OURAY COUNTY – Years of virulent debate over proposed revisions to Visual Impact Regulations in Ouray County’s Land Use Code, Section 9, come to a head at a public hearing next week, culminating with a decision by the Ouray Board of County Commissioners whether to adopt the proposed changes.
The hearing is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, Aug. 7, at 6 p.m. and will continue at the same time on Thursday, Aug. 8, at the 4‐H Event Center in Ridgway. It is the climax of three years of work and countless hours of debate on an issue that has sharply divided Ouray County residents.
Originally scheduled for mid-May, the commissioners rescheduled the hearing to take place in August, after community members complained of technical difficulties in their attempts to access the mountain of documentation on the topic that has been posted to the county’s website, and an attorney representing a coalition of the largest ranches in the county (which oppose the revisions) asserted that he needed more time to review the final red-lined documents from the planning commission that had been posted there.
Revisions to Section 9 have been requested for over a decade by citizens, county planners, administrators, and building inspectors, who have all argued that existing regulations are unfair and difficult to enforce.
The current Section 9 revision was mandated by the commissioners in November 2010, after a year of meetings and workshops, charges and countercharges, surveys, site visits, and ad hoc presentations by builders and realtors’ groups that culminated in the board 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 commissioners, 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.
As the planning commission has diligently chipped away at this task, meeting up to three times per month over the past two and a half years, the VIR brouhaha has continued to bitterly divide Ouray County residents, with crowds of up to 200 people packing into various public hearings over that time to make their disparate voices heard.
Perhaps the most divisive amendment to Section 9 is the proposed expansion of visual impact corridors to include 47 more roads throughout the county that have the same characteristics as the nine roads designated as view corridors in the existing regulations. All structures visible within 1.5 miles, measured on a two-dimensional map, are subject to the impact and mitigation criteria of Section 9.
In the new draft as well as the existing regulations, each new structure within the view corridor must meet a points standard. The proposed draft allows a maximum of six points in its revised points system. For the size of the structure, one-tenth of a point will be added for every 100 square feet of building size, and three-tenths of a point will be added for every foot of weighted average height of the structure visible from the view corridor.
The draft also contains mitigation criteria points, which are subtracted from the structure points, when a project addresses screening, maximum distance from a road and apparent building mass as viewed from a viewing window. There is new language pertaining to skyline breakage exemptions as well as a definition of “blending,” which includes materials, finishes and colors that integrate with the surrounding natural environment.
PREPARING FOR BATTLE
Ridgway realtor Judi Snelling spent much of the past week perfecting the presentation she intends to make on behalf of the Dallas Meadows Homeowners Association at the upcoming public hearing.
Scrolling through her powerpoint presentation, she pointed out one home after another that would become a nonconforming structure under the proposed VIR revisions, which would designate three additional roads in the subdivision as view corridors. Some homes break the skyline. Others are not properly screened, or have solid privacy fences (not permitted in new regs), or are too close to the road. One of her slides shows a vacant lot which she maintains would become “completely unbuildable” under the proposed new regs.
“This looks to me like a lawsuit,” she said. “None of us are screened; it is a mesa without trees. What are we supposed to do? From a subdivision standpoint, this makes every house in my subdivision nonconforming.”
Dallas Meadows is one of two subdivisions in the county that would be severely impacted by the new regs. The other, Snelling said, is Panoramic Heights on County Road 14 north of Ouray. Built on a historic tailings pile – flat and with no trees which grow there naturally – “Panoramic Heights is also totally out of compliance,” Snelling said.
In all, according to a study conducted by Snelling and fellow Ridgway realtor Donna Whiskeman, at least 183 homes in the county would be out of compliance if the new regs are adopted.
The homes are fine, as long as the owners stay put. But once they decide to sell, or build an addition, the structure would have to be brought up to compliance with the new regulations, which she said, is quite different from being “grandfathered in.”
Aside from the matter of private property rights, it’s the gray areas, and the unintended consequences, of the proposed new regulations that Snelling has a problem with.
