Tuesday night’s meeting of the town’s design review commission began at 5:15 p.m. and didn’t end until after 10, with only one five-minute break. It was hot, crowded and the seats were uncomfortable, but people were riveted to those seats and, at times, those making comments became quite emotional.
Those emotions are bound to persist, since the commission voted 3-1 to approve Wal-Mart’s design review application — a move that effectively clears the way for the company to move forward with plans to build a store in Pagosa Springs.
“Before I make this motion, let me just say that this is, in a way, difficult,” said commission member Natalie Woodruff, “and, in a way, it’s not. We have the code to go by, and there may be several interpretations, and we may be taking it differently than some people do. I understand that.”
She finished by saying, “Don’t think that these decisions are taken lightly. I just wanted you to know that it’s not an easy decision when you know there are people involved, but it is kind of an easy decision because it is laid out for us here in the code.”
With that, she moved to approve resolution 2012-12, approving the applicant’s major design review application as presented.
Board member Cameron Parker, participating in the meeting from out of town via Skype, seconded the motion, but before putting it to a vote by the commission, Chair Kathie Lattin asked if there were any last-minute comments.
“I’m disappointed that we’re not continuing this review process with a few stipulations,” said commission member Cappy White, “... the lighting, the traffic study and the neighborhood meeting. First and foremost, I think it is a big mistake not to have it. I guess we can still encourage Wal-Mart, strongly, to have that neighborhood meeting and a real dialog with the people in that neighborhood.”
White was referring to an item on the town’s list of issues that needed to be addressed for the review, namely a neighborhood meeting. This was by far the hottest topic of the night and prompted the most responses, and the most emotional responses, from the public.
The controversy stems from a section in the Land Use Development Code, which states, “A neighborhood meeting is recommended, but not mandatory.”
Wal-Mart representative Carl Schmidtlein contended that, even though it is not a requirement, the company did, in fact, comply with the recommendation by conducting meetings on Feb. 16 and March 8, and collecting comment cards.
“When I made the recommendation at our last meeting to consider this issue,” White responded, “I was totally aware that you had conducted two meetings already, but I don’t think they got to the heart of what the code is talking about when they talk about a neighborhood meeting. I think what the code means is it encourages a dialog with the neighbors who are affected ... it’s so important in a community like this to take these people’s input, and listen and understand their concerns, and respond to them right there. That, to me, is a conversation. I’m insulted that, after having made that request at the last meeting, nothing else further was done.”
Lattin explained that, while the commission had a duty to listen to and consider the views of the public, it was legally bound to follow the LUDC, and White responded, “I want to make clear that these are not solely my personal feelings. I’m getting the sense that they are the feelings of the community.”
“I feel that Wal-Mart has done a good job of listening to us,” Parker chimed in from his computer screen, “and to public comment to a certain degree, by the changes they have made in their plans as this process has continued to go down the road.” He added, “I think that there has been that dialogue, and I think it has been a fair process.”
“This is our first go-around, as a community, with a project of this size,” Woodruff commented, “so there are going to be things that we find in our code and in our procedures that probably do need to be revamped ... we cannot punish the applicant just because they bring this to the forefront.”
Once the issue was opened to public comment, 11 people stood up, and almost all used the time they were allowed.
There were comments from those opposing Wal-Mart, including Muriel Eason, Vivian Rader (who accused Wal-Mart’s Josh Phair of being rude) and Lvonne Wilson, who said, “Sometimes we are being allowed to speak, but I don’t know that we are actually being heard.”
Bruce Bailey gave an impassioned speech about being within a stone’s throw of the proposed site, inviting Schmidtlein to his house to sit on his deck, have a beer and look at what he would be losing if Wal-Mart built their store.
There were several people who welcomed Wal-Mart to the community, including Courtney Phelps and Jerry Pope, who said he would rather have a nice Wal-Mart store than to have six stores like Family Dollar.
“I don’t understand why the city doesn’t really fast-track Wal-Mart more,” said Jeff Oliver. “If you look at the recent data, in the 2000 census the average income in Pagosa was $54,000, but in the last one it was $37,000. Pagosa is also down in population and down in growth. I have teenage kids who really have to leave because there’s nowhere to work.”
There were no more public comments once the final decision was made to approve the design application.
“The applicant still has a lot of work to do,” said Town Planner James Dickhoff. “I anticipate they still have four months worth of work to do before submitting an application for a building permit.”
According to the final resolution, “Design plans submitted at the time of building permit application shall be consistent with the design plans dated August 13, 2012 and required amendments to the design plan, and additionally must evidence the following.”
It listed nine items concerning details of the building and parking lot design that must be addressed before the company can apply for a building permit — from how Wal-Mart will keep the front sidewalk clear of snow to the screening wall in the back of the property.
Once Wal-Mart applies for a permit, Dickhoff said it will be at least a month before he can issue one. The town will need to request a third party review. “We are just too small to handle a project of this size.”
The applicant will also need to comply with such non-design issues as obtaining permits from the Army Corps of Engineers for wetland mitigation and the Colorado Department of Transportation concerning traffic backing up onto U.S. 160.
Tuesday night’s decision by the planning commission does not need to be reviewed further by the town council. At this point in the permitting process, “the design review board is the final authority,” said Dickhoff.