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The New Code of the West

Article by Montrose County

Rural Life – October 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, Montrose County on the Western Slope began considering a new comprehensive master plan, much as some counties in Central Colorado are now preparing to do.

A group of Montrose County residents put together this preamble, “The Code of the West,” so that people buying property in rural areas might have a better idea what they would have to deal with.

In Ontrose County, the Code inspired a a goodly amount of contrversy, with many objections from the real-estate industry. It is now undergoing revision there. We present the original version here as something worth considering as we draw up our own plans.

The Code of the West was first chronicled by the famous writer, Zane Grey.

The men and women who came to this part of the country during the westward expansion of the United States were bound by an unwritten code of conduct. The values of integrity, and self-reliance guided their decisions, actions, and interactions. In keeping with that spirit, we offer this information to help those who wish to follow in the footsteps of these hardy individuals by living in rural Montrose County.

INTRODUCTION: Life in the country is a rich and rewarding experience that is treasured by many Americans, particularly here in the West. The rural life-style has been a major influence on the American social fabric throughout our history and we in Montrose County are especially proud of the attractive environment that is available to county residents, both those that have been here for generations and the increasing numbers of new arrivals.

On the other hand, it is important to know that life in the country is different from life in the city. County governments are not able to provide the same level of service that city governments provide. To that end, we are providing you with the following information to help you make an educated and informed decision to purchase or develop rural land in Montrose County.

ACCESS: The fact that you can drive to your property does not necessarily guarantee that you, your guests, and emergency service vehicles can achieve that same level of access at all times. Please consider:

Emergency response times (sheriff, fire response, ambulance service, etc.) cannot be guaranteed.

There can be problems with the legal aspects of access, especially if you gain access across public lands or property belonging to others. It is wise to obtain legal advice if questions arise regarding access to the county road system.

Montrose County maintains approximately 1,300 miles of roads, but many rural properties are served by private roads which are not county maintained. There are even some roads that are on the county system, but not maintained by the county — no grading or snow plowing. Make sure you know what type of maintenance to expect and who will provide that maintenance.

Many large construction vehicles cannot navigate small, narrow roads. If you plan to build, it is prudent to check out construction access. Private drives may not be wide enough or sturdy enough to support emergency vehicles such as a fire truck. Contact the fire district for more details.

In general, school buses travel only on maintained county roads, not inside subdivisions. You may need to drive your children to the nearest county road so they can board the school bus. In some outlying areas, school bus transportation is not provided at all.

In extreme weather, even county roads can become impassable. You may need a four-wheel-drive vehicle with chains to travel during those circumstances.

Natural disasters, especially floods, can damage roads. Montrose County will repair and maintain county roads; however, some subdivision roads are the responsibility of the landowners who use those roads.

Gravel roads generate dust and therefore may be a factor in considering rural living. If your road is gravel, it may be many years before Montrose County will be able to pave it. Check carefully with the county road foreman when any statement is made by anyone that indicates a gravel road will be paved!

Mail delivery is not available to all areas of the county. Ask the postmaster to describe the system for your area.

Newspaper, parcel, and overnight package delivery is similarly not always available to rural areas. Check with these providers before assuming you can get delivery.

UTILITY SERVICES: Water, sewer, electric, telephone, cable, and other services may be unavailable. Please review your options from the list below.

Telephone communications can be a problem, especially in the more remote areas of Montrose County. From time to time, the only phone service available has been a party line. At other times there is a wait of several months before phone service is available. If you have a private line, it may be difficult to obtain another line for fax or computer modem uses. Even cellular phones will not work in all areas.

If sewer service is available to your property, it may be expensive to hook into the system. It also may be expensive to maintain the system you use.

If sewer service is not available, you will need to use an approved Individual Sewage Disposal System (ISDS) or other treatment process. The type of soil you have available for a leach field will be very important in determining the cost and function of your system. Where there is an existing system, have the septic tank pumped and inspected by a reliable firm and apply to the county land use office for an ISDS inspection.

If you have access to a supply of treated domestic water, the tap fees can be expensive. You may also find that your monthly cost of service can be costly when compared to municipal systems.

If you do not have access to a supply of treated domestic water, you will have to locate an alternative supply. The most common method is use of a water well. Permits for wells are granted by the Colorado state engineer. The quality and quantity of well water can vary considerably from location to location and from season to season. It is strongly advised that you research this issue very carefully.

