“It’s a sticky wicket, for sure”
By Toni Todd
It is rare for the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) to rule counter to a recommendation made by the Gunnison County Planning Commission, but that’s the way the BOCC is leaning on Warren “Trea” Sciortino’s application to legitimize an illegally subdivided parcel near the Danni Ranch, adjacent to Highway 135. At a public hearing this past Tuesday, two of three commissioners spoke in support of Sciortino’s request.
The illegal subdivision of the land was not Sciortino’s doing. That lot, currently owned by Caleb Brewer, was originally part of a 60-acre tract owned by Tad Puckett. Puckett split 25 acres off from the 60 and sold it without legal permission to do so from the county. Brewer acquired the land in a tax sale. He now wants to sell to Sciortino, who, with Brewer, has been working with the county for a year to remedy the illegal subdivision conundrum. Sciortino plans to buy the lot from Brewer and hopes to build a home there for his family.
The Planning Commission’s recommendation to deny Sciortino’s application was based on two overshadowing considerations. The first, guided by the Location Standards outlined in the county’s Land Use Resolution (LUR), asked whether the 25-acre parcel was compatible with the surrounding neighborhood. The second was a concern for the precedence it might set if the owner is allowed to build on an illegal subdivision.
“I was told by staff that it was not a developable piece of land,” said Sciortino. “One, it was subdivided illegally by Tad Puckett. Also, there would be rock-fall hazard. But I had set foot on the property and started having a dream. A vision. I thought the property was great. It borders state land and national forest.”
Later, a more thorough review by the Planning Commission, Sciortino said, showed there was no rock-fall hazard.
Sciortino’s attorney, Marcus Lock, suggested the characterization of this application as an attempt to legitimize an illegally subdivided property mischaracterizes the property and the application.
“If it doesn’t feel quite right, it isn’t,” he said. “He [Sciortino] has a dream. He wants to build a house there for his family, because frankly he’s getting priced out in Crested Butte.” Lock described the property as historically agricultural and suggested that, had Mr. Puckett gone through the proper steps to subdivide the property legally, he would not have been in conflict with the LUR.
Gunnison County assistant community development director Neal Starkebaum contested this, saying the land would never have met the county’s criteria for agricultural designation. “This is essentially an after-the-fact request for a subdivision,” he said.
Lock showed slides of several properties in the immediate area amidst several 35-acre lots, and properties that are even smaller than Sciortino’s. “This parcel is 25 acres,” he added. “Bearsaw is 35 acres right next door. Both are surrounded by national forest. If you’re looking at a single-family residence on 25 acres and one next to it on 35 acres, frankly, you’re not looking at much difference.
“If you say no, you will render this property valueless,” Lock continued. “What’s probably going to happen then, is the neighbor will acquire it in a tax sale, because that’s the only way it will have any value. And if that happens, the county loses control of it.”
(This is because property 35 acres and over falls out of the LUR’s regulatory purview.)
“As is, you have control and can say, we will retain 90 percent open space… It’s not a bad place for a residence,” said Lock.
“We did a lot of work to show that this property was legitimate for developing and it could be pretty nice,” said Sciortino. “I feel like this property is somewhat blackballed due to the defiance of Tad Puckett having a meeting with Neal Starkebaum, with [Starkebaum] saying ‘No you can’t do this’ and Tad saying, ‘Well, I’m not going to stick around here anyway so I’m going to do what I want.’ And staff is angry and I understand that.”
“We’ve had two public hearings on this matter now, one before the Planning Commission and one here, and we’ve gotten two public comments and neither one is opposed the project,” said Lock.
“It’s a non-orderly process when you allow a subdivision to happen illegally,” acknowledged Sciortino. “[The Planning Commission] wanted me to have the American dream, but didn’t want to set a precedent to open the floodgates of illegal subdivisions. A decision for approval today I don’t believe will set precedence… an amendment to the LUR [instead] can prevent illegal subdivisions from ever being created in the future.
“Finally, I’d just like to ask my elected officials—and I voted for all three of you guys—I’d just like to know who you are making a decision for today,” Sciortino asked.
“The only developable area of this parcel is about two acres,” Starkebaum said. “This is not personal. The applicant is a great guy. This is about the application of the LUR. The Planning Commission submitted this to you in full, good faith.”
“It’s a sticky wicket for sure,” said county commissioner Phil Chamberland.
“I have continuously struggled with this decision,” said commissioner Jonathan Houck, who pulled up short of committing one way or another. “The responsible party isn’t sitting here in the room. The Planning Commission decision takes personalities and people aside and says this is what we have to deal with. At the same time, I drove by the space the other day, I looked at it some more and asked, ‘Visually, does it make a substantial difference?’ This has been the hardest land use decision I’ve had to make in my time as a commissioner. I’ve watched the Planning Commission struggle with this as well.”
Commissioner John Messner said he’s inclined to overrule the Planning Commission’s recommendation and vote to approve the application in support of Sciortino’s attempt to “right the wrong.
“I think the lot is substantially similar [to the rest of the neighborhood], and I don’t think this sets a precedence. I do think we need to work on the communication between the assessor’s office and the clerk’s office… and the community development office and develop harsh standards for preventing illegal subdivisions in the future.”
“My perspective is similar to John’s,” said Chamberland. “When I read the Planning Commission recommendation, I had a hard time hanging my hat on the Location Standards as a reason to deny the application, because it fits within the realm of the neighborhood in that location. In the end, when I look at this, it’s a tough situation and I know where the Planning Commission is coming from, not wanting to proliferate illegal subdivisions. I would also like to figure out how we can avoid some of this in the future. In this case, we knew [Puckett] knew exactly what he was doing and he didn’t care. I’m leaning toward approving it at this point. I just don’t know how we go forward from here. I appreciate the efforts of the Planning Commission. I rarely go against their recommendations, but this one’s one I’m just not comfortable denying.”
County staff will draw up the resolution approving the application in opposition to the Planning Commission’s recommendations, giving the commissioners an official mechanism to vote their approval of the application and make the illegal subdivision legal in the eyes of the county.