The Cortez City Council is looking at pausing land use code actions after facing opposition to the update.
The code update was set for a second reading and potential approval at the Jan. 28 meeting, after being pushed down the road in October. Vocal criticism from community members, though, has led staff to suggest halting the land use code process and then restarting it with a dedicated focus group.
City Planner Tracie Hughes said Tuesday that public comments have really accelerated since December, and staff has been spending a great deal of time responding to people’s concerns and correcting misconceptions about the code.
“Right now, staff wants to hit pause on this train,” she said at a work session prior to the regular meeting Tuesday night. “It’s not productive to manage conversations about things that aren’t actually happening.”
The update, which includes new standards for landscaping, building aesthetics, and design standards, has been in the works for about five years. The project was initiated to align with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, and to clean up some outdated components from the existing code, which was written in the 1970s.
According to The Journal archives, back in 2015 the city awarded Texas-based contractor Kendig Keast Collaborative a $186,915 contract for the rewrite. Funding for the contract was provided by a $100,000 Energy Impact and Assistance grant, a $50,000 grant from the Gates Family Foundation and $50,000 in matching funds from the city of Cortez.
A draft of the update, which is over 400 pages long, was posted at the end of 2018, and since then it has been revised and discussed at three public meetings and at several Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council meetings.
It was approved by Planning and Zoning commissioners in September and was on the table for possible approval by City Council in October. But after receiving strong pushback from residents and business owners, councilors decided to delay the vote until the end of January to allow for more community feedback.
Opponents to the land use code update organized and held a few community forums to share their complaints. The most recent forum was held last Thursday at the Baymont Inn & Suites and hosted by the Republican Women of Montezuma County.
At Tuesday’s work session, the council opted to wait until Jan. 28 to officially decide on next steps, rather than amending the agenda and deciding then.
City Manager John Dougherty suggested that moving forward, the city should break apart the code into its different components and solicit feedback on each part separately.
“Let’s discuss what people don’t like in each section,” Dougherty said. “Because what I’ve been seeing is a lot of generalities.”
Hughes said that based on the feedback she has received from locals, she felt they would need to create a sign code committee and a landscaping committee specifically. Crucial to the process, though, is finding a committed crew of community members willing to dig into the document and see the project through, she said.
Councilors felt that shouldn’t be too hard.
“I think the people would be happy to do it, rather than to just throw (the code) at them,” Councilor Sue Betts said. “I’d like to see them get their say so, too.”
The exact logistics of how the land use code should be paused remain somewhat unclear at this time, particularly in light of the upcoming municipal election in April.
“If you tabled it indefinitely, the new council would decide when they were ready to do it,” said City Attorney Mike Green.
Mayor Pro Tem Orly Lucero suggested bringing the current land use code into the discussion as well, to compare the two documents and look at what needs revising in both.
“We could discuss the old land use code, and see how we can improve what’s going on in the old land use code, and see what’s the difference,” he said.
Mayor Karen Sheek, though, wanted to ensure that the work of the planning department from the past five years was still used in some way. She pointed to the money and staff time spent on the code update.
“By putting it on pause, and then breaking it down a chapter at a time, where it’s manageable, then it allows us to be able to save what’s good and what will work for this community and fix what may not,” she said.
Both the work session and the subsequent council meeting were well-attended, with about 60 people showing up to the regular meeting. Although the land use code wasn’t on the agenda, 11 spoke during public comments about it – with Charles Jeter speaking for 24 minutes, after five people relinquished their four minutes of speaking time to him.
Per council regulations, each person is allowed to speak for four minutes and, if everyone has had a chance to speak once, they are allowed another four minutes.
Jeter, an urban studies and planning student with an address along County Road 25, felt the update’s development process had not been transparent, the code wasn’t friendly to economic development, and fines for noncompliance with code regulations were excessive, particularly to businesses and low-income community members.
“The fines are onerous,” he said. “They need to be reviewed and accepted by all citizen groups most affected.”
Jodie Henley, who was also a panelist at the Thursday night meeting at the Baymont Inn, said her biggest complaint with the code is its lack of clarity, calling it “ambiguous.”
A few real estate agents were also in attendance to voice their opinions. Bonnie Leighton, president of the Four Corners Board of Realtors and another panelist from last Thursday’s meeting, expressed her commitment to being a part of the update process.
“As Realtors we would be happy to work with you and to work with Planning and Zoning on the evaluation of it, or if you need help with anything like that,” she said. “We’re always willing to be on your committees.”