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Chaffee County Planning Commission discussed changes to Land Use Code Article 3, Right to Farm and Ranch, focusing on ditch rights, during their lengthy work session on Tuesday afternoon, May 29, and ended with the topic of vacation cabin rentals.

The topic of irrigation ditch crossings and potential for friction between ditch owners, property owners and developers, was requested by Planning Commissioner Karin Adams, a broker/owner with United Country Heart of the Rockies Real Estate.

“As applicants are looking to do developments we have had some extraordinary demands from ditch owners,” said Planning Manager Jon Roorda. “This is whether ditch owner requests are reasonable, if the ditch owner is doing everything in his power to prevent a ditch crossing.”

Irrigation ditch rights are among the most complicated and senior rights in Colorado law. Under Colorado state law, a ditch owner has an easement as wide as reasonably necessary for maintenance, operation and repair of a ditch. Often ditch rights cross private property, and the ditch easement must be wide enough to provide continuous vehicular access along the length of at least one side of the ditch. Any land use code changes have to permit at least a 15 foot wide maintenance area shown on all plats, and must connect to subdivision or county roads, to get maintenance equipment to it.

The background provided by Roorda and Adams focused on the potential for conflict when the land owner either doesn’t want to provide access, or when a piece of property is sold or developed, when new lots cross ditches to which the property owners want access. Any bridge, or crossing area can’t impede the operation of the ditch. Chaffee County’s RTFR laws are paraphrased from state law.

“We’re asking what is it really saying, and what are we really doing?” asked Adams. “ We’ve had cases where we’re posting a $5,000 deposit for ditch crossings. Is that reasonable? We also don’t know who to go to, right now it says the approval has to go to the ditch owner – what if there are a lot of owners?”

“I serve on the Chaffee County Right to Farm and Ranch board, I own shares in ditches, and I own a ditch,” said Jim McConaghy. “I own shares in the Bowen ditch, one of the longest in the county down Chalk Creek Canyon, that runs through one of her(Adam’s) new subdivisions. It’s bisected by several lots. How are they going to get to the other half of their property? If we have a ditch that has to be circumvented by maintenance equipment, all the bridges, even simple ones, increase the cost of operating and maintaining the ditch. You’re renting a piece of equipment for hundreds of dollars an hour and it adds up. We charge crossing fees, which are calculated as the amount of money we have had to put into escrow. The Bowen is a big ditch, several years ago it cost $3,000 to get equipment in there, so $5,000 is possible.”

“The ditch is a right of way, not an ownership,” said Planning Commissioner Rob Treat. “This is just one document … it protects the ditch owner. Aren’t there other docs protecting the property owner?”

“I have a situation where there are two (ditch) owners, they are using that power just to be obnoxious,” said Adams. “That’s where this wording gets heavy-handed. We still want to protect the users of the water.”

Planning commissioners debated how to adjust terms to replace “ditch owner” to make it easier for developers to get permissions for ditch crossings where there are multiple ditch share owners. They considered “ditch owners” (plural) and “ditch governing body.”

“If I get permission from a ditch owner to build a structure, if that structure clogs the ditch, they can still remove that structure,” “said Planning Commission Chair Mike Allen to staff. “Make one change from ditch owner to ditch governing body or a more operating word – change the language – then let’s bring this to a public hearing.”

The final work session topic, that of vacation cabins, most of which operate seasonally. The county land use code includes provisions for camp cabins, which sit on a permanent foundation, normally don’t have a kitchen or bathroom, and must be situated within 500 feet of a central camp facility, with facilities.

“The issues is how do we regulate them … do we regulate them like camp grounds?” asked Planner Christy Barton.

“We have a provision for a camp cabin in our use types, Snowy Peaks is a camp cabin,” said Roorda. “The vacation cabin rentals gets into something bigger, this touches on density.”

“Could you do this in a residential zone?” asked Bill Baker. “ Should we add it as a use type?”

“If they are permanent installations, if they are residential structures, wouldn’t this be like a subdivision?” asked Dan McCabe?

“Let’s do a separate section for vacation cabins– a new use, no kitchen, no bathroom, if we had a category in the use table, then the standards would be complied with in different ways,” said Allen. “We could add a seasonal component to this, as a for-rent facility. We can adjust the standard, type of insulation, based on the seasonal use.”

“The concept of major and minor hotels might fit. There is nothing that says motel walls have to be together,” said Roorda. “We could allow them to build up to ten, self-contained units…we could slide this into minor hotel (standards).”

Planning Commission requested a staff recommendation, with options for handling vacation cabins.