When planning plays catch-up

  • New homes are being built on former agricultural land near Montrose

    Paul Larmer
  • Allan Belt serves on the Montrose County Planning Commission

    Paul Larmer

Note: this feature article is one of several in a special issue about growth and planning in the West.

MONTROSE, Colo. - For decades this town with the stunning views of the jagged San Juan Mountains aggressively courted growth and collectively admitted no downside.

When county commissioners tried to adopt a wimpy land-use plan 21 years ago, they were voted out of office. The new leadership invited in dirty industry - a Louisiana-Pacific waferboard plant that eventually was fined millions by the federal government and sued for millions more by neighboring property owners.

A real estate boom, however, has tempered the community's zeal for growth, and some citizens and elected officials now embrace planning as the only defense against the rapid urbanization of a largely rural valley.

The town itself is up to 10,000 residents, and nearly 1,500 homes are under construction in the area, mostly on former farms and ranches. Over the past two years, the town's schools have bulged with 500 new students.

Last year Montrose grew between 6 and 8 percent, says Ken Gale, a former mayor and current president of the Chamber of Commerce. "That's 600 people coming here every year," he says. "In 10 years our town could double in population."

Community leaders have gone so far this year as to start a dialogue on growth. Thirty-thousand dollars hired a consultant, Barbara Cole of Community Matters Inc., from Littleton, Colo.

Cole began with a tip-toe approach, conducting a series of private interviews with citizens. She found that people were hesitant to get involved because they felt the "good ol" boys'- the boss politicians, landowners and businessmen - would run the show.

Widely advertised as a public free-for-all, Cole's first public meeting brought in 400 people. More than 100 joined committees on topics such as growth, community character, education and economic development. From committee recommendations, Cole drafted the Uncompaghre Valley Community Action Plan, which covers the county and the town. So far the plan exists only on paper.

Meanwhile, elected officials struggle with the county's most severe land-use problem: the rapid subdivision of agricultural lands outside town. Ninety-five percent of all county lands are zoned agricultural and can be subjected to any use - commercial, industrial or residential - without going through county review.

One county planning commissioner, Allan Belt, says the lack of regulation has created some odd juxtapositions, such as a new housing subdivision abutting a new gravel quarry.

"Our land-use pattern in these agricultural areas is starting to look like a dalmation," says Belt. He says that some new subdivisions cut off wildlife corridors from the Uncompaghre River to the nearby mesas.

"Two years ago, the county planning commission dealt with two or three subdivision proposals a month," says Belt, who works for the Bureau of Land Management. "Now it's 20 or 30 subdivisions a month along with numerous requests for variations. You're hard pressed to find a field that doesn't have red survey flags in it."

The county commission considered modest regulation of ranchland development last winter and backed down when it immediately met resistance. In four days farmers and ranchers gathered nearly 1,000 signatures on a protest petition. The protestors have hired a consultant and are drafting regulations to suit themselves. The commissioners are talking compromise.

Keith Catlin, who has farmed in the Uncompaghre Valley for 42 years, says stricter regulations are not necessary because most farmers only sell off a parcel of their land to keep their operations afloat. "There's really not that many farmers that would intensively subdivide their lands," he says.

Besides, Catlin says, subdivisions have a place in the county.

"I've farmed most of the fields that are now subdivisions. I'm not going to say that's good or bad," says Catlin. "People have to have a place to live. It's just the people who don't want us out running our tractors after dark or spraying the fields that bother me."

About all frustrated planning advocates can do is turn to the polls. They hope elect county commissioners who will carry out some of the recommendations in the Valley Plan.

"Some people say we should just let things evolve in Montrose County. I can't live with that," says Belt. "We have a window of opportunity now to plan for growth. If we don't, this place will be a mess."

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