despite the best efforts of local government, continues in a downturn. Fingers continue to point in all directions regarding blame for that condition. Future development remains uncertain due to the transient nature of local government but, most importantly, the lack of communication between various government entities continues to cause those fingers to point — usually, in the wrong direction, for the wrong reasons.

jim@pagosasun.com