EDITORIAL: Small is Beautiful, Part Three

Read Part One

We’re going to dig into the concept of “Small Government is Beautiful” a bit later in this article series. But first, we will sit back and listen to a discussion about Bigger, More Expensive Government.

The meeting at the Archuleta County administration offices on Friday morning, February 10, concerned one aspect of Bigger, More Expensive Government. The meeting unfolded in a peaceful manner, with many thoughtful and well-considered comments being made.

It could have easily played out differently. Angry words could have been exchanged; opposing positions could have been hardened. Inflamed egos could have smoldered and clashed.

The fact, that did not happen — the fact, that the conversation about future Archuleta County facilities unfolded as respectfully and rationally as it did — I would credit to Robert Levine, the visiting representative of the Levine family. Mr. Levine had flown in from Miami, Florida, especially to meet personally with two of the three County Commissioners — Ronnie Maez and Steve Wadley — and to discuss a possible solution to the contentious mess that commissioner Wadley and former commissioner Clifford Lucero had made of the “Justice Center” planning process.

Commissioners Maez and Wadley had met with Mr. Levine earlier that morning, and had, I gathered, driven out to a site on Highway 84, where a certain amount of drilling had taken place during 2015, in a search for hotter-than-usual geothermal water. The drilling project had been funded mainly by the U.S. Department of Energy and the state of Colorado — with additional finding contributed by the taxpayers of Archuleta County, to the tune of about $520,000. The Levine family had allowed much of the drilling to take place on the 547-acre tract of pine-covered hills and open meadows owned by their family as the Fairway Land Trust, located just south of Reservoir Hill Park.

The geothermal drilling produced no significant evidence of useable resources, and all government funding has since been pulled from the project.

Back in 2008 — at the start of the Great Recession — the Fairway Land Trust was proposing a 547-acre mixed use and multi-family development on the tract, to include about 1,500 housing units. (More than twice the number of homes we currently have in downtown Pagosa.) This ‘Planned Unit Development’ was conceptually approved by the Town Council, but before the final annexation papers were signed, the Levine family canceled the negotiations and put the project on hold. You can read an article about the 2008 proposal here.

Part of the Fairway Land Trust property is currently maintained as a tree farm, I understand. In the map, below, we see a portion of the conceptual plan for the ‘Reservoir River Ranch’ subdivision as envisioned in 2008. The area on the upper right — colored in a red tone — was conceived as “Mixed Use,” meaning, a mix of commercial and residential development. This was the site of the deepest “geothermal” well drilled by the Pagosa Verde exploratory project.

Could it also be the site of a new “justice center”?

pagosa springs reservoir river ranch

Map shows the Reservoir River Ranch planned unit development, proposed in 2008 for the Fairway Family Trust property south of downtown. The future of the project is uncertain at this point.

Following Mr. Levine’s private visits with the two commissioners, the Board of County Commissioners convened a work session at the administration offices, and the meeting attracted a small selection of interested parties, including Pagosa’s mayor Don Volger, County Sheriff Rich Valdez and County Assessor Natalie Woodruff, as well as former County Commissioner Clifford Lucero. We understood that the Levine family was offering a real estate arrangement of some kind — perhaps a land swap — that might allow the County to build a “justice center” for less than $25 million.

That’s the estimated cost of the facility, as currently proposed for a vacant 4.9-acre parcel on Hot Springs Boulevard. The County does not have $25 million. They might, in fact, be limited — by Colorado law — to a maximum expenditure of about $16 million, if they totally maxed out the County’s borrowing power.

What if the facility could be built on a more spacious property, with room for sufficient parking and site drainage? Maybe on some real estate that was not steeply sloping?

And perhaps most importantly, on a property that did not have a deed restriction attached — prohibiting the construction of a “justice center”? In other words, on a parcel that was not likely to generate lengthy and expensive litigation?

We are listening to Robert Levine.

From left, Fairway Land Trust representative Robert Levine, County Attorney Todd Starr, County Commissioner Ronnie Maez.

“I’d like to predicate my remarks, here today, by saying that I believe everyone in this room has a common agenda, in looking after the long-term interests of the people of Archuleta County. I know that we [the Levine family] are, and I believe everyone else in the room feels the same way. We may disagree on how to accomplish those goals, but we all share the same motives — trying to do the best for the people here.

“I know you [commissioners] are dedicated to that. And [my family members] are dedicated to being stewards of this special land, and we want to be helpful to the extent we can. We are committed to responsible land management; that’s what we’re here for. We’ve owned the [Fairway Trust] land for 25 years now, and we’ve tried to be sensitive to the needs of the community.

“We’re here looking for solutions. And some of you knew my father — a wonderful human being and a great visionary, and very community-oriented, both here and in Miami. Many years ago, he met with County leadership, to help develop a land-planning vision for the people of Pagosa.”

According to Mr. Levine, that planning process, during the 1990s, involved numerous local leaders as well as professional consultants, and focused on ways to control the then-uncontrolled sprawl taking place in Archuleta County — while ensuring the inclusion of open space, and a more pedestrian-friendly community. Apparently, the Levine family would like to see the Pagosa community develop in a sensible manner.

But, of course, we don’t all agree on what is ‘sensible.’

Mr. Levine:

“We want to help advance the best long-term interests of the community, and we frankly feel that it was — and is — a poor decision to locate the jail [on Hot Springs Boulevard.]

“We had entered into a cooperative partnership with the Town and County, to put a geothermal electrical plant at this location, and we are all very disappointed that project didn’t proceed.

“But that same property, that was zoned — as part of the master plan process — for commercial development, with some workforce housing next to it… This was a plan that was arrived at, many years ago, by very thoughtful people and through a very public process. And now that the geothermal plant is no longer going forward, we said to ourselves, ‘Wait a minute — what a perfect place for a justice center.’ It’s got all the land you need; it’s near the intersection of Highway 160 and 84. It’s nice, flat land,.. it’s perhaps more suitable for the kind of facility the County requires?”

An interesting idea. As readers of the Daily Post are aware, I’ve been professing in these pages that the Hot Springs Boulevard plan — as currently proposed — is about as bad a government plan as any I’ve seen in Archuleta County.

The Levine family appears poised to offer a better location… if some crucial details can be worked out. More about those details, tomorrow.

And maybe we’ll also talk some more, about “Small is Beautiful.”

Read Part Four…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.