Growing Pains
The Responsible Growth Initiative debated

moderated by Shan Wells

Traffic courses along U.S. Hwy 160/550 south of town on Tuesday. The Responsible Growth Initiative, which will appear on the Durango ballot on Nov. 2, could influence the way Durango and the county grow. But just what the effects might be is currently being debated./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

The issue:
Growth and its related effects are hot issues this election season all over Colorado. Durango is certainly no exception. The Friends of the Animas Valley, a grassroots advocacy group headed up by Renee Parsons, has gathered enough signatures to put its solution, The Responsible Growth Initiative, on the Nov. 2 ballot. Almost immediately after the initiative was published, an opposition group, Citizens for a Sustainable Durango, formed to argue against it. Bobby Lieb is the executive director of both the Durango Chamber of Commerce and the La Plata County Economic Development Action Partnership (LEAD) and a member of Citizens for a Sustainable Durango.

In the interest of voter education, the Durango Telegraph’s political cartoonist, Shan Wells, conducted an e-mailed debate last week between Parsons and Lieb, which we nerdishly refer to as an “e-bate.” This is the complete version of the E-bate. An abridged version was published in this week’s print Durango Telegraph.

The players:
Friends of the Animas Valley: “FOAV was founded several years ago in opposition to River Trails Ranch, an 800-unit, high-density development in the Animas Valley. While we have no formal membership list, FOAV supporters are volunteers and predominately long-time residents (over 10 years) of not just the valley but also the city and county. We have no vested or financial interest in growth.”
FOAV officers: Renee Parsons, president; Richard Nobman, vice president; Alan Cathcart, treasurer; Marie Hawkins, secretary.

Citizens for a Sustainable Durango: “Citizens for a Sustainable Durango is an unincorporated, political-action group formed solely for the purpose to campaign in opposition of the Responsible Growth Initiative.”
Active committee members: John Gamble, acting chair; Katie Bonamasso, Phil Bryson, Tom Darnell, Chuck Fredrick, Jim Garofalo, Kim Hendrix, Rebecca Jacobs, Bobby Lieb, Bill Mashaw, Daniel Morgenstern, Tina Pernosky, Christina Rinderle, Bill Robertson, Elizabeth Salkind, Pat Stull, Ted Talmon, and Emil Wanatka.


LIEB: Voter initiatives generally emerge for two reasons. One, a special interest group has a very narrow, self-serving agenda it knows would not pass political muster, and therefore attempts to circumvent the regular legislative process. Two, it is an act of desperation after all attempts to move an issue through the normal channels have been exhausted, with little or no success. The Friends of the Animas Valley are proclaiming the latter. In the instance with the Growth Initiative, I strongly believe we are seeing the former at play here.
FOAV’s claim is perception, given that FOAV has only been in existence since the proposed River Trails Ranch project, in which case the system worked to their favor. Prior, the current active members were virtually unheard of at the local government level and by other community organizations. The process of lobbying a cause is lengthy and requires a great deal of persistence and consensus building. To suddenly arrive on the scene, and proclaim our local government has been negligible is false pretense merely taking into account the short period of time FOAV has been in existence.

PARSONS: Durango is now facing a threat to its Quality of Life that will forever alter our landscape, our lifestyle and our community. While growth has brought certain benefits, our community is at a critical juncture. The issue City voters need to consider before voting on the Initiative is when does growth negatively impact our Quality of Life and when do the detrimental effects of growth outweigh its benefits.
Current City plans to enter into an Inter-Governmental Agreement with the County will encourage the annexation of large parcels of land for high density residential development as well as extensive commercial projects. Once adopted, the IGA will be the vehicle to increase Durango’s population to 40,000. Evidence of Durango¹s recent explosive population growth is confirmed by the fact that the City has grown more in the last three years (from 2000-2003) than it did in the entire previous decade! That is phenomenal testimony to a kind of growth that is not planned or managed. In addition, the Durango City Council continues to approve new developments relying on an outdated and useless 1984 city-wide traffic analysis. A copy of the city’s annexation map and "Durango’s Growth Explosion" are at

LIEB: The proponent’s repeated claims of Durango’s impending doom continue to go unsubstantiated, and assume that all citizens share the same definition of quality of life.
Quality of Life is nebulous. To one person it might mean an un-congested drive to the pharmacy, to another it might mean holding a decent job that provides shelter and puts food on the table, and yet another it might mean getting a tee time at Hillcrest at 10:00 a.m. on a weekday. The Growth initiative is narrowly focused to drastically reduce population growth within the City Limits by restricting residential and commercial construction. Limiting population growth might be one person’s definition of quality of life, but on the other end has broad repercussions negatively impacting many other residents’ qualities of life.
Durango is a great community because many people have worked very hard, for many years on their nickel to build it to what it is today. Many more are here now taking advantage of all those years of hard work. To say now, we no longer wish to contribute to the next generation¹s quality of life, and hold it to ourselves is misguided and disrupts the balance of a free society.

