The adoption of a new Cortez land use code has become a controversial topic with cries of government overreach and accusations that if passed, it will stifle economic development and result in business and homeowners not being able to maintain or sell their property. Detractors claim the code will increase taxes and once adopted will apply to county residents – neither of which is true. Discussions have become heated and sometimes downright ugly, making it difficult to discuss differences and come to a reasonable middle ground. Some have gone so far as to question why we even need a Land Use Code at all.
The current Cortez Land Use Code was adopted in 1996, and in the 24 years since it was adopted, much has changed. There are new construction materials which are more energy efficient, environmentally friendly and allow architects and contractors to create buildings that are beautiful additions to our community. The approach to land use has evolved, and the availability of resources like water have caused us to reconsider best practices. Building codes and construction standards have also changed over time, creating conflicts with the existing Land Use Code. In addition, the old code is hard to interpret and difficult to enforce, so, rather than continue to put a Band-aid on an out-of-date document, staff made the decision go for a rewrite.
In 2012, Cortez won a Heart & Soul Grant from the Orton Family Foundation, which “seeks to empower people to shape the future of their communities by improving local decision-making” and “strengthening the social, cultural and economic vibrancy of each place.” The grant funds the gathering of input for an update of the city’s Comprehensive Plan and create a new land use code.
During the two-year process, approximately 1,350 community members participated in events including block picnics and community conversations. Surveys from over 900 residents were compiled. A direct outcome of the grant was the creation of a master beautification plan, developed with input from the community. You see the results of that in the medians on Broadway and the additional landscaping that brightens our central business district.
A land use code must achieve a balance between community interests and the rights of property owners. It encompasses zoning and subdivision regulations with zoning being the tool to protect one kind of property owner from a neighboring property that might be harmful. Hence, certain kinds of businesses are not allowed to locate in residential areas and buffers are required to mitigate noise or eyesores. Setbacks, required parking spaces per type of business and landscaping guidelines provide some order, space and aesthetics. Recommendations in these areas are the result of years of experience with what works and what doesn’t.
The cost of these requirements is a source of debate, but I there is a return on investment. Talk with realtors and I imagine they will admit that well-maintained properties with curb appeal usually sell more quickly and for more money than those without.
The Gallup organization partnered with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in a 2008 study conducted to ascertain what makes a community a desirable place to live and whether communities with more residents “attached” to their community were better off. Over a three-year period, 43,000 people in 26 communities were interviewed. Ten drivers were determined to influence an individual’s “attachment” with the three most consistently cited being social offerings, aesthetics of the community, and openness – two of which are influenced by a community’s land use code. The researchers determined, “attachment of the populace is positively linked to local economic growth.” We need a land use code because it can be an economic driver while influencing the livability and aesthetics of the community. Out-of-town developers will build to whatever design standards are required, upping their game to conform with those in place in the community.
When I travel to new places, I pay particular attention to how the community is laid out, along with design of the buildings and curb appeal of the businesses and homes. A recent visit to New England provided memories of beautiful landscaping, colonial architecture and the character of their towns that comes with careful planning. In Cortez, we all take pride in our parks, amenities that are a part of the community’s master plan and which were often cited during the Heart & Soul process as cherished places that Cortez residents missed when they were away.
The land use code is how we maintain the character of our community. Maintaining community character is what the Heart & Soul process was about. We have recognized that additional community input is needed so that we have the kind of code this community deserves. I am hopeful we can all step back, take a deep breath and come together to work toward developing a document that will do right by this community, not for just today but for the future. That will require all of us to come to the table with an open mind and a willingness to compromise. In a community that prides itself on consideration for one another, we can do this. If not here, then there is no hope for it happening anywhere.
Karen Sheek is the mayor of Cortez, a position elected by Cortez City Council members. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or during her office hours,m 12:30-1:30 p.m. the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month.