Take, for example, the degree of screening that would be required if proposed revisions are adopted. “Nothing in the regs says if you need to plant 20-foot trees, or four-foot trees,” she said. “It’s a huge gray area. To buy mature trees costs money.” And planting them next to a house, she said, could be considered a fire hazard that would cause insurance rates to go up.
It’s these kinds of cascading unintended consequences that she says would ultimately be borne by realtors and homeowners.
“I think it should be completely dropped and they should start all over again,” she said. “You are taking away people’s property rights; how does it make your house more valuable?”
UP TO THE CITIZENS, NOW
Ken Lipton, meanwhile, was enjoying the quiet before the storm on the back porch of his ranch home on County Road 12 on a recent afternoon as the date of the public hearing loomed.
As the chair of the planning commission, Lipton has witnessed firsthand the almost rabid bitterness that the proposed revisions have evoked in the community. Through it all, he said, the planning commission has carried on, “holding workshops three times a month for all those years.”
He emphasized that the process has incorporated a lot of public feedback. “The public comment did have an effect, and we went back and changed some things,” he said. For example, mining structures and most agricultural structures are now exempt from VIR regs, and a proposed increase to the existing setback for structures built on an escarpment has been scrapped.
As for the blending issue, he reflected, “A lot of people think the county will dictate what color their house can be, but if you read the definition of blending, it’s much clearer than in the existing visual impact regulations. Any reasonable person will find they can blend their house.”
Concerns that the new regulations would negatively affect property values are unfounded, he maintained, stressing that he speaks solely for himself, rather than representing the viewpoint of the planning commission as a whole. “We reviewed the county assessor’s data and determined that the most valuable, highly assessed properties in the county are actually within existing visual impact areas,” he said.
“While many new roads have been added, many of the revisions have less restrictions compared to the current plan, and many things have been made more clear. We have taken as much subjectivity out as we possibly could.”
Now, Lipton said, it’s up to the citizens of the county to let the county commissioners know what they want. “They need to make decision based on strategic thinking, relative to potential buildout in the county and the impact that future development could have on the values that many people prize in this county – specifically, incomparable views, magnificent valleys and the overall rural appearance of county,” he said, gazing out over lush green pastures stretching to the Cimmaron Range that represent one of the county’s iconic view corridors the new regulations seek to further protect.
“I’m passionate about it, and I feel badly that some in the county have been very hostile to this effort. Some people see this as unwarranted regulation. Many have an ideology opposed to government regulations or what they feel is unnecessary government regulation,” he reflected.
“I don’t think we can win those arguments. But the majority of people in this county have a concern for the common interest. The land use code is designed to protect that common interest.”
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PUBLIC HEARING GUIDELINES
According to procedures laid out by the county, land use staff will present the content of the proposed revisions to the regulations at the beginning of each public hearing session.
Public comments will be taken at the hearing on both dates. Those who would like to make oral comments must sign up at the hearing. Sign‐up sheets will be available at the hearing and throughout the hearing; however, it is expected that public comment will close on the night of Aug. 8 with sufficient time for the Board of County Commissioners to deliberate. Sign‐up sheets will indicate a preference to speak in support or in opposition to the proposed regulation. The chair will call speakers from the sign‐up sheets, alternating between “pro” and “con” to the extent practical, with comments limited to five minutes per speaker.
Organized groups representing homeowners associations, trade, industry, interest groups or professional organizations may sign up for a group presentation not to exceed 15 minutes. PowerPoint or other visual aids may be used, but please provide hard copies or an electronic version for the Board and the record.
Comments may also be submitted in writing to the Clerk of the Board at firstname.lastname@example.org any time between now and the hearing date.
All speakers and spectators are asked to respect the varying perspectives and points of views among those attending and participating. Politeness to all is requested.
The Board will deliberate following the close of public testimony, and may continue the hearing if necessary for further deliberation and decision. All discussion and decisions of the Board regarding the proposed regulation will be held in public hearing.
County commissioners hope the back-to-back public hearings will be the final ones held on revisions to Section 9 of the Land Use Code, visual impacts, before they make a decision whether or not to implement the proposed legislation.