OURAY COUNTY – At a public hearing continuation last week, the Ouray Board of County Commissioners unanimously voted not to approve proposed revisions to Visual Impact Regulations in Ouray County’s Land Use Code, Section 9 as they have been presented by the Ouray County Planning Commission.
Rather, the commissioners committed themselves to “fixing many perceived problems” with the draft revisions, eventually incorporating at least some of them into the existing code.
The decision came at the end of over two hours of deliberation at the 4-H Event Center in Ridgway on Wednesday evening, Nov. 6, during which commissioners grilled the County Land Use Department and county attorney about how enforcing the proposed revisions would impact staff, and the county’s bottom line.
Batchelder expressed particular concern about the issue of code compliance, and how many staff hours and county dollars it could take to deal with growing numbers of potential code violations under the new regs. “Will staff be able to respond to a complaint in a timely and reasonable manner?” he wondered.
County Land Use Administrator Mark Castrodale acknowledged that in some cases, they would not. “Land Use Applications take priority over anything else,” he said. “Anything else will get shoved to the bottom of the list; code complaints are a very low priority. Could we respond to them in a timely way? Probably not.”
The commissioners then rolled up their sleeves to discuss and analyze the volumes of written and oral comments that the proposed revisions have garnered from county residents over the past several months.
Commissioners Don Batchelder and Lynn Padgett both praised the process that the Ouray County Planning Commission went through in crafting the proposed revisions, as well as the quality of public input that came on its heels during three long evenings of public testimony when the public hearing opened in August.
“There are so many valid pros and cons to the proposed code,” Padgett observed. “I am not prepared to make a motion, and probably unlikely to second one or vote in favor of the Planning Commission’s proposal, as written.”
Padgett returned to the roots of the issue, stating that when the VIR process got underway in 2009, “there were some staff perceptions that there were problems with the current code. It was not uniformly applied, and it had a complicated and ineffective point system. I would like to explore if there are places in this proposal where there is merit for achieving a fix for any of those issues, or places for minor or major revisions.”
Commissioner Mike Fedel expressed concern about the “20 percent allowance” piece of the draft revision, a one-time “get out of jail free” card of sorts, for property owners wishing to remodel noncompliant structures in a way that would expand the degree of nonconformity. He wondered how the allowance differed from the county’s variance procedure, asking, “Where does this fall in the land use universe?”
County Attorney Marti Whitmore agreed that there was concern on her part about the allowance too, particularly what mechanism staff would be able to use to track the one-time allowance. “The problem will arise in the administration of it, ensuring it is not inconsistently applied,” she said.
Batchelder raised another potential problem with the draft revision, related to the exemption of agricultural and mining structures from VIR regs. “What if someone decides to store a canoe in their barn; the barn is no longer exclusively used for ag purposes, and someone complains. What is the county going to do?
“Come to you for direction,” Castrodale replied, pointing out that the same potential problem exists within the current code.
Discussion continued along this vein, probing potential problems with the draft revision ranging from whether a fence should be considered a structure; to the vexing issues of skyline breakage and building on benches, ridges and escarpments; to the problem of enhanced setback requirements as applied to the county’s older subdivisions.
In the end, the commissioners all concurred that they would not be willing or able to adopt the proposed revisions as presented.
However, Batchelder stressed, “I recognize that the majority of the people support some sort of protection for visual impact. Visual impact has broad support in the county; obviously, anomalies in the code point out issues that need to be worked on. I would like to figure out a way to go about working on those issues to the degree they are correctable, and look at the situation again.
“I honestly believe we need to correct the base deficiencies before we can do anything else. Otherwise, we will be seeing way too much of these guys,” he concluded, nodding toward the members of the Land Use Department seated at a table across the room.
“There are some solutions that are within reach, and to do what is right for the collective good of the county, we should get this to work,” Padgett agreed. “There is room for a solution-oriented compromise.”
“I think what I am hearing is that you want to revamp what we have right now,” Commission Chair Mike Fedel said. “We want to salvage some pieces. Is that accurate?”
Batchelder and Padgett agreed, but did not specify which pieces they wished to salvage.
“There are some very good pieces in there,” Batchelder said. He then took a moment to address members of the Ouray County Planning Commission who were in the audience. “You were put in a very difficult situation. You guys did exactly what you were asked to do and did it well. Yet you have been treated like sacrificial lambs in the community, and for that I apologize.”
“I am glad we are taking on a big topic,” Padgett added. “Big topics tend to be somewhat controversial, and we all play a part in how it becomes controversial or divisive. We can have ranges of opinions without being personal or angry about it.”
The commissioners agreed to revisit the matter at an as-yet-to-be-determined date in early 2014.
Planning Commission Chair Ken Lipton said he was pleased with the outcome. “The commissioners did their homework, and they had some perceptive comments,” he said, adding that many of the trouble spots in the draft document could have been more efficiently ironed out if the process had allowed for a joint work session between the Planning Commission and BOCC before the BOCC initiated the public hearing process that has so bitterly divided the community.
“There are so many complicated issues; sometimes when compromises are made, the outcome is not perfect,” he said.
The Section 9 revision was mandated in November 2010, when the BOCC issuing a resolution directing the county planning commission to review and consider proposed revisions to Section 9 of the county’s Land Use Code that deal specifically with visual impact regulations.
The resolution called on the planning commission to analyze 12 items set forth by the BOCC, from evaluating the current point system for developers, to revisiting setbacks and remodels and the treatment of historically accurate buildings, to designating more county roads as visual impact corridors.
The county planning commission chipped away at this task for two and a half years, finally releasing a draft document spelling out proposed amendments to Section 9 in early 2013.
The draft document has been a lightning rod for criticism from those in the community who feel the county’s Visual Impact Regs should not be modified or expanded.
Last Wednesday’s deliberation was attended by a subdued audience of approximately 50 people, and marked the conclusion of the lengthy, often emotional public hearing that began in August. But there was no period at the end of the sentence. Rather, the hearing closed with an ellipsis ... to be continued.
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