Rescuing local ridgelines
Durango begins work on rules to protect city’s scenic views

The first installment of the Mirador Townhomes is seen from a Main Avenue vantage point earlier this week. When complete, the project will include 23 high-end units. The development, approved in 1994, has been a lightning rod of sorts, igniting a new debate over ridgeline development. At the request of the Durango City Council, city planners are drafting a new ridgeline ordinance that would protect the city’s surrounding hills and ridgelines from further development./Photo by David Halterman

by Missy Votel

As development pressure in and around Durango mounts, the city is setting its sights a little higher.

At the behest of the Durango City Council, city planners are working up a draft ridgeline protection ordinance, which would ban ridgelines from further construction. The draft should be ready for council perusal next week.

“We expect to have it in hand next week at our study session,” said council member Renee Parsons.

The drafting of the ordinance was one of the first tasks doled out by the mostly new, five-member council, which gained three new members in April. According to Parsons, a ridgeline ordinance has been of interest to council members over the last few years, but it took the building of the Mirador Townhomes, west of town, to ignite the idea in the public’s mind.

“With Mirador, the issue came alive again,” said Parsons.

The residential development, which broke ground this spring, will include for 23 townhomes, broken into seven buildings, overlooking town on a plateau adjacent to the cemetery. According to newly elected council member Michael Rendon, most residents don’t realize that the current construction is only one of seven, and that there are a few other such developments in the pipe.

“A lot of people look at the one building up there and say that although they don’t like it, they can live with it,” he said. “What they don’t seem to realize is that there are going to be six more of them up there, and there are one or two similar developments already approved.”

Durango Director of Planning Services Greg Hoch said the two most high-profile areas likely for ridgeline or hillside development include The Cliffs, seven 35-acre homesites atop Missionary Ridge; and the 400-acre McIntyre Ranch property in the Twin Buttes area. Other ridgelines or hillsides that could see development include the Rasdall parcel, located on the upper reaches of the Twin Buttes area; Ewing Mesa, south of town; the Raider Ridge property owned by Jake Dalla, northeast of town; Hidden Valley, near Rockridge; and the Fairfield property, on a mesa adjacent to Horse Gulch just east of town.

Although some of these areas are technically in La Plata County, many are included in the City of Durango’s future “Urbanization Area” as per the city’s newly revised Comprehensive Plan. Furthermore, Hoch said it is likely that many developers in these areas would seek city annexation so as to acquire water and other city services. “Annexation and water affords the city control,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said it would behoove city government to work with county officials on the matter. “Ultimately, the city and county would want to talk about mutual concerns and mutually agreeable solutions,” he said.

Hoch said chief among the City Council’s concerns is getting an ordinance into place as soon as possible and nailing down the various definitions that would be used in the new regulations. “It’s not easy, there’s a lot of discussion about the difference between a hillside versus a plateau versus ridgeline, and safety versus aesthetics.”

He said the city’s options on controlling ridgeline development ranged from regulations, such as the proposed ordinance, to buying land out right, which it attempted to do with the Mirador property. “The city approached the property owners about purchasing it, but they were not interested,” Hoch said. Unfortunately, he also noted that the latter option is not exactly economically feasible. “The city just doesn’t have enough money to buy everything.”

Hoch said this is not the first time the city has drafted a ridgeline ordinance. In 2001, the Planning Department came up with a draft that was presented to City Council but never went any further. “Staff advanced a ridgeline ordinance that was requested by City Council in 2001. We did a lot of research and presented one to them, but they decided not to go forward with it,” he said.

However, the city has lost precious time since then, Parsons said. “So much of our ridgeline is already gone, it’s almost too late,” she said. “The city missed its opportunity several years ago.”

Nevertheless, she said several of the city’s prominent hillsides remain development free, something she would like to see continue. “Now, we want to save our slopes, which is going to be part of the ordinance,” she said.

Parsons said such an ordinance is long overdue for Durango. “Every other Colorado ski town has had a ridgeline ordinance for years,” she said. “There is no excuse for why it hasn’t happened here.”

However, Hoch noted that up until a few years ago, ridgeline development seemed of little concern to residents. He pointed to the Mirador site, noting that in 1983 it was approved for a hotel, a project which later fell through. The land was annexed into the city in 1994, the same year the Mirador project was approved. “We held six public meetings and four public hearings, and nary a person spoke up,” he said. “I think that’s telling of how much things have changed since then.”

He said the land-use designation for the Mirador site was changed from commercial to mixed use during the city’s Comp Plan review in 2003-04 because the prevailing thought was that residential architecture would be less intrusive than industrial architecture. He also noted that the project went through a charette process on selecting the styles and material that would be the least controversial. “I think once the construction is complete, it will be less intrusive,” he said.

Hoch also noted that while most of the developable ridgelines within the city have been built upon, the city could be walking a fine line with proposed developments that are currently under county jurisdiction. “They could decide not to annex, and we could end up with 35-acre ranchettes on our ridgelines instead,” he said. “I guess whether that’s good or bad is a matter of perspective. All it takes is one or two houses to ruin a view.”

However, Parsons said that is a risk the city should be willing to take. “There are still some key ridgelines left, and there is always the possibility of redevelopment,” she said. “There’s not much left to save, but let’s go for it. Because developers are very creative. Who knows what we’ll wake up to?”

Durango City Council is scheduled to review the proposed ridgeline ordinance at a study session Tues., July 10 at 3 p.m., after which time the ordinance will go up for public discussion at a date yet to be determined. •



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