Without them, Montezuma County must still focus on protecting valid interests

When Montezuma County instituted a system of transferable development rights for the river valley above Dolores, it devised a unique, forward-looking way of regulating development in one of the most scenic and significant parts of the county.

Last Tuesday, county commissioners dismantled the TDR system, giving landowners in the Dolores River Valley more latitude in developing their property.

TDRs, they said, were not necessary to protect water quality in the Dolores River, which provides municipal and irrigation water for most of the county. Their decision puts individual property rights over community concerns.

The commissioners did some things right. They acknowledged the value of setting construction well back from the river — a restriction that now needs to be strictly enforced. They required a minimum lot size of 10 acres; they retained stringent septic-system regulations, and they continued to allow a conservation easements, an estate-planning device that has been under fire statewide but that has worked well here.

But they made their decision without appearing to consider the input provided by citizens who attended the public hearing. That is not representative government.

Commissioners Steve Chappell and Larry Don Suckla already had their minds made up. It is too bad they did not allow fellow commissioner Keenan Ertel time to gather the additional information he needed, and it is too bad they did not take time to think about the values expressed by citizens who were participating, in good faith, in the legislative process.

While the decision is nominally about TDRs, it is really about the extent to which development should be controlled. Those who stand to benefit most from it may favor unrestricted growth, but it is important to remember that any growth comes with costs that must be borne by the public, while the benefits of different development patterns accrue differently. Some growth lifts the county as a whole; some helps a broad swath of the county’s population; some enriches only a tiny slice.

The best-case scenario is not to facilitate colonization by big developers, but to carefully ensure that any change brings more good than harm to the local economy and the environment. County residents, represented by the commissioners, have a stake in the rules that determine the balance. They deserve not to be ignored.

It may not be fair to say that TDRs do not work. In the years since their inception, the economy has struggled, real estate sales have largely stalled, and borrowing has been difficult. Those factors have affected the Dolores River Valley just as they have the rest of the region. A fairer test would have been during a boom.

It will be interesting to see whether, another 10 years down the road, the absence of TDRs has spurred thoughtful development in the Dolores River Valley, allowed a free-for-all, or made little difference. TDRs may have been a failed experiment; they also may have been a good plan that was not allowed the chance to succeed. Either way, they are gone, and the county commissioners have an important responsibility to make sure that the new system they have instituted works well.

Whatever happens, the commissioners cannot forget that the water in the river does not belong to the people who own the riverbanks. Those who have downstream water rights, including Dolores, Cortez, the Dolores Water Conservancy District and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, have property rights too. The debate is not about property rights vs. socialism; it is about how best to protect valid competing interests.

Done poorly, development in the Dolores River Valley threatens the water supply on which almost all development depends. For that reason alone, county government cannot look the other way while landowners do whatever they want, tolerating an occasional oops and levying minuscule fines. There is a greater good that must be considered.