Not all wells can be used for watering or landscaping and/or livestock. Make certain that you have the proper approvals before you move ahead with your development plans.

Electric and natural gas service may not be available in the more remote areas of Montrose County. It is important to determine the proximity of electrical distribution lines and natural gas mains before you commit to a construction program.

It may be necessary to cross public lands or property owned by others in order to extend utility service to your property in the most cost-efficient manner. It is important to make sure that the proper easements are in place to allow lines to be built to your property.

Electric power may not be available in single-phase and three-phase service configurations. If you have special power requirements, it is important to know what level of service can be provided to your property.

The cost of electric service is usually divided into a fee to hook into the system and then a monthly charge for energy consumed. It is important to know both costs before making a decision to purchase a specific piece of property.

Power outages can occur in outlying areas with more frequency than in more developed areas. A loss of electric power can also interrupt your supply of water from a well.

Trash removal can be much more expensive in a rural area than in a city. You should check on the cost for trash removal as you make the decision to move into the country. In some cases your only option may be to haul your trash to the landfill yourself.

Although most rural areas of the county are not wired for cable TV, many areas can receive broadcast TV signals provided by Region 10 and several broadcast stations. Generally, three Denver stations, two Grand Junction stations, and the PBS affiliate out of Colorado Springs can be received.

THE PROPERTY: There are many issues that can affect your property. It is important to research these items before purchasing land.

Not all parcels are buildable. The Montrose County Assessor has many parcels that are separate for the purpose of taxation, but that are not legal lots in the sense that a building permit can be issued. You should check with the county land use office to determine what the zoning is and that a parcel is “legal” and can in fact be developed.

Easements may require you to allow construction of roads, irrigation ditches, power lines, water lines, sewer lines, etc., across your land, and thus restrict your own development options. There may be easements that are not of record. Check these issues carefully.

Many property owners do not own the mineral rights under their property. Owners of mineral rights have the ability to change the surface characteristics in order to extract their minerals. It is very important to know what minerals may be located under the land and who owns them.

Much of the rural land in Montrose County can be used for mining, however a special review by the Planning Commission and the Board of County Commissioners is usually required. Also be aware that adjacent mining operations and gravel pits may be able to expand and cause negative impacts to surrounding properties.

You may be provided with a survey plat of your property, but unless the land has been surveyed and pins placed by a licensed surveyor, you should not assume that the plat is accurate.

Fences that separate properties may be misaligned with the property lines. A survey of the land is the only way to confirm the location of your property boundaries.

Many subdivisions and planned developments have covenants that limit the use of the property. It is important to obtain a copy of the covenants (or confirm that there are none) and make sure that you can live with those rules. Please be aware that Montrose County does not enforce covenant restrictions.

Homeowners’ associations are often utilized to take care of the maintenance of common elements, roads, open space, etc. A dysfunctional homeowners association can cause problems for you and even involve you in expensive litigation.

Dues are almost always a requirement for those subdivisions that have a homeowners association. The by-laws of the association will tell you how the organization operates and how the dues are set.

Surrounding properties will probably not remain as they are indefinitely. You can check with the county land use office to find out how the properties are zoned and to see what future developments may be in the planning stages.

Scenic views are often of special concern to property owners due to the spectacular views available in many areas of the county. The preservation of critical views is a property owners responsibility since viewsheds and ridge lines are not protected by zoning or subdivision regulations in Montrose County.

Irrigation water is often critical to the use and enjoyment of rural property. Make sure you know what water rights come with the property and understand how they will work.

MOTHER NATURE: Residents of the country usually experience more problems when the elements turn unfriendly. Here are some thoughts for you to consider.

The physical characteristics of your property can be positive and negative. Trees are a wonderful environmental amenity, but can also involve your home in a forest fire. “Defensible perimeters” are helpful in protecting buildings from fire and inversely can protect the forest from igniting if your house catches on fire. If you start a forest fire, you could be responsible for paying for the cost of extinguishing that fire.

Steep slopes can slide in unusually wet weather. Large rocks can also roll down steep slopes and present a great danger to people and property.

Collapsing soils and expansive soils, such as bentonite clay and adobe clay can buckle concrete foundations and twist steel I-beams. The soil conditions on your property can be determined if you have a soil test performed by a geotechnical engineer.

