Hearing reveals rift in county
by Beecher Threatt and Bill Tiedje
After 12 hours over three nights of passionate speeches for and against the proposed visual impact amendments, the Board of County Commissioners closed the verbal public comment period Tuesday night. Written comments will be accepted until Aug. 20 at 5 p.m., and the public hearing was continued to Sept. 24, when commissioners will begin their deliberations.
The six week delay is to give the board clerk time to transcribe minutes of the marathon public comment sessions and to give commissioners time to absorb the voluminous record that includes the planning commission's report and materials from its work sessions, minutes of the planning commission public hearing, staff reports and public comment.
On Tuesday night, the most strident voices were in opposition to the proposed changes to section 9, Visual Impact Review, of the county land use code. The planning commission drafted the proposal over two years at the direction of the 2010 BOCC and in March sent it up for approval after a public hearing.
Over the three four-hour sessions, County Commissioners Mike Fedel, Lynn Padgett and Don Batchelder listened to public comments and occasionally asked questions to clarify some of the remarks.
The three sessions, held Aug. 7, 8 and 13, attracted 75 to 150 residents each night.
Those in favor of the changes argued that the amendments would keep the county as it is and protect it from unfettered development that has plagued other areas.
Some speakers criticized the proposal as coming from "newcomers" and "elitists" who want to change the county and "turn it into Telluride." One speaker claimed proponents were "gate closers" who moved here and then wanted to shut others out.
Ridgway resident Paula James, speaking to elitism, said, "It comes in many forms. If you think that because you are born here only you have the right to make decisions, that is elitism."
Ridgway teacher Robyn Cascade lamented the division in the community caused by the visual impact issue. "I am disheartened by the divisiveness, disregard for others' personal opinions and the personal attacks," she said.
It was clear from the three nights of public comments that very few are undecided or middle ground advocates. Speakers were either for the entire proposal or entirely against it.
Attorney Mark Howe, representing a group of homeowners, made the case that the cost to the county in increased staff time for review and appeals of building permits in the added visual impact corridors could reach $34,500 per year, not to mention the cost of maintaining the current level of service, loss of staff time in other projects and overtime. Staff members at the hearing were not asked to confirm Howe's figures.
On all three nights of public comment, various speakers recounted the delays and costs of complying with current visual impact regulations and said the proposal would exacerbate those problems. Others said they had no problem going through the visual impact process and were grateful it was there.
Attorney Andy Mueller spoke on behalf of a group called Ouray County Landowners in Favor of Reasonable Regulations. He said the proposal would increase costs to landowners resulting from a longer permit review process, additional design and construction costs and higher mortgage costs because of delays.
"If this passes, we will become a county of early retirees and trust funders," Mueller told commissioners. He said the regulations are more subjective than the current regulations, and staff will likely deny a permit or variance on a close call, resulting in more appeals.
Speakers in favor of the changes pointed out they are in some ways less restrictive than the current regulations. For example, home builders would have more flexibility under the point system to choose measures that mitigate visual impact, and legal, nonconforming structures could be expanded by 20 percent (one time) without complying with the new regulations.
Others pointed out that Realtors used the current visual impact regulations as a selling point but now are opposed to them. "I haven't heard any complaints from Realtors that they can't sell properties because of visual impact regulations," county resident Rosemary Esty said.
Ranchers speaking against the proposal said their families had been protecting the scenic views of the county since before the first visual impact regulations were enacted and they would continue to do so. Sharon Case, in favor of the proposal, suggested that ranchers place conservation easements on their properties to guard against later generations selling to developers. Kay Lair said the regulations are for those who come later, who may not have the same commitment to the land as longtime ranchers do.
Opposition speakers also said the current zoning regulations are sufficient to protect the county from being overrun with crowded subdivisions and strip malls, a possibility warned against by several proponents.
At the Aug. 8 session, Laurie Bunten, secretary of the Ouray Trail Group, read a statement from the group in support of VIR in the southern, alpine portion of Ouray County. Bunten stated the group maintained 83 trails which 36,000 users reported visiting annually. Bunten said the OTG had always supported a view corridor adjacent to trails and consistent with the views of the hiking public.
The Alpine Zone came up several times over the three nights. There, the fear is that homes will be built on small acreage mining claims, overwhelming the landscape on Jeep roads.
On Aug. 7, Roze Evans and Jen Parker presented a petition on behalf of Ridgway-Ouray Community Council with 329 signatures supporting the proposed amendments. They read a few of the comments ROCC received, including one from former Ouray County Commissioner Heidi Albritton urging adoption of the changes. Albritton was on the BOCC when it directed the planning commission to draft VIR changes on 12 issues.
Differing perspectives and conclusions on a few key provisions in the proposed amendments to the VIR were illuminated by many speakers' presentations, including the ability to rebuild following a fire or other catastrophic event or refinance if a house were deemed non-conforming under the proposed VIR amendments, as well as the impact on agricultural properties.
On Aug. 13, County Planner Mark Castrodale clarified the current and proposed land use code provisions regarding rebuilding if a home is destroyed and is a legal, nonconforming structure. (Structures may become nonconforming if they are in a visual impact corridor and were not built pursuant to the proposed regulations.) Section 4 of the current code requires that a non-conforming structure, destroyed or damaged such that cost of restoring it exceeds 50 percent of the cost of reconstructing the structure or structural alteration is required, must be brought into compliance with the then-current land use code, including VIR. The proposed section 9 would allow a one-time exemption for structural alterations and reconstruction, provided the structure's non-conformity does not expand by more than 20 percent and the structure is not on a bench, ridge, escarpment or hilltop.
Some opponents questioned why the planning commission did not pay more heed to what is known as the "ad hoc committee," a group of architects, builders and designers enlisted by the BOCC several years ago to assist with VIR changes. On Aug. 7, architect Doug MacFarlane suggested the BOCC consider minor incremental changes to the VIR, but he did not feel that the proposed VIR amendments would satisfy skyline and blending issues, nor were the additional new corridors needed. MacFarlane also indicated that although the ad hoc committee participated in the planning commission's deliberations, their comments were limited and often heard after it had already made decisions.
For a time during the two-year drafting process, architect Larry Kumpost was a member of the planning commission and architect John Baskfield was an alternate.
County Planner Mark Castrodale began the first session of the hearing with a brief history and description of the proposed changes before the public comment portion of the meeting began.
Castrodale said the proposed amendments would add VIRs to 31 additional roads consisting of approximately 101 miles, and staff estimated the potential for 80 to 100 non-conforming structures based on their analysis of satellite imagery. Castrodale indicated this estimate could include agricultural and historically accurate structures that may be exempt from the proposed VIR amendments, as it was impossible to distinguish these characteristics without a site visit.
Other changes in the proposed VIR amendments outlined by Castrodale included a new definition of blending, the use of a weighted average in determining building height, added points for natural screening, an increase in the allowed amount of skyline break, the exclusion of non-visible portions of a structure in size considerations and reworking of the points system.
Castrodale also said the proposed VIR amendments added provisions regarding Alternative Energy Structures and added VIR to agricultural structures on a ridgeline, bench or escarpment.
County Attorney Marti Whitmore explained the BOCC could choose to adopt or reject the VIR amendments as proposed by the planning commission, modify portions of the VIR amendments with specific language in a motion, ask staff for more revisions based on guidance or send back to the planning commission for extensive changes.
After 12 hours of public comment, what is clear is that residents agree that the scenic values of the county should be protected but disagree on how to accomplish that goal.