‘Commercial creep’

East Third Avenue presents a test case for the city: What does zoning mean?

Residents of downtown Durango’s East Third Avenue may well have lost their long-standing battle against what some call “commercial creep,” the slow conversion of properties along the once exclusively residential street into businesses. Watching that unfold, however, it seems increasingly important for the city of Durango to explain – for the benefit of other neighborhoods, if nothing else – exactly what zoning is supposed to mean.

The latest episode concerns Swan Wealth Advisors, a financial firm with offices in a building at the south end of East Third. At a Monday meeting, the Durango Planning Commission voted 3-2 to recommend the company be allowed to continue to operate there as a business, despite the property’s residential zoning.

The company has been operating with a permit for a residential business, which unfortunately seems to have followed a familiar trajectory. Allowed two employees as a residential business, it apparently has six.

And, with equal predictability, the surrounding neighborhood is divided. Nearby neighbors support the business use; others object to it as one more step toward turning their neighborhood into an extension of the downtown business district.

They have a point. Long considered a buffer between the bustle of Main Avenue and the residential character of East Third, East Second Avenue has been increasingly given over to businesses. That brings late-night Durango that much closer to Third Avenue homes, and adds to the pressure to commercialize the neighborhood.

It also does not help that the owners of one stately Third Avenue home chose to turn it into a bed and breakfast, a commercial operation. Nor is it productive that the neighborhood is too often convulsed by fights about such minutia as the appearance of doors and windows.

But none of that takes away from the fact that zoning designations are city rules, enacted and administered by the city. And, along with property owners in the rest of Durango, East Third Avenue residents deserve to know what that is supposed to mean.

There are, of course, reasons to support granting the Swan property a variance. There always are. In this case, it is relatively out of the way, near other commercial properties and was once zoned industrial. And it would seem to be a good firm run by good people.

But it has been zoned residential – apparently with no complaints from previous owners – for more than 25 years. Does that not count for something?

Nothing lasts forever, and there are exceptions to everything. But if zoning does not afford property owners and prospective property owners some assurance as to what will or will not be permitted in a given area, what is the point?

Residents of East Third Avenue deserve an answer to that question. So does the rest of town.