County drops TDR program in valley

Commissioners open door to increased development

Tim Hunter testifies in favor of keeping a system of transferable development rights within the Dolores River Valley.


During a crowded and occasionally raucous public hearing Tuesday, Montezuma County commissioners voted 2-1 to allow additional development in the Dolores River Valley.

The decision eliminates the controversial Transferable Development Rights portion of the valley plan, effectively doubling potential building density because it reauthorizes guaranteed accessory dwellings.

After a three-hour hearing, commissioner Steve Chappell made a motion to cancel the TDR program, stating he believes standards for water quality and open space were adequate without the complex market-based component.

“I believe the Dolores River Valley is protected with the current regulation of a minimum 10-acre lot for development, the requirement of engineered septic systems, and the opportunity for conservation easements,” he said.

He was joined in the vote to drop TDR program by commissioner Larry Don Suckla.

“You could not buy a TDR. Our river drainages have regulations protecting water quality more than Mancos and Dolores,” Suckla said.

Commissioner Keenan Ertel voted against the motion, saying he needed more information.

County government has been publicly critical of the TDR system because not one has been sold since its inception in 2003. And because it limits private property rights for valley landowners.

“Our county is 70 percent public lands, so I’d like to know that we have freedom in the little amount of private property we have,” Chappell said.

In general, the TDR system put a cap on future development in the valley to one home per 10 acres, totaling about 620 new residences.

However, the limited building rights could be bought and sold (transferred). Farmers and ranchers could sell their development rights separate from their undeveloped land to retain rural quality and also make a profit. Conversely, landowners could buy development rights in the form of a TDR allowing them to exceed the density regulation of one home per 10 acres.

The strategy was that a limited quantity of development rights could be bought up and transferred around, encouraging clustered housing and leaving more open space and natural views along the valley.

The decision to cancel the TDR system opens the door for more increased development that is more convenient.

“Now that TDRs have been overturned, the valley reverts back to the default regulation in the county of one accessory dwelling up to 1,500 square feet per parcel,” explained land services director James Dietrich.

The difference is that the Dolores Valley retains the 10-acre minimum for development, compared with the 3-acre minimum in the rest of the county.

The packed hearing, held at the county annex, attracted more than 100 residents. Of the speakers, 35 urged the county to keep the Dolores Valley land-use restrictions in place, and three were critical of it.

Supporters testified that the density cap helped protect a water source used for domestic and agricultural purposes for 27,000 residents in Dolores and Montezuma counties and the Ute Mountain Ute tribe.

“It sensibly limits, but does not inhibit development,” said Ned Harper in supporting the TDR plan. “Controlling development preserves the integrity of the floodplain, reducing velocity and allowing room for filtering and recharging of the river.”

Chris Majors, a landowner in the valley, said TDRs work to retain agricultural traditions in the county.

“I’d rather see kids sell a TDR and keep the ranch,” he said. “It contributes to the economy because (the building right) transfers to another parcel for economic development.”

The vote to cancel the TDR program went against several recommendations by the planning commission to keep it in place with certain amendments to allow for flexibility, such as dropping the TDR requirement for an additional home if tied into central sewer of the town of Dolores.

“It is a well-constructed plan with broad public support,” said planning commission member Dennis Atwater.

Former Dolores River ranger Rick Ryan warned of the dangers of river pollution from urban runoff if the valley becomes too developed.

“Look at what is floating in the San Juan River below Farmington, or in the Animas River below Durango after a big rain,” he said.

Janneli Miller, a professor of environmental studies at Fort Lewis College and a Dolores River property owner, warned of the impact of too much development in river valleys.

“We are in a drought with a diminishing water supply and record lows in the Dolores River,” she said. “Allowing more and more people and development does not make sense. Water is a community resource, and it is easier to prevent contamination in our water than it is to fix it.”

Critics of the TDR plan urged it be repealed because it is too onerous.

“TDR’s are blatantly unfair, if not unconstitutional,” said Don Lightenburger, a homeowner in the valley. “It feels like an additional tax.”

Landowner Aaron Chubbuck tried to buy a TDR to build a home on a 10-acre parcel in the valley, but only found one offer of $100,000.

“It is a burden, and stops me from building a new home,” he said.

County attorney John Baxter emphasized that the decision to cancel TDRs does not affect other aspects of land-use planning in the Dolores Valley, including keeping the 100-foot setback from the river for structures, requirement of engineered septic systems, and a minimum 10-acre parcel for development.

“All that is still there, this only pertains to TDRs,” he said.