A technicality for approving an off-road race this weekend in McElmo Canyon was not properly followed by Montezuma County officials, prompting a proposed variance to allow the event to go ahead.
A professional off-road race, the “We Rock Dirt Riot” scheduled for this Friday and Saturday in McElmo Canyon, had been given preliminary approval by the Montezuma County commission two weeks ago, and by the planning department last week.
But, according to the Land Use Code, the event’s high-impact and special-use permits are required to go to the county commissioners during a public hearing before final approval is granted. The public must be given 10 days written notice of the hearing, which was not done.
Upon realizing the error, commissioner Steve Chappell ordered a rushed, unofficial public hearing to gather comments from supporters and objectors yesterday afternoon. Proper notice will also be posted and an official public meeting on the matter will be held at a later date.
Commissioners support the race, and were concerned by the lack of due process, but were willing to consider a variance of the land use code to allow the race to go forward this weekend. They cited a late application process by race organizers and a family emergency in the planning department as contributing to the mistake.
“The applicant waited for the 11th hour to get started, so they are partly to blame,” said commissioner Keenan Ertel. “There will come a time when you have to say, “No, you can’t do that because there is not enough lead time.’”
“It was an oops, and it won’t happen again,” added planning assistant LeeAnn Milligan.
Officials were reluctant but felt extenuating circumstances allowed for a variance in this case. As of press time Monday, no exemption to the 10-day notice had been voted on, but it was expected.
“We either say no, or we give an exemption to the public hearing which is kind of sketchy because it is set up for the purpose of accepting comments,” commissioner Steve Chappell said. “If we start granting (variances) then everyone will be coming in asking for one.”
The long-term standing permit application allows for up to four race events per year on a 320-acre parcel and will require annual reviews. It has drawn some criticism recently, but support is strong.
The “We Rock Dirt Riot” national series will conduct off-road obstacle race events on Sheldon Zwicker’s ranching property, located 17 miles down the canyon from Cortez.
An interior road on challenging terrain will be the race course for an estimated 30 race participants. The desert-style 4X4 race has various classes, and races last between one and three hours. Emergency and fire personnel will be on site, no permanent structures will be built, and nearby BLM land is off limits.
At the planning meeting, supporters and detractors of the race permit squared off in front of a microphone.
Race fans won out by a 5-3 margin, touting economic benefits and private property rights, and had unanimous support from Montezuma County planners and commissioners.
“We as ranchers know how important it is to supplement income, and this race is a wonderful way to do that,” said event neighbor Chester Tozer. “We don’t need these protests for activities being done on private property. We have roots going back 120 years, and folks move in, buy five acres and think they own the canyon!”
Resident Kaylee Green agreed: “I’ve been to these events, the impact is low and the racers are very respectful to our area. We’re happy to have people visit and share our beautiful home.”
She took issue with calls for special conditions.
“When other groups have wine tasting events in the canyon, we don’t demand they have extra security, traffic control and drunk driving checkpoints.”
Some critics were offended by the interruption of peace and quiet the race brings to the rural canyon. Others were more middle of the road and thought the location was reasonable but the perpetual permit was inappropriate.
“I’d ask the long-term permit be denied and the event be dealt with on a case-by-case basis every year,” said Joyce Kramer.
Other issues raised were how residents would be notified of upcoming races, and the impacts of increased traffic on roads and safety if the events grows to attract thousands of people.
Planning director Susan Carver said the high-impact and special-use permits issued for the race can be reviewed, revised, or revoked at any point by county officials to address issues or problems.
She added, “The event is site-specific for one parcel, it cannot be moved to other properties without coming back to the county. If it goes beyond the permit, then there can be another hearing.”
All elements of the race will be set back from the BLM boundary by at least 100 feet or more, organizers assured. There will be dust control, hired security, and no alcohol will be sold. RV parking will be limited to 40 spaces, and is for racers and their families only.
“What about oil spills?” asked planning commissioner Gala Pock.
Race organizer Randy Rodd said drivers are required to carry spill kits in their cars. The units use organic blankets to absorb spills from vehicles, and the blankets are then disposed of off-site.
“I think the race is a good thing,” said resident Lloyd Rose. “I’ve lived here all my life and the traffic you see today is nothing compared to the oil and uranium days. It was 10 times worse on a gravel road.”