Dear Editor:

In Archuleta County and Pagosa Springs, we have two kinds of signs at each entrance to our community. We have the official signs, built and installed to welcome visitors and show our pride, like the great new signs commissioned by the TTC. And right across the road, we have the unofficial “signs,” in the form of random piles and collections of junk described in last week’s editorial.

The unofficial signs outnumber the official by three to one. Both signs tell people something important about our community. One sign says, “It is safe to stop here and have fun, Welcome!” and the other says “Don’t Like It? … Keep Driving.”

Especially for those who live here, getting those two opposing messages at the same time is very familiar. We are a community in a struggle between our past and our future. Our outward appearance simply reflects our internal struggle.

The above not withstanding, the county is actually very active in getting people to clean up problem properties. The job of the county is to first, “provide for the health, safety, and welfare” of the citizens. By that standard, non-toxic junk fits under the very squishy word “welfare.” If the people want, as many have said they do, government to regulate beyond “health and safety,” and enforce aesthetic values, we need to be extraordinarily careful. Yes, we do have “junk ordinances,” but we need to be uncharacteristically careful in their enforcement, with special attention to adequate due process. This is people’s property rights we are dealing with.

Before one concludes that the county is “spineless” or lacks the commitment to clean up the eyesore properties in our midst, here is the process in a nutshell, and the facts about the county’s efforts:

The process: A problem property is brought to the attention of John Ruyle, county building official. John inspects the property for potential violations, and reports to County Attorney Todd Starr, and they review the case. If warranted, the County Attorney’s Office identifies, contacts and cites (in writing) the owner of the property, many of whom are not residents. The owner is given a reasonable time to respond, and begin cleanup. If they don’t respond or do the cleanup, legal steps are taken, and the process of compelling the owner to comply goes forward.

The facts: Each case can take up to two years to “close,” when clean up is complete. The county uses 3.5 FTEs (full-time equivalents) over many hours to run each case through the process, at no small cost to the taxpayers. The process has a lot of time built into it, to accommodate due process, help landowners to success in cleaning up, and maximize the short summer “clean up season.”

I cannot speak for the town, but the county currently has 16 open cases in the process, with seven in pre-litigation and nine in litigation. We have closed (cleaned up) 16 problem properties since 2009.

Michael Whiting

This story was posted on May 30, 2013.