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The confluence of events in Chaffee County related to rural land use could be seen as the perfect storm – or the perfect opportunity – for Chaffee County to begin leading the way toward more intelligent land use. An emerging public vision as a result of the Envision process; to protect the rural landscapes that residents of this county repeatedly raise as among the most valuable of county assets.

As pointed out in Thursday’s part I the Centerville Ranch Major Subdivision sketch plan proposal is only the latest flashpoint in the county’s public debate over rural sprawl. It brings into stark focus the challenges faced by rural counties such as Chaffee, and the need for strategic planning to stem rural sprawl, after decades of 35-acre subdivision due to the 1972 passage of Colorado Senate Bill 35. That bill requires an approval process for subdivisions which create lots smaller than 35 acres but allows 35-acre and larger subdivisions to proceed exempt from subdivision regulation.

That dichotomy has created what a Colorado Counties Inc. report, titled County Perspectives A Report on 35-Acre Subdivision Exemption in Colorado, calls “rural sprawl.” The process has slowly and continuously eaten away at larger, rural land-holdings; one 35-acre parcel, or more, at a time. Between the years 1972 and 2,000, some 2 million acres of Colorado agricultural land has been lost to the widely-used creation of 35-acre lots.

According to the report, first published in 2006, it doesn’t have to be this way. The report is based on a county survey showing that many of them use management practices that actually preserve open landscapes and reduce rural sprawl. Some 37 of the state’s 64 counties responded to a survey. Part I reviewed six of the many possible land management options to minimize rural sprawl. More possible land management options are described below:

Site Plan Review (SPR)

Some Front Range counties, including Boulder County, have implemented site plan review processes for sites with steep slopes, poor access and wildfire and erosion hazards. While such processes don’t necessarily prevent building on such sites, they do allow counties to specify how and where building is done on a 35-acre parcel and an SPR is required to build on any vacant lot.

According to Boulder County, this allows them to determine the best building sites to minimize hazard risks, and also promotes the protection of scenic vistas, wildlife migration corridors and habitats.

Zoning regulations

Some counties are using zoning strategies to manage the impact of 35-acre development, as well. Lincoln County put in a rural design development process as an overlay to its agricultural zone, which covers almost all of the unincorporated area outside Limon and Hugo.

The commissioners behind this regulation said it was done to encourage flexibility and innovation in the initial development of what that county calls “small” parcels of land (anything under 160 acres in Lincoln County). They require special use review of permit applications, weighing them on a set of several criteria. Applications are scored on: safe, efficient and economic use of land, public facilities, transportation and services, whether the development preserves open space, is compatible with county land uses, and the quality of design, character and layout of development.

Jackson County zoning actually includes something called a “Ranching District” and requires anyone building a residence in that district on a 35-acre lot within the district but not devoted to ranching, to obtain a Special Use Permit. The county reviews that permit application for impacts to the surrounding area.

Voluntary submission to review

Some counties have put in place voluntary compliance programs know as Large Parcel Incentive Process (LPIP); Gunnison County is one such county. The program applies to parcels of at least 70 acres in size, providing incentives “to preserve and enhance open space and to protect and promote agricultural uses.” The county offers a variety of incentives to land-owners for using the process including expediting proposal reviews, development density bonuses, some statutory benefits for rural wells, and some lot flexibility to build larger residences. The criteria for an LPIP: 75 percent of the total parcel must be protected under a conservation easement.

Rural road construction permits

According to the report, a landscape of 35-acre lots often require more road distance to circumvent and serve the lot parameters. Some Colorado counties such as Larimer County, which includes the eastern landscape around Rocky Mountain National Park, require Rural Road Construction Permits, with a minimum standard of “safe and functional” road design for public roads that minimizes erosion and disturbance to natural landscapes. Permit design standards are strict, including design attributes such as; minimal surface disturbance, avoiding extensive cuts, fills and steep sections, ensuring emergency access, and addressing impacts to drainage and maintains natural drainage patterns.

Other innovative solutions

Other counties have employed several other creative options to manage development on 35-plus acre lots. Those include the use of permits for grading, wetland special use and floodplain development and regulation of septic permits via the county health department. Some counties provide incentives to ranchers to improve environmental management of rangelands and help ranchers and farmers find new ways to capitalize on land values. Others have adopted strong “right to farm and ranch” ordinances to protect existing agricultural operations from nuisance lawsuits. Still, other counties have developed a “Code of the West” or similar guide to rural living that helps educate new rural landowners and residents on how to respect agricultural use of lands and ditches.

At the state level, some counties continue to support a changing in state tax policy to discourage the subdivision from larger land holdings of 35-acre lots (exempt from subdivision regulations).

What the report does make clear, in a way that places the challenge ahead for Colorado and Chaffee County in a clear light; “unchecked growth across Colorado’s agricultural lands and open spaces will likely occur if not managed in a fair, realistic manner.”

Coming up later this week: a look at Chaffee County land use regulation.