In 2012 Cortez was the recipient of a Heart & Soul grant awarded by the Orton Family Foundation (think Vermont Country Store).
The focus was to develop a strategy for engaging all citizens, particularly those from under-represented groups, as we updated our comprehensive plan and revised our land use code.
Over many months, staff and Heart & Soul Committee members held community meetings to find out what our citizens truly valued and wanted to see preserved.
Armed with community input gleaned from hours