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The confluence of events in Chaffee County related to land use, including the Envision process, the passage of Ballot Issue 1A, controversy over master planned developments, out of date land use code and a dated county comprehensive plan could be seen as the perfect storm. Or – it could be the perfect opportunity for Chaffee County to begin leading the way toward more intelligent land use, protecting the rural assets residents of this county profess to honor.

While the Centerville Ranch Major Subdivision sketch plan proposal has been the latest flashpoint, it has also brought into stark focus the challenges rural counties such as Chaffee face 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 acres 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.” Between 1972 and 2,000 alone, some 2 million acres of Colorado agricultural land has been lost to the widely-used practice of creating 35-acre lots. Not only do these 35-acre lots carve up the open land, but because only a single acre can be irrigated on a 35-acre parcel, it dries up the land.

A view of Mt. Princeton from CR 270, looking northwest. Photos by Jan Wondra.

According to the report, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are county management practices that actually preserve open landscapes and reduce rural sprawl. The report points out that prevention of that sprawl minimizes the cost of providing services; 35-acre “ranchettes” require more roads and represent more difficulty providing fire, police and emergency services. The report, funded by Colorado rural counties, includes findings from the Environment Colorado Research and Policy Center estimating that for every county tax dollar brought in by 35-acre rural lots, those areas require $1.65 in county infrastructure costs.

The base of the report included a survey of Colorado counties; 37 of the 64 responded. At that time 17 counties didn’t control 35-acre parcels, nine relied on “density zoning” to control them, and 12 counties used other methods to manage these larger parcels. By 2006, several counties began using land management practices to minimize sprawl. Six possible solutions, of the many possible land management options suggested in the report, are briefly described below:

Density zoning

As a general concept, this regulates the minimum lot size permissible for residential construction on subdivided land. Chaffee County employs this control as a minimum average lot size, although most counties use it to control lots from 60 to 160 acres. Custer, Adams, Elbert, Jackson Morgan, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Summit and Weld county use density zoning.

Growth Management Regulations

This approach is meant to deter subdivision of land into 35-acre parcels. As used in Pitkin County, it requires all new subdivisions of land to acquire a development right. The theory is that a parcel of land has a single development right attached to it; if the land is subdivided, there is only a single development right and a landowner acquires a development right by going through the county growth management review process. Pitkin County limits the amount of development footage allowed each year. Exemptions are offered to landowners of parcels of more than 80 acres to encourage them to keep large parcels intact.

Cluster development

Cluster developments conserve land by limiting development to specified portions of the land site, preserving the remaining areas as open space or agricultural use. Larimer County has used cluster development as a tool in its Rural Land Use Process. The incentive, offered to landowners to retain rural and agricultural land, includes allowing additional housing units to be built only if the units are in close proximity to each other. In Larimer County, a landowner following this practice is required to designate two-thirds of total land to agricultural use, wildlife habitat, open space, or a conservation easement for a minimum of 40 years. The approach attempts to balance the competing interests of environmental protections and property rights.

Conservation easements

These are legal agreements between a landowner and a land trust, or government agency that limits the use of a property in order to protect benefits that flow from natural resource conservation, including wildlife habitat, scenic vistas, open space and agricultural production. In Colorado, landowners who set up conservation easements on their land receive state tax credits with financial value, while preserving agricultural land and open space. Such easements can mitigate a landowner’s desire to use the 35-acre exemption to divide a larger parcel. The practice requires honest appraisals of the value of the land, something that the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District looked closely at in the early 2000s when some unrealistic appraisals had to be handled. In fact around that time, Great Outdoors Colorado actually rejected some Otero County conservation easement applications due to inflated appraisals.

Transferable Development Rights

The concept of a Transferable Development Right (TDR) allows landowners to transfer the right to develop one parcel of land to a different parcel of land (a concept with which Chaffee County’s new Housing Director Becky Gray is familiar). This tool can shift development from agricultural land or open space to areas that are developed or prepared for development. A TDR has a tangible value that a landowner can use to realize some financial benefit from a landholding. Typically TDRs are transferred from a “sending” parcel of land to a “receiving” parcel. Local government designates which areas are to be considered sending or receiving areas. Among counties already using this tool are Adams, Pitkin, Summit, Larimer, Boulder and Mesa counties.

1041 Powers

As granted by Colorado House Bill 74-1041, this allows local governments to identify, designate and regulate 21 statutorily-defined areas as activities of state interest. With this option, if land being divided into 35-acre lots is deemed to be in a geological hazard area, a wildlife area, a wildfire or flood hazard area, a historical and archaeological resource area, the county can require compliance with 1041 regulations. Eagle and Pitkin Counties use this to manage growth in sensitive areas.

Tomorrow, Part II: More land management practices to manage rural sprawl, as offered by the County Perspectives Report on 35-acre subdivision exemption in Colorado.