North-facing slopes rarely see direct sunlight in the winter. There is a possibility that snow will accumulate and not melt throughout the winter. You should be cautious about placing any improvements on north-facing slopes.

The topography of the land can tell you where the water will go in case of heavy precipitation. When property owners fill in ravines, they have found that the water that drained through that ravine now drains through their house.

A flash flood can occur, especially during the summer months, and turn a dry gully into a river. Spring run-off can also cause a very small creek to become a major river. It is wise to take this possibility into consideration when building.

The wildlife that is so plentiful and varied in Montrose county can provide you with some wonderful neighbors. They are often fascinating to watch, and their presence can enhance life in the country. However, remember that these animals are wild, and some may present a danger to you and/or may damage your property. You may need to find out more about these animals and how to both respect their presence and deal with any problems they may cause. Even though wild animals are on your property, they are nevertheless managed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The Division is a good source of information on minimizing wildlife problems and handling troublesome animals.

Threatened and endangered wildlife are present in the county. Areas of concern have been identified and changes in use in these areas should be referred to the Division of Wildlife and/or the Fish and Wildlife Service before development takes place.

Hunting has been a way of life since this part of the country was settled. Neighbors may allow hunting activities which could influence how you view safety to yourself or pets. Pets are not encouraged to run free since they may become a nuisance to livestock and wildlife.

Harsh winters can bring unexpected herds of elk and deer onto private lands. Their presence can cause damage to fences, haystacks, pastures, and other personal property. Please check with the Division of Wildlife on how to address problems before they occur.

AGRICULTURE: The people who tamed this wild land brought water to the arid west Slope of the Rockies through an ingenious system of water diversion. This water has allowed agriculture to become an important part of our environment. You should be aware of the facts about agriculture in Montrose County.

Agriculture is a multi-million dollar business in Montrose County. If you choose to live among the farms and ranches of our rural countryside, your property may be affected by your agri-business neighbors.

Farmers often work around the clock, especially during planting and harvest time. It is possible that adjoining agricultural uses can disturb your peace and quiet.

Planting and other operations can cause dust and odor, especially during windy and dry weather.

Farmers often burn their ditches to keep them clean of debris, weeds and other obstructions. This burning creates smoke and odor that you may find objectionable. Be aware that we do not have a “no burn law” in the unincorporated areas of the county.

Chemicals are one tool that is often used in growing crops. In many instances, ærial spraying is the required method of application due to the growth stage of the crop or the soil condition. With ærial and ground spraying, there is the potential for minute amounts of chemical to drift onto neighboring properties. People that may be sensitive to some chemicals need to be aware of this drift potential.

Animals can cause objectionable odors and noise. What else can we say?

Colorado has an open range law. This means if you do not want cattle, sheep or other livestock on your property, it is your responsibility to fence them out. It is not the responsibility of the rancher to keep his livestock off your property.

Livestock are often moved on public roads. When you encounter a livestock drive, common courtesy dictates that you pull over to the side and allow the drive to pass. The delay will only cost you a few minutes. Enjoy the scenery; this is the real west!

Owning rural land means knowing how to care for it. Land-disturbing activities (such as road building, housing construction, etc.) can encourage the growth of exotic plants and weeds. You should be aware that if you buy land with noxious weeds, or these weeds grow on your property at a later date, you may be required to control them at considerable expense. Also, some plants are poisonous to horses and other livestock. Finally, there is a limit to the amount of grazing a parcel of land can handle. The Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Montrose County can help you with these concerns.

IN CONCLUSION: Even though you pay property taxes to the county the amount of tax collected does not cover the cost of the services provided to rural residents. In general, other revenue sources subsidize the lifestyle of those who live in the country by making up the shortfall between the cost of services and the revenues received from property taxes.

The information contained in this “Code of the West” is by no means exhaustive. There are issues that you may encounter that have not been covered here. We encourage you to be vigilant in your duties to explore and examine those things that could cause your rural lifestyle to be different than you may be expecting.

By publishing The Code of the West, there is no intent on the part of county Government to avoid responsibility for those services which it is statutorily or contractually required to perform. We offer these comments in the sincere hope that they will help you enjoy your decision to reside in the country. It is not our intent to discourage you, only to inform you.

This arrived courtesy of Don Olsen at The Valley Chronicle, a monthly in Delta County. Subscriptions are $15 a year from P.O. Box 1412, Paonia CO 81428.