EDITORIAL: Walmart Gets Planning Commission Approval, Part One
About 35 members of the public — from what I could tell, nearly all County residents from the areas surrounding mayor Ross Aragon’s tiny fiefdom of Pagosa Springs — listened to each other’s testimony, and the testimony of three Walmart representatives, for nearly five hours last night, August 21 at the Ross Aragon Community Center. At the end of the lengthy meeting, Town Planning Commission member Natalie Woodruff made a somewhat apologetic motion to approve the current design for a 93,000 square-foot Walmart store in the largely vacant Aspen Village subdivision across the highway from the scenic Pagosa Springs Golf Course.
Fellow Planning Commission members Cameron Parker and Kathie Lattin joined Ms. Woodruff in approving the design, with commissioner Cappy White voting against the approval.
The meeting — one of the longest public hearings I’ve attended in seven years as a news reporter — lasted until nearly 10pm mainly because Commission chair Kathie Lattin allowed the public to step up to the microphone and comment on every one of the several individual Land Use and Development Code (LUDC) issues that had been raised by Cappy White’s rather complicated recommendations — made at the previous July 10 Planning Commission meeting. This free-wheeling public participation last night was in stark contrast to the very first Walmart hearing held on May 22, when Ms. Lattin had so severely restricted public comment that the meeting basically took on the air of a kangaroo court.
If the main purpose of last night’s hearing was to allow every concerned citizen an opportunity to express his or her concerns about the Walmart development — pro or con — the gathering could hardly have been more successful.
If the main purpose were to make sure that the proposed Walmart fully align itself with the Town’s legal requirements in the Town’s LUDC and Comprehensive Plan, then the outcome of the meeting was considerably less certain. And Ms. Woodruff admitted as much, during her motion at the end of the five-hour meeting: this was partly a judgment call on the part of the Design Review Board.
“Before I make this motion, let me just say that this is… in a way, it’s difficult and in a way it’s not. We have the Code by which to go, and there may be several interpretations, and we may be taking it differently than some people do, I understand that.
“But also, believe me when I say, I was not real happy to sit on the Board and approve a 500-unit housing development just below my house. But I can’t always take the emotional part of it, into it. I know that’s what you guys want us to do sometimes. But sometimes you have to separate yourself from the emotional aspect of it. Sometimes it’s.. no, it isn’t sometimes, it’s [always] going by what the Code says. The ‘sometimes’ is, my interpretation and it’s what I’m thinking is adherence to the Code — is different from what you think adherence to the Code is.
“So [please] don’t think those decisions are taken lightly. But I just wanted you to know that it’s not an easy decision, when you know that there’s individuals and people involved — but it is kind of an easy decision, because it’s laid out for us here in the Code.
“So with that, Madam Chair, I’ll make a motion…”
The motion, which then passed by a 3-to-1 vote, will officially permit Pagosa’s first Big Box store to be built at the edge of a largely rural residential neighborhood, at the edge of a wetlands that drains into Pinon Lake, at the edge of a currently-unpaved road of uncertain ownership. At least, the approval is now as official as the Town Planning Commission — acting as the Town Design Review Board — can make it. The Town Council is not required to confirm this approval, so it appears the remaining work of the Town government now is to simply wait for the other “official approvals”. Or the upcoming lawsuits.
Some questions still remain to be answered.
Will Walmart be permitted by the Army Corps of Engineers to drain their 10-acre parking lot into a dedicated wetlands? Will CDOT (Colorado Department of Transportation) approve the corporation’s traffic access plan? Did the “Master Subdivision Association” that approved changes to the Aspen Village wetlands actually have legal standing to make those changes? Will one or more local residents file a lawsuit challenging Archuleta County’s recently approved Quit Claim Deed regarding the ownership of Alpha Drive?