Smaller developments swell growth
City and county works to concentrate density

A construction worker at Parkside Terrace pauses from his work during a sunny Monday afternoon. The townhomes are just one of the many smaller developments going up in La Plata County and the city of Durango. Last year, 435 permits were issued for residential
dwellings in the county./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Over the past year, all eyes have been directed toward large-scale developments like the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s plan for Grandview. And many concerns have been leveled at the impacts that the project, including its 2,300 new homes, will have on the future of Durango. However, at the same time, smaller developments are continuing to spread locally, and both City of Durango and La Plata County staffs are working to concentrate the density near existing development and retain the flavor of the county’s rural areas.

Each year, plans for hundreds of new homes are approved at the county and city level. But, at the same time, plans for thousands more units fall apart for numerous reasons, such as lack of water, personal issues or just plain bad planning. Last year, 315 units were approved for development in the county, and permits were pulled to begin building on 1,122 previously approved structures, including homes, commercial units and outbuildings. Of those building permits, about 435 were residential units. By comparison, the county approved just 63 units in 2002, and permits were pulled for 1,190 total structures, 540 of which were residential units. In 2001, 234 units got the go-ahead, and 1,185 building permits were issued.

Butch Knowlton, La Plata County’s director of housing and safety, said that 2004 promises to be another boom year for county developments of all sizes.

A youngster gets taken for quite a ride with the help of a pair of in-line skates as the pair passes the Rivergate construction site along the Animas River./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

“Everyone’s saying it’s going to be a really strong year for construction,” he said. “The economy is right for investment in La Plata County.”

In Durango in 2003, building permits were issued for 320 new residential units. That’s a record high, beating the previous high of 211 residential units in 2001. In 2002, permits to build 124 units were pulled.

“It was sort of a coincidence that a number of developments in the works got their approvals in 2001 or 2002 and pulled their permits in 2003,” said City Planner Greg Hoch. “This coming year, I don’t expect to see that amount of building.”

Hoch added that there were between 50 and 80 units that were approved that had not yet pulled their permits for building, and he expected developers to ask for approval of 100 to 200 units this year.

While some smaller developments are handled by city staff, more frequently the plans that are proposed are for so-called4 planned developments, Hoch said. Those developments, like the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s Three Springs project in Grandview, combine the zoning and subdivision of land and must go before the City Council for approval.

It’s these large developments that have groups like Friends of the Animas Valley concerned. Renee Parsons, president of the organization, and Richard Nobman, the vice president, say they’re not opposed to development, but they’d like to see more sustainable growth that is shaped by a more open process.

While Parsons said the group focuses most of its energies on large developments, the small ones do add up.

“Independently, these may seem like benign projects, but the cumulative impacts of those smaller projects 85 nobody’s really considering that impact,” Parsons said.

Nobman said sustainable growth takes into account the available resources, such as roads, water, schools, fire, police and other such, and builds according to what those services can sustain.

The two worry that current growth is not sustainable, and that the area will become unaffordable and lose its sense of community.

“Durango is a small Western town, and that’s why a lot of people live here,” Nobman said. “It’s why a lot of people sacrifice income to live here, and this growth will do nothing toward making it better. What you’re going to end up with is something like Grand Junction.”

Nancy Lauro, director of planning services for the county, remarked that the county is divided into 10 planning areas and one area of joint review with Durango. All but two of those planning areas have land use plans that outline development goals and what’s compatible with the areas. The county is currently working on plans for its southeast and southwest sections.

Lauro said limited access to water has kept growth pressure off those areas for the most part, but that could change if the La Plata-Archuleta Water District project eventually brings water to the southeast part of the county.

Generally speaking, Lauro said that the county is working to concentrate intense development near existing development and keep rural areas relatively undeveloped.

“We think the intense development should go where there’s access to water and sewer and schools,” Lauro said.

And although there’s some land at Tamarron and Durango Mountain Resort designated for resort development, concentrated development isn’t really what the county is after, she added. Decades ago, some areas of the county were developed into almost urban areas.

“We’re really not thinking it’s very appropriate to do that again,” Lauro said. “Where there’s intense development now, you can continue. But we’re not really going out and creating new growth centers.”

Hoch said the city encourages the same kind of like-development in an area, while considering, at the same time, the concerns of the neighbors.

“We’ve encouraged in-fill in the appropriate places, and we’re experiencing in-fill,” he said. “But we don’t want to encourage in-fill in areas not meant to be in-fill, like single-family neighborhoods.”

And while some are reeling from the current growth levels, others are struggling to get project approval.

“What is characteristic of the development scene today is that the pace and scale of it has jumped in the last five years compared to the previous 20,” Hoch said. “And it has been marked by increasingly polarized community interest groups. The pro-housing people vs. the no-growth people – that division has become a lot more pronounced in the last five years.”






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