PARSONS: Statewide initiatives first appeared on the Colorado ballot in 1912. Since then, Colorado voters have looked forward every two years to a variety of ballot referenda and initiatives. Even the State Constitution gives citizens the power to propose laws' via the Initiative process.[1] It is part of a time-honored tradition that voters have a right to express themselves on issues that they feel are not being addressed by elected officials. So it is with the Responsible Growth Initiative.
Mr. Lieb’s suggestion that a citizen’s right to participate should be looked upon with suspicion since its members were virtually unheard of or due to suddenly arrive on the scene smacks of an aristocratic elitism that shows disdain for the principles of a democratic society. It is increased public participation that is at the core of the RG Initiative with its voter approval concept that profoundly frightens the powers-that-be.
To suggest that the rejection of River Trails Ranch was because the system worked denies the massive opposition that the project generated. Without that level of intense opposition, River Trails Ranch would have been as easily approved as every other project and/or annexation that comes before the City Council.[2]
[1] Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute, 13th Annual Conference
[2] Analysis of Annexation prepared by City Planning Department, 2004


LIEB: To admit there are no problems with the process is of course a naïve assumption. Everything in all aspects of life has room for improvement. To presume that Durango is in such peril that it requires an ordinance as drastic as the Growth Initiative, which attempts to undermine the entire land use approval process, is an overreaction.
Many of the concerns the proponents raise with regard to adequate infrastructure, population, housing, etc. can be addressed through the extensive process of the next Comprehensive Plan revision. Not everyone in this community shares the same point of view about growth as the Friends of the Animas Valley. Therefore, to effectively have an issue rise to a level that the majority of the community feels enough need to act upon, requires the long arduous process of consensus building. The Growth Initiative is an attempt to circumvent that step. So instead of a community wide awareness effort, we have divisiveness.
Citizens have every right to propose policy and challenge decisions of our elected officials through the initiative process, and nobody is looking to deny anyone that right. However, unless voters are not entirely astute with the issue, they can be duped. The most glaring example is the statewide fiasco called the TABOR Amendment.

PARSONS: The fact is that major elements of our planning system are broken and, we believe, requires more comprehensive attention than a mere tweaking.
Here are a few examples:
-The city continues to rely on an outdated 1984 traffic analysis when considering approval of new developments. To conduct a new and long overdue city-wide traffic analysis would be a necessary step to bring credibility to Durango’s decision making.
-With an estimated 35-40% of La Plata County residents eligible for affordable housing, the city has no affordable housing policy. Without a clear policy in place, affordable housing is at the mercy of the developers and the market.
- River Trails Ranch was rejected by the City Council last November yet it appears on the city’s annexation “wish list.” What good did it do citizens to organize and oppose that project if the city can arbitrarily continue to include it in their map of desired annexations?
The Citizens for a Sustainable Durango are, in truth, Citizens for the Status Quo who support the city¹s direction of widespread urbanization, runaway growth and increased population goals. They are, therefore, least interested in improving the city¹s current decision making process or empowering Durango voters.


LIEB: The question suggests an immediate threat, and therefore must be answered with an immediate solution. The issue of growth is complex, and if the solution were easy it would have been implemented a decade ago when the dialogue began. Additionally, I cannot think of any side effect of growth that has occurred in the last 10 years that has been so detrimental to this community that it warrants a reaction to grab the first suggestion that comes along. The Growth Initiative makes no provisions for the concerns Ms. Parsons addresses in her previous answer.
The City Comprehensive Plan review is not a “tweaking,” but an extensive 6 to 9 month public process, and is still a viable solution. Two new trends that have come into play since the 1997 Comprehensive Plan are the size of new projects has changed significantly, and older existing structures are redeveloping. Another recommendation would be to have the Land Use & Development Codes updated to better manage those trends. Lastly, the proposed City/County IGA is not a document to accelerate growth as Ms. Parsons suggests, but rather an attempt to better plan and prepare for future growth, so that future development is not haphazard. It requires development to adhere to the stricter development guidelines of the City as opposed to the lesser standards of the County.

