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A crowded house of roughly 80 people filled the SteamPlant last week, during the second chance for Chaffee County residents and businesses to weighed in on their priorities for the new comprehensive plan. The public session surfaced major concerns related to managing growth and its impact on a range of things from housing stock to open space, water quality, density, and wildfire preparation.

“This document is built on an enduring vision and enduring concepts,” said Commissioner Keith Baker introducing the public meeting’s agenda. “This is a process and it builds on past work – from the early ’00s comp plan, through the round tables, to the Envision process. That earlier work is a base that shortens this process for an ambitious delivery [of a comp plan] in early 2020… this is your plan and its the plan that will guide the county decisions for 40 or 50 years or so.

The responsibility for the development of the Chaffee County Comprehensive Plan lies with the county’s Planning Commission, which will work directly with contracted consultant, the CTA Group. The planning process will include some 18 open public meetings; beginning with the July launch meeting and continuing over the next few months to gather input, before a draft plan is prepared. That will be followed by open meetings allowing the public to review and comment on the draft.

The audience was treated to a few visual “word clouds” representing the first public session at Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Conference center earlier this summer. One word cloud graphically illustrated the pressing issues county residents believe must be taken into account during the planning process. They revealed that at that point in time, housing, sprawl, water quality, transportation, managing growth, affordable housing, high costs, and density were among major concerns.

On the flip side, what residents most valued was also presented in a word cloud. It showed that most valued by residents is the county’s beauty; along with words such as “wonderful”, “peaceful”, “fragile”, “special” and “changing”. Many simply called it “home”.

The assembled group was to add to the public input using their smart phones to vote, but the voting mechanism that was to be employed for public voting quickly broke down, revealing the extent of a real-time county issue – reliable broadband access. The meeting continued with a tried and true method – raised hands to continue to vote.

“This is an emotional issue … so public engagement is important to this,” said Planning Commissioner Marjo Curgus, who helped count the votes.

Concerns were expressed over housing and broadband access. Protecting the rural and open spaces of the county were also hot buttons.

The public votes reveals that a major of the audience personally knew someone facing housing issues, and roughly half said it was the county’s number one priority. A majority of the audience thought that affordable housing should fall into the $600 to $900 per month category. For the record, the county’s median rental rate was reported to be $1,478.

The audience appeared to say they felt that many housing types could constitute “affordable” housing. The question invited the audience at the SteamPlant to select all types they believed could be “affordable”; answers were recorded manually and have been folded into the larger Comp. Plan survey:

Town homes 41
Single Family home 41
Tiny homes 27
Apartments 45
Other – yurts, mobile homes, condos 15

A discussion and vote on amenities that those present thought were most important, revealed concerns over walkable neighborhoods and transportation improvements, followed by more parks and open space and childcare.

The audience expressed support for the county prioritizing and creating a dedicated revenue source for affordable (also known as attainable) housing, while it also showed that people need more information to understand what constitutes affordable housing.

Asked what policy tools they would support to increase supply of affordable housing, there appeared to be support for several tools, including creation of a multi-jurisdictional housing authority, changing land use policy to mandate the inclusion of affordable housing units in new projects, encouraging affordable housing zoning in appropriate areas, and a willingness to encourage new types of housing to meet the county’s affordable housing needs.

The group also expressed support for several methods of funding affordable housing including; impact fees, a dedicated county tax on tourism, a dedicated county property tax, and offering tax credits for affordable housing.

The majority of the audience said the county should incentivize to extend broadband infrastructure, and many said the county should also incentivize business development through affordable housing projects and focus on improving the critical childcare incentive. (Recent surveys have shown that some 30 percent of young parents have indicated that they are thinking they may need to leave the valley because of the lack of childcare.)

In discussion about housing across the rural county, the majority of those present seemed to favor discontinuing the current two acre minimum and many said they need more information about the impact of the change from the former five acre minimum to the current two acre lot size. Several comments were offered regarding where density should be encouraged, including near existing population areas.

Representatives of CTA Group and county representatives encouraged the public to go to both for more information about how the plan is being developed, and to contribute information by completing the county-wide survey. (The complete results of the hand vote taken at the meeting at the SteamPlant are being added to the online survey results.)

That survey will become a part of the record shaping the development of the Comprehensive Plan, which in turn will be used to update the county’s land use code, that frames county-wide growth and development action. Commissioners confirmed that the survey and the public sessions surrounding it are intended to surface the big, hot topics facing the county; environmental concerns, protection of the watershed, conservation of open space, protection against wildfire and confining density to areas near population centers.

“It has mapping tools that allowing the public to comment on areas of concern – it’s very user friendly,” said Baker about the online survey. “You can drop a comment on an area you feel needs protection, indicate where you think a trail should be, comment on development areas – it’s our tool for future land use mapping. We’ll turn it into maps of your public vision for growth.”

“I don’t think we can find a more engaged group of 20,000 people anywhere in this state,” said Commissioner Greg Felt. “We all realize this county is getting a lot of attention. It’s created a sense of urgency from tourism. But it’s also creating a lot of attention at the state level when we passed one of the few taxes in the state that passed – our common ground ballot question. Another way to measure the notice we’re getting is the number of grants flowing our way – including to fund this Comp. Plan … I encourage you to stick with this. It’s not just affecting this little valley here – the ideas that are coming out of this valley are affecting other areas of the state.”