EDITORIAL: Pagosa Springs, Closed to the Public, Part One
Bill Hudson | 1/8/09
As a news reporter who attends too many government meetings, I used to find the twice-monthly Pagosa Springs Town Council sessions a breath of fresh air. Difficult issues were discussed openly and with considerable public input; the balance on the Council, of old timers and newcomers, sparked interesting ideas.  The Council members, at the end of each discussion, would vote their consciences and many controversial decisions squeaked by, either “for’ or “against”, by a single vote. 

By the end of a typical meetings, I felt I had a good understanding of where each member stood on the issues, and the reasons behind their positions.  I used to tell my friends, “The Town Council meetings are better than a movie at Liberty Theatre.”

The Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District Board meetings, by contrast, consistently threatened to put me to sleep.  The Board rarely asked for public input on issues being discussed, and during all the meetings I attended, I don’t recall a single motion that wasn’t approved unanimously — in agreement with staff recommendations, of course.

Alas, all good things must come to an end.  The Pagosa Springs Town Council has become tediously boring, with the possible exception of its newest member, Shari Pierce. 

Not only have they become boring... but the current Council seems to be living in fear of revealing the reasoning behind their sometimes baffling decisions — or else they have no reasoning? — and they have apparently also stopped caring about the people they represent: the citizens of Pagosa Springs, Colorado.

What does our current Town Council care about, then? 

Development. 

As much development as possible, and the sooner the better, thank you.  But if a developer needs to wait until the market improves, no problem, guys — we will give you vested property rights for up to 5 years — no, wait, let's make that 20 years.  Anything to help you developers!  We’re your friends!

At Tuesday’s regular Council meeting, the Council continued to bend its municipal laws in favor of the latest wonderful developer to arrive on the scene, Florida real estate mogul Stanley Levine.  Although Levine has not presented the Town with the required drawings or economic studies to satisfy even a sketch plan approval, and even though the Town has not yet seen the Annexation Agreement — which is still bouncing around in various lawyers’ offices — the Council appears to be drooling over the possibility that Mr. Levine will someday build out 1,500 new homesites on his freshly-named Reservoir River Ranch — a 540-acre tract stretching over the southern reaches of Reservoir Hill, between the Town’s sewer lagoons and the intersection of Hot Springs Boulevard and Highway 84.  Despite the absence of any Annexation Agreement, the Council approved the annexation of Reservoir River Ranch on Tuesday.

We don’t need no stinking Agreements… right?

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment — since our current Town Council appears reluctant to do any thinking on our behalf.  The Town of Pagosa Springs currently has about 1,700 residents, living in about 800 dwelling units.  Adding a fully built-out Reservoir River Ranch to our town will just about triple our Town population.

So, does the Council think it might be a good idea to allow the citizens of Pagosa Springs to have some input into this monumental decision?  Could we possibly schedule a couple of public workshops and find out what the public feels about tripling its population?  Might our citizens have a few ideas about the best way to make this new town center blend with our existing community?  Are we in such an awful rush to triple our town, that no studies or public discussions can be accommodated?

I posed just these questions to the five Council members present at Tuesday’s meeting — Darrel Cotton, Shari Pierce, Stan Holt, Mark Weiler and Mayor Ross Aragon.

Here, in their own words, is what our current Town Council thinks of citizen participation:

Mayor Ross Aragon:
“I’m going to speak for myself. I think that is why we have the elective process.  You elect people to do what we’re doing.  You have staff people who have procedures, that have been done forever, and it’s something that works.  What you get with what you’re proposing, is you get a three-ring circus.”  Translation: Citizen participation amounts to a nothing but a circus event; please, just sit back and let the experts handle this.

Shari Pierce:
“I think we do allow the citizens to be involved.  We offer public comment times at both Planning Commission and Town Council meetings, and they can also submit written comments, so I think the public does have the opportunity to be involved.  And we encourage that — that’s why the Mayor opens it up for public comment.”  Ms. Pierce neglected to explain, however, how the public can possibly comment on an annexation, when the Council approves it before the Annexation Agreement is even written.

Stan Holt:
“In this town we have representative government.  If you want to go out and get a majority vote on everything, then you don’t need us sitting here.  You can just go out and get a moderator to count the votes.  But you elected us to conduct the business of the Town.  And that’s what we are trying to do.  We’re trying to represent our constituents.  Like the Mayor said, if you turn it over to public comment — when every little thing comes along — to a group of citizens, you’re not going to get any government at all.”  Mr. Holt apparently thinks that tripling the population of Pagosa Springs is simply “every little thing that comes along.”  How can we argue with that?

Darrel Cotton:
“I believe the process works.  We had public input already.  And when you do things of this nature by committee, you’re going to end up with something pretty ugly, in my opinion. And it’s a private piece of land, and there are limits to how much we can infringe on the private ownership.  As long as it isn’t hurting anything.  I think the process works fine the way it is.”

Mark Weiler:
“I’m okay with the process the way it’s currently run.  We have the Land Use Code, the Comprehensive Plan, we have a private owner and property rights.  If you were to cut [the Reservoir River Ranch] into little bits as it exists today, without a plan like this, we’d end up with no open space.  None.” 

I am guessing that Mr. Weiler's "little bits" comment is comparing the Reservoir River Ranch to our current Town?  Where the properties are “cut up into little bits”?  And where there is no open space at all?

Let’s see.  Here’s a map of our existing downtown, with the residential areas marked in RED and the PUBLIC OPEN SPACE — the space any County citizen can use recreationally — marked on dark GREEN.  Maybe Mr. Weiler needs new glasses, because the existing public open space that characterizes our existing downtown appears, to me, to be larger than our existing residential area:
Public open space
Thanks to the decisions now being made by our current Town Council, the new Reservoir River Ranch will include — measure it, folks —  8 percent public open space.

Thank heavens we have an elected Town Council to make our decisions for us.  I’d hate to see Reservoir River Ranch reflect the existing character of Pagosa Springs.

Mr. Weiler continued:
“I’ve heard some reaction to some of the stuff you guys [writer Glenn Walsh and myself] wrote in the Post Monday and Tuesday.  Not factually correct.  It’s not a gated community, never was.  My suggestion is: Come sit up here [on this Town Council] and help deal with this.  Don’t just sit and throw rocks at somebody trying to do something.  Be an active participant — not just a naysayer.”

So I guess I’m confused.  Mr. Weiler wants me to be an active participant?  But he doesn’t want the public to participate in the decision making process?  When I ask about public workshops, he says "No thanks"?

Is anyone else as confused as I am?

Read Part Two...
 
   

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