Six in need of a proper fix

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

The old Mesa Oasis RV Campground, south of Cortez, is a potential brownfield project site.

By Luke Groskopf Journal staff writer

You've seen them. The collapsing warehouses. The debris-strewn fields. The empty M&M Truck Stop straight out of some apocalyptic Stephen King novel.

The city outskirts are marred by a handful of unsightly properties that, whatever their previous use, have fallen into neglect and disrepair.

Together with the Colorado Brownfields Foundation, the city of Cortez and Montezuma County are trying to put some of those sites to better use.

In January, CBF project director Mark Walker created an inventory of 25 potential properties outside city limits. Now the County Planning and Zoning Commission has narrowed it to six.

The Cortez City Council is working on a list of its own.

The goal is to make the gateways into Cortez - maybe Dolores too - more attractive for economic development by demolishing abandoned structures and minimizing visual blight. Refurbishing the sites can take anywhere from six months to three years, depending on the presence of toxic materials.

"It's taking sites that are languishing out there and making them ready and safe for use again," said County Administrator Ashton Harrison.

The six planning commission board members each suggested their own preferred sites, and after some debate condensed them into a single, high-priority list.

The top choice was unanimous: the M&M Truck Stop and adjacent properties near the intersection of Highway 160/491 and County Road G.

The board combined four separate parcels into one site because they are contiguous: the truck stop, a vacant pink building north of the truck stop, the mostly vacant G-Whil-Liquors gas station complex (the liquor store moved to a bigger location up the road in November), and Baxstrom Pawn Shop. Together they comprise almost 30 acres.

Elsewhere, the board recommended the former Novotny junkyard on Highway 491 near County Road N (62 acres); the Mesa Oasis RV Campground on 491 near the airport (5 acres); the Sinclair gas station complex toward Mancos on Highway 160 (4 acres); the old Dolores Town Dump on Highway 184 entering Dolores (41 acres), possibly adding the adjacent Western Slope Holding Co. warehouse on Highway 145 (6.25 acres); and the drilling equipment yard on Highway 491 just north of city limits (0.10 acre).

Some of the larger tracts were chosen because only a small portion of their total acreage is being used productively.

Planning director Susan Carver will present the sites to the Montezuma County Board of Commissioners this week. If they approve, Carver can start reaching out to property owners. All the sites being considered are privately held, and the county cannot force owners to participate.

Carver hopes available grant money will be an incentive for them to get on board. Grants from the Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, among others, are available to pay cleanup costs. If a landowner plays their cards right, she said, they may not have to put up any money at all.

To be eligible for grants, property owners would need to craft a redevelopment plan with the county - detailing a future commercial or industrial use - before any cleanup could begin.

Owners have the option to be involved in redevelopment work, but if they prefer to sell and a developer is interested, Walker said a title transfer can take place.

Board chairman Dennis Atwater was frustrated that letting workable properties go to the weeds has become commonplace in Montezuma County.

"I think a precedent has been set in this county of not taking care of stuff," he said, adding that he was wary of imposing regulations and costs on landowners.

Unless a neglected property is a public health or safety hazard, county planners have little authority to address it, even if it brings down the value of neighboring properties.

When the Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 1997, Carver said, two clauses to regulate "junk, trash and visual blight" on private land were rejected on the grounds that "one man's junk is another man's treasure."

"There was a fear of overzealous enforcement," she said.

Farmers were concerned, for example, that old tractors kept for salvaging spare parts would be hauled away.

"Something might be an eyesore to neighbors or the traveling public, but it's money to (the owner)," Carver said.

So instead of coercion, the county will try to offer cleanup incentives such as waiving landfill disposal fees and possibly road access fees when a property is redeveloped. Board members also floated the idea of asking local businesses and civic groups to donate time and equipment to the cause.

Carver emphasized that she wanted to approach the whole process slowly and deliberately, focusing on cooperation with interested owners.

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