EDITORIAL: A House Subdivided Against Itself, Part Two

Read Part One

While posting the stories for yesterday’s Daily Post, I realized that I had introduced both of my editorial columns that morning with Bible verses. Considering that I almost never attend church and seldom read the Bible, I felt compelled to ask myself why I often insert biblical references into articles about this little rural town and its political activities.

Since we began publishing the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004, one of our primary goals has been to report on, and openly discuss, the decisions made by our elected and appointed government officials. Those decisions are (supposedly) guided by the laws of Colorado, the laws of the U.S. government, and laws approved by our own local officials.

But there’s additional subtle layer of “law” that sometimes comes into play, derived from our cultural ties to Europe, the Middle East, indigenous Americans, and to the world’s unwritten rules of social behavior. Many of those “unwritten rules” are actually written down… in books like the Old and New Testament. Such as:

“Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy…”

And:

“Make friends quickly with your opponent at law, while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison…”

This background of “unwritten laws” — about caring for our brothers and sisters in need, for example, and about justice and faithfulness — form the subtext of government discussions, even if they are not actually written into, for example, the Archuleta County Land Use Code.

In the books of the gospel — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — Jesus makes occasional reference to “lawyers”… and not in an especially affectionate way. In fact, he uses terms like “hypocrites” and “serpents” and “Woe unto you…”

2,000 years later, we — ordinary citizens — still have mixed feelings about lawyers, and I guess we always will. But so long as we have laws, we will presumably have a need for lawyers.

After posting Part One yesterday, I received a phone call from Durango lawyer Jeff Robbins, who is listed as the the Fairway Land Trust’s attorney in the 25-page “Development Agreement” for Reservoir River Ranch, from 2009. The attorney listed as representing Archuleta County is Todd Starr. (You can download the Agreement here.) Mr. Robbins wanted to share his perspective on two points of disagreement we heard during the August 1 BOCC hearing on Jack Searle’s application for subdivision approval.

The phone call was certainly informative, and I will, as best I can, include Mr. Robbin’s perspective in this editorial series.

Back in 2009, the Fairway Land Trust and attorney Robbins negotiated a development agreement with the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners, to create a Planned Unit Development (PUD) on approximately 496 acres located south of Reservoir Hill Park. The agreement vested certain rights for at least ten years, and one of the stipulations concerned the ability to create subdivisions that would be treated rather differently from normal subdivisions. To put it simply, the 2009 agreement apparently allows the Trust to subdivide property without going through the County’s “Subdivision Review Process.” The agreement named these unusual subdivisions “Future Development Parcels” — and the exact meaning of that term was one of the points of contention at last week’s August 1 hearing before the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners.

Another point of contention concerned the question of whether the Fairway Land Trust is required to dedicate all the bicycle trails promised in a 2009 vested rights agreement, as a result of creating one of these “Future Development Parcels.”

So two key questions face the BOCC at the moment. What, exactly, did the County agree to in 2009? And what exactly are the crucial needs of the community, now in 2017?

Jack Searle’s representative Ryan Searle, presenting to the Board of County Commissioners, August 1, 2017.

County Planning Manager John Shepard, in his August 1 report to the BOCC, gave two reasons why this subdivision might avoid the normal “Subdivision Review” process delineated by the County Land Use Code.

From Mr. Shepard’s August 1 report:

Section 4.7 of the Archuleta County Land Use Regulations — while titled for Agricultural Land Divisions — cites the Board of County Commissioners’ authority under statute to exempt other land divisions under 35 acres from Subdivision Review. In this case, Section 2.4 of the approved PUD Development Agreement provides a specific process to create a tract of land less than 35 acres for sale, with no other development rights requested or granted.

The 496 acres included in the Fairway Land Trust’s 2009 development agreement has indeed been used for agricultural purposes in recent years — specifically, as a tree farm. But Section 4.7, quoted by Mr. Shepard, talks about a very specific type of subdivision, created to allow a family involved in ranching or agriculture to subdivide a section of the farm and deed it to a family member. The intent of the law is to encourage families to remain active in agriculture.

To quote from that Section:

4.7 Subdivision Exemption Plat for Agricultural/Ranching Land Divisions

Under the current Colorado State Law an exemption to CRS 30-28-101 may be applied for by the landowner directly to the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC). The exemption request, if granted, would allow for the landowner to create an additional lot from an existing tract of land of 35 acres or more within the AR district.

Each application shall be considered on a case by case basis where the following conditions may apply:

4.7.1 Prior to the allowing of the division of tracts, the landowner shall provide proof of water availability and approved septic capability;

4.7.2 The intent of the exception is to benefit the traditional ranching/farming family; whereas, to allow more than one family to remain living on the property to assist with the operation of the ranch/farm. However, the State Law does allow the Board of County Commissioners the option to consider exceptions for other extraneous circumstances unrelated to the traditional ranching family conditions.

4.7.3 No more than one home on the divided tract and two homes on the original tract;

4.7.4 Access from public roads shall remain the same;

The “Future Development Parcel” proposed by Jack Searle and the Fairway Land Trust does not appear to be aimed at continuing a family farming tradition, however. Quite the opposite; the apparent intention is to convert part of a farm property into commercial and residential development. The original Reservoir River Ranch concept map shows the 16-acre parcel under discussion in pink, on the left side of the map, and indicates a “Multi-Use Zoning” for that parcel. The ‘buildable’ part of the property is listed as “10 Ac +/-” with a 7-acre “Public Park and River Trail” along the San Juan River.

Additionally, we should not assume that Mr. Searle wants to be limited to one single house on his 16 acres, nor would he want to limit the Fairway Land Trust to two houses on their remaining 480 acres. Nor does there seem to be any intention of keeping road access unchanged.

At the end of nearly an hour of argument and discussion, Commissioner Ronnie Maez moved to table the approval, to allow the staff to bring forward additional information.

What additional information might that be?

Read Part Three…

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.