PARSONS: Detrimental side effects of growth are all around us including increased bumper to bumper traffic congestion and a growth explosion that has increased Durango¹s population more in the last three years than in the entire previous decade!
Mr. Lieb is asking us to rely on a review of the Comprehensive Plan - without any new traffic analysis - to cure a Plan whose primary failing is no valid traffic analysis. At the end of such review, we will still have no idea of the cumulative traffic impacts wrought by all the developments contemplated by the Plan. Updating the City¹s Land Use and Development Code, as he suggests, is exactly what the Responsible Growth Initiative proposes. The notion that a public review of the Comprehensive Plan will allow citizens to effectively weigh in on whether Durango should grow to 40,000 is not supported by previous reviews. On the question of the desired density at River Trails, city staff chooses to ignore the clear preference of participants during one Comprehensive Plan review that if developed, RTR be at the minimum density possible. The draft IGA map suggests even greater city population. Mr. Lieb's suggestions are too little, too late


PARSONS: Other than what we hear from the Initiative’s opponents, we are unaware of any grumbling - about private property rights or much else. In fact, quite the opposite is true. At public events, we receive only supportive words of appreciation. It is not uncommon to be approached by strangers who see our "Vote Responsible Growth" buttons and thank us for putting the Initiative on the ballot. Durango voters including Fort Lewis students are upbeat as they look forward to approving the RGI. Other residents congratulate us for raising substantive issues like the City’s lack of an affordable housing policy, current city-wide traffic analysis and the city’s tendency to unanimously approve every project. Without the RGI, those issues would otherwise remain unacknowledged and obscure.
Contrary to disinformation provided by the opponents, the question of private property rights has no relevance to the Responsible Growth Initiative. The Initiative does not restrict a landowner’s use of his/her land nor affects private property rights. Property owners would retain their rights to develop under existing regulations. As former New York Governor and great Tammany Hall reformer Al Smith used to say, “The cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.”

LIEB: Citizens have expressed concerns that the passage of this initiative could result in a “taking” without just compensation. In other words, an investor, as a direct result of this initiative, would not be able to recover the full value of his or her property due to the inability to develop according to the City’s Land Use and Development Codes.
Another concern brought forward is the delay that will occur waiting for an election to be held to uphold or deny the annexation approval by City Council. If too much time passes between the City Council decision and the election, it could be construed as a de-facto moratorium, also resulting in a developer’s inability to recuperate costs within a reasonable timely manner.
It is these issues, in addition to the ambiguous interpretations of the ordinance that highlights the concern the Citizens for a Sustainable Durango have if the initiative were adopted as it is currently worded. Its constitutionality will likely be challenged, and therefore subject to frequent litigation. It should also be noted there are now several legal opinions, to include City Attorney David Smith, that have stated the initiative, once passed, cannot be amended or repealed without another vote of the people.

PARSONS: The allegation that the Initiative is a “taking” of property without just compensation is groundless. Colorado law has held that zoning or regulation of property use is not a “taking” and that there are no legally protected property rights which provide for annexation into the city or unlimited and unregulated development. The genesis of this question is that opponents of the Initiative hope to exploit Durango for their personal gain by arguing that they have a constitutional guarantee to profit.
The issue of a “takings” because a developer may have to wait for voter approval is equally groundless. Thirty communities in the state of Oregon and six in Colorado have adopted similar voter approval ordinances without experiencing such a “takings” finding. While the growth lobby which funds Mr. Lieb’s group can be counted on to complain at any delay in making a profit, the fact is that if a developer desires an immediate approval, an election may be conducted at any time.
There is nothing ambiguous about the wording of the RGI, other than what its opponents would read into it. For the opponents of the Initiative to threaten litigation, even before adoption, is further indication of their disdain for the democratic process.

LIEB: I encourage people take the time to closely read the wording of the initiative, and logically think through the negative repercussions that would ensue were this initiative to pass. It will have an impact on
professional planning, future jobs, the economy, the ability to build more affordable housing, sprawl, open space, the local tax base and the City of Durango’s ability to maintain essential services.
The proponents have spun many misconceptions to persuade voters that growth in Durango is out of control with faulty projection formulas, and a claim regarding 58 annexations in 15 years. That is only 4 annexations a year. Of those 58, 31 are commercial projects, which do not add to population growth, but do contribute to jobs and our tax base. Over half the annexations were either existing structures or did not extend the boundaries of the City limits. The City of Durango has never set a goal of a population size of 40,000, yet the proponents continue to threaten us with that statement.
Please consider the broad opposition to the Growth Initiative from the Durango Chamber of Commerce, the Affordable Housing Task Force, Habitat for Humanity, La Plata Economic Development Action Partnership, La Plata County Commissioners, the Durango Area Association of Realtors, the Homebuilders Association of Southwest Colorado, The Durango Industrial Development Foundation, and 291 concerned individual citizens.




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