Plan a vacation the next time your town makes a plan

Essay by Martha Quillen

Planning – January 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

WELL, YOU KNOW WHAT they say about the best laid plans… Yet our communities are compelled to plan regardless.

In the last few years, Colorado towns, cities and counties have been driven to adopt comprehensive plans. The experts say communities need comprehensive plans in order to channel recent growth in desirable directions.

But at this point, there’s little agreement upon what makes a good plan. Nor is it particularly clear how such plans should be implemented.

Last year, Saguache County adopted a comprehensive plan, and Chaffee County worked on one. But Salidans rejected a proposed plan — primarily because numerous citizens objected to its zoning recommendations.

The plan’s proponents claimed the plan’s zoning suggestions were merely guidelines that could be passed without being utilized. But citizens weren’t eager to approve zoning recommendations they didn’t like.

To complicate the issue further, during hearings on the new comprehensive plan, it came out that Salida already had a comprehensive plan adapted in the ’60s, and updated in the seventies. That plan, however, had not been consulted by those on the planning committee — since most of them didn’t know about its existence.

As it turns out, Saguache County undoubtedly had an easier time of it because zoning officials there met for eighteen months — gathering usage information and contacting landowners — before they hired a consultant to help map their ideas and finalize their plan. Whereas Salida began by hiring a consultant, choosing a committee, and arranging for four planning sessions that would immediately be followed by public hearings.

In Saguache County, misspellings, inaccuracies, and problems with the maps were corrected before the final plan was presented to the public. In Salida, the final plan was submitted to the public without any review or revamping by the committee.

Although the language in the plan may have been comprehensible to planning consultants, it certainly wasn’t standard English. And the first draft wasn’t even proofed. But even worse, a letter included in the copy addressed not only Salida officials, but also the Mayor of Crestone and her associates.

After that first inauspicious unveiling, many Salidans viewed our new plan as the work of bureaucratic paper pushers eager to make a buck at our expense by dispensing fancy prefabricated plans.

But the ruling contingent insisted that any problems in the plan could be easily resolved.

In retrospect, Salida probably relied too heavily on its consultant. Whereas Saguache County merely had the same consulting company correlate, type, assemble and map their already extensively researched ideas. Since plans come in all sorts of packages, and ours was of the bargain basement variety, we probably should have known that hundreds of hours of polling and analyzing would not be included in the final draft.

— But the editor of the Crestone Eagle offered what may have been the most cogent reason Salida had problems. Back when Saguache County’s comprehensive plan was being enthusiastically received — while Salida’s plan was floundering — we asked Kizzen what she thought the difference might be.

“Well, Salida already seems to be pretty much planned to me,” she replied.

And that may well have been the largest obstacle Salida faced in coming up with a comprehensive plan.

Salida is already pretty thoroughly developed. Thus, when the planning committee mapped out new historical parks, industrial parks, residential zones, and open space, they were supplanting a previous zoning arrangement that some people were satisfied with. It was undoubtedly a little easier to plan in Saguache County — since hither to its new plan, the county didn’t have zoning restrictions or building codes.

During public hearings, it became obvious that the zones suggested in Salida’s new comprehensive plan wouldn’t mesh very well with previous planning, zoning, and usage policies.

Furthermore, although it had been assumed that hundreds of citizens would be polled for the comprehensive plan, at one of the hearings it came out that the plan had been based on the responses of fewer than twenty people. And to make matters worse, some of the maps included in the proposed plan were comically inaccurate.

For example, when a friend asked Lisa Hutchinson which of the three proposed zoning maps she preferred, Hutchinson immediately chose her favorite. Her reason? The Hutchinson ranch was a lot bigger on that map than it was on the other two.

But many citizens were not amused. Not surprisingly, people worried about proposed roads that would plow through their living rooms, and about just what it would mean to have their homes on land categorized as “open space.”

Because the purpose of the plan was to suggest directions for the future, the plan’s supporters assured concerned citizens that none of the proposals on the maps would take effect unless their property changed hands.

But as the hearings progressed, it became clear that no one actually knew how binding the plan’s directives would actually be in terms of zoning.

FURTHERMORE, in spite of assurances to the contrary, it also became apparent that property valuations might change immediately (since a large amount of property which had hitherto been zoned commercial appeared on the new maps as “open space,” and property valuations are primarily based on potential resale estimates rather than on usage).To make matters worse, our local banks weren’t particularly eager to lend money on unsalable buildings and barns. And thus some people who had already planned such structures were suddenly faced with problems in procuring financing. At the same time, a lot of people who had heavily invested in commercial and agricultural buildings weren’t thrilled to find their land designated as open space — since they weren’t sure what that would mean if they decided to sell.

Thus, even though the new comprehensive plan was never approved, a number of angry citizens threatened to sue. And in the end, Salida’s comprehensive plan went back to the drawing board.

During the hearings, it often seemed like proponents and opponents of the plan had come to an irresolvable deadlock. But even so, some intrepid committee members stayed on, and others volunteered.

The second time around, a more extensive survey was sent to citizens. Committee members reviewed earlier plans, studied current zoning, and discussed new survey results. At a meeting in September, the committee talked about whether it might be wise to have an engineer evaluate Salida’s infrastructure before plans were devised that required expanding that system.

Now, however, Salida’s comprehensive planning meetings have been suspended.

According to Salida City Administrator Pat Brooks, the committee’s done all that it can do without hiring additional technical assistance. And since additional funding will have to be considered, Salida’s comprehensive plan will be up to the new city council.

All and all, the process of planning for the future has been a learning experience for Salidans — as slowly, it became clear that a good comprehensive plan should reflect not only prior zoning and usage, but also economic constraints, the rights of property owners, and first and foremost, the community’s expectations.

But last year, the city of Fort Collins proved how invaluable a plan can be — after a flood inundated the city, killing five people and heavily damaging the university library. Although total damage estimates ran into the millions, the city fathers gave a sigh of relief.

Due to the enactment of a flood plan designed to safeguard the city from a hundred-year flood (meaning a flood of such intensity would be expected to happen only once every hundred years), devastation was minimized.

FORT COLLINS’ flood plan didn’t entirely shield the city when a “three-hundred-year flood” struck. But it saved Fort Collins from starring in a tawdry and tasteless TV mini-series detailing the horrors of annihilation.

There are, of course, many types of plans. There are disaster-relief plans, flood plans, transportation plans, environmental protection plans, economic development plans, and even visions. But the comprehensive plan is the one that tries to put the whole picture together.

In Salida, we can launch a fairly nasty ruckus when a proposal concerns a single trail (or housing project, or mobile home, or curb-cut for that matter). Thus, the dispute over the comprehensive plan got pretty caustic.

But that might have been for the best.

Because next time around, maybe Salida’s plan will incorporate both city and county zoning, plus prior comprehensive plans, plus a consideration of our wildlife corridors, floodplains, fire danger, and wetlands.