Ranchland Initiative raises ire and eyebrows at Planning Commission

“This appears to directly contradict the locational standards in the LUR”

There was a face-off last Friday between the Gunnison County Planning Commission and County Geographic Information Systems manager Mike Pelletier, who is leading the county’s effort to craft a process for subdividing large parcels of land, known as the Ranchland Initiative (RLI), that is separate from the county’s traditional planning process.



The Ranchland Initiative, when and if it’s adopted, will be a county program for conserving agricultural lands while offering landowners an opportunity to subdivide and sell a few lots from their holdings.
But while the plan is an alternative for landowners who are considering subdividing property into 35-acre lots without county oversight, it is also an alternative to the Land Use Resolution-based planning process, and that didn’t sit well with the Planning Commission.
The RLI is the county’s response to the helter-skelter development that has taken place in agricultural areas since the passage of Colorado Senate Bill 35 in 1973, that grants property owners the right to subdivide land into lots of 35 acres or larger without oversight from county government.
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That kind of development runs into conflict with many of the county commissioners’ stated intentions of keeping new residential buildings close to municipalities and the central services they offer.
With a public hearing on the initiative coming up next month, Pelletier went to a regular meeting of the Planning Commission Friday, February 19 to gather feedback on the plan, as he has done with several other stakeholder groups since the Board of County Commissioners signed off on the current draft.
A team of six county staff members and president of the Gunnison Stockgrowers’ Association Sandy Guerrieri have been working for a year-and-a-half to bring the proposal to this point.
What Pelletier got was an earful of feedback from planning commissioners who were curious about the apparent effort to tread on planning turf that has traditionally belonged to the commission.
Pelletier gave the commission a high-speed overview of the Ranchland Initiative Land Use Process that allows landowners with at least 70 acres of agricultural land to cut off a piece to sell with the county’s help in exchange for a permanent conservation easement on at least 85 percent of the overall property.
There were issues with the technical aspects of the RLI that the commissioners wanted to address, like a clarification that lots subdivided through the program would be for residential use only.
But the meat of the discussion came as questions were asked about the philosophical conflict this presents for the county’s planning effort.
“One thing from an overall standpoint and that’s the general policy of the board [of county commissioners] that major development in this county should occur next to population centers. And that’s been pretty specific I believe,” Planning Commission chairman Ramon Reed said. “This tends to allow for exactly the opposite of that.”
Under the initiative, landowners would be able to have a legal subdivision, with a plat on paper, and continue paying taxes on agricultural land until they decided to develop the land or sell it. The plans laid during the Ranchland Initiative process, and signed off on by the county, would never lose validity under the RLI, allowing landowners to prepare for the future.
“This appears to directly contradict the locational standards in the LUR,” commissioner Richard Karas emphasized.
Pelletier told the commissioners, “Yes, that is a wonderful goal, but the reality is that people can go out there now and chop up property into 35-acre lots and it’s happened. So what this is trying to do is face the reality of that and offer an alternative that minimizes the damage from those types of developments.
“To the extent that we can transfer that into town, that’s great. But trying to do a transfer of that density is not an easy task. This is, we think, a way to minimize the damage from that and offer the landowners value for their property,” he continued.
The RLI would require that landowners only develop one lot per 35 acres of overall lot density, with no minimum lot size and 85 percent of the property has to maintain its agricultural viability through a conservation easement.
Commissioner John Messner wasn’t buying it, considering the size of the local agricultural properties—some of them more than 3,000 acres—that might apply. He said, “Depending on how it’s laid out, you’re creating these pockets of pretty intense development, especially if they were to go for as small a lot as possible to get as many in there as they can and meet the requirements.”
Then there is the apparent presumption in the RLI that landowners will eventually choose 35-acre development over placing their property into a conservation easement.
According to Pelletier, of the county’s more than two million acres, about 377,000 acres are privately owned. Of that, just 62,200 acres are set aside as open space and about 52,000 of those acres are protected by conservation easements.
Unprotected land is far more prevalent, with private parcels of 70 acres or larger making up more than 270,000 acres of private property, leaving a large part of the county open to possible 35-acre development.
Karas took issue with that premise of Pelletier’s argument for the RLI, saying “Your assumption is that if you can develop into 35s and if you do, you will do it in a way that is bad for agriculture and I don’t think that is always the case.
“In a way if that assumption is a valid one then it kind of renders this [RLI] policy a solution in search of a problem. The fundamental assumption here is that a landowner will always do the wrong thing. I question that assumption.”
The county offers landowners a way to subdivide land now, but only through the traditional planning process. The “review standards are equivalent to a minor impact” proposal, Pelletier said, which would be ruled on by the Planning Commission if the subdivision were applying for a standard land use change permit.
By entering into the RLI process, landowners would have access to county planners, public works, the environmental coordinator and, if necessary, wildlife coordinator Jim Cochran to help deal with any wildlife-related issues with the subdivision. And while the staff’s job is to ensure all standards are met, they are also facilitating the process, which concerned the Planning Commission.
When the Planning Commission reviews an application for a subdivision, they are comparing the proposal to the law and the standards of the LUR, not negotiating or trying to reach a compromise.
“This does just the opposite,” Karas said. “I worry then about a potential conflict in county policy between what [the RLI] does and what [the Planning Commission does].”
The Planning Commission said they would write a letter to the County Commissioners detailing their concerns with the Initiative. A public hearing on the RLI has been scheduled for March 16.

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