Candidacy: District 3 Ouray County Commissioner, Unaffiliated
Education: B.A. Political Science, minor in Public Administration, San Diego State University, 1975
Occupation: Executive Director, Trust for Land Restoration
Family: Wife, Deb; two children; lives in Ridgway
Government Experience: Currently serving as interim-replacement commissioner on the Ouray County Board of Commissioners; Mayor of the Town of Ridgway, 2000-2012; Ridgway Planning Commission, 1999-2012; Ouray County Fairgrounds Advisory Board, 2008-2012
Pat Willits has followed an unconventional route on his quest to become a Ouray County Commissioner. After announcing his run for the Board of Ouray County Commissioners earlier this year, he stepped down from a dozen years’ service as Mayor of Ridgway, and began the business of going out into the community and meeting with people to talk about the big, messy issues of the day.
The unusual part happened when former Commissioner Heidi Albritton resigned in August, and Willits was appointed by Gov. Hickenlooper to become her interim replacement. Suddenly, he had a view from the inside out.
When he sat down for this interview, he had been on the job for about three weeks.
“It’s totally fascinating and engrossing,” Willits said. “When you get inside, what you realize is that 95 percent of what the county does is perfunctory administrative work and management, and not at all controversial. A lot of it is attention to detail. The small percentage of issues that are high-profile take an inordinate amount of time and energy.”
One of those high-profile issues is, of course, land use regulations. Willits learned through his lengthy term as Mayor of Ridgway that land-use and planning issues tend to get people pretty heated in a hurry.
“People have a deep-seated feeling about what the proper role of government is, as it relates to land use,” he reflected. “One of the reasons I wanted to run for the BOCC is because, at the town level, we got to a place where it felt like there was a lot of communication and collaboration, and people and decisions felt like they were well vetted before they were made.”
He worries about how “this whole Section 9 thing” pertaining to revising the county’s Visual Impact Regulations is dividing the county.
“It’s hugely on my mind,” he said.
If elected to the position on the BOCC that he is currently filling in an interim capacity, the issue will most likely come to a head on his watch. “The county commissioners will have to shut out the noise and shut out the emotion and try to fashion a decision that makes sense and seems reasonable,” he said. “Whatever is finally agreed upon will have to be something the county staff can administer fairly and evenly.”
Willits believes that there is “absolutely” a role for government in creating land use regulations.
“The existing visual impact regulations have all been pretty successful in helping us have a pretty nice county, with the rural character we all seek and prize,” he said. “What I’ve heard from both sides in discussion on visual impact regs is that the existing regs needed to be cleaned up and made more clear.”
Another issue Willits feels strongly about is water – and its potential scarcity in the near future. “We as an entire county – governments, landowners, water users – have got to come together and do some long-range water planning,” he said.
“Some people have heard me say that, and think I’m talking about usurping someone’s water rights. That is not what we’re talking about.”
Rather, he clarified, “It’s about understanding Colorado water law and looking to see if there is a public-private partnership for water storage and augmentation that could be shared or collectively taken advantage of.”
Helming the Trust for Land Restoration has been Willits’ full-time gig for a dozen years. (His part-time gig is bartending at the Colorado Boy.) TFLR is a consulting group with a bank of 25 people who are professionals in business, mining, environmental law and consulting/engineering.Its clients most often are local governments, citizen groups, federal agencies or mining companies that need help conducting or managing environmental clean-up stemming from historic mining.
“We have mostly been involved in advising groups in how to deal with the Clean Water Act as it pertains to mine clean-up sites,” he said. He is part of a statewide working group focused on Good Samaritan issues.
His biggest project so far with TFLR has been with the Town of Rico, “where Atlantic Richfield Co. is on the hook for doing a bunch of cleanup of mine waste in and around the town,” he said. The Environmental Protection Agency was talking about listing Rico as a Superfund site. The town and the mining company approached TFLR to see if there might be an alternative solution.
“It’s been really interesting work,” Willits said. “There are a lot of complex issues to cleaning up the mine waste in the town. It’s a world I work in every day.”
As such, he has a unique take on the current mining activity in Ouray, which he describes as “an interesting buzz with interesting economic implications.”
“The truth is, mining is a dirty business, but a necessary one,” he said. “I feel that in Ouray, mining is part of the psychology of the town. One of my strengths as county commissioner is that I have worked close to that world for a dozen years; it helps me see a variety of perspectives.”
While he embraces the potentially positive economic implications of a mining comeback in Ouray, he stresses the need to balance that with the needs of the existing tourism industry, especially as pertains to Jeeping.
“Certainly it is in the county’s interest to encourage mining, but also to make sure county regulatory agencies are doing their job,” he said. In a county where mining is a use by right, he says, the most important regulatory power the county has pertains to roads, and how the mining companies use them. “But it is important for the county to stay engaged and let regulatory agencies be aware the county is following the situation.”
Before his work with TFLR, Willits worked as a land manager with the Nature Conservancy. He oversaw thousands of acres along rivers in San Miguel and Montrose counties.
“We did what was at the time a very innovative experimentation with cattle grazing in protected riparian areas,” he said. “It gave me a chance to interact with the agricultural community. I feel a real respect and affinity for ag and ranching people. I admire and envy their lifestyle. I know they work hard and I understand their sensitivity to taxes and land use – in regard to being land rich and cash poor.”
To look at Willits’ resume, with its heavy emphasis on conservation and land restoration, it would be easy to make the assumption that he is a pretty left-of-center environmentalist. But, he stresses, there is more than meets the eye. “People who know the Nature Conservancy know that they are the business side of conservation world; they are all about incentives and real estate and working with the business community and land owners and avoiding conflict. There are no inflammatory bumper stickers. I had a friend tell me that the Nature Conservancy was the “Sierra Club for Republicans.”
Throughout his campaign, Willits has stressed the need to continue to pursue economic diversification, and particularly, access to broadband in the county. “I am a champion of those issues, and my background in mining and high country issues is also a plus.”
Willits is running as an unaffiliated candidate because partisan politics “bum him out.”
“I am saddened by the volume level on the Jack and Lynn race,” he said. “I just have that optimism that we can be better to ourselves than we are. It’s probably a little naive for the political world that we are in now.”
As to why he’s running, Willits said, “I think I have the skill to help bring people together, and to help the commissioners work more effectively together to build the county’s team internally. There is something in my blood about getting into an organization and helping it improve. It’s a unique skill that I have.”Platform highlights:
• Supports pursuing a public/private partnership to address the county’s future water needs.
• Supports the goals of the Bottom-Up Economic Development planning effort
• Supports holding mining companies accountable to modern-day environmental standards and best practices, and would seek a balanced approach to mining and tourism in the county.
• Supports the San Juan Wilderness Proposal.
• Supports protecting private property rights with respect to Visual Impact Regulations. • Supports running the county in a businesslike and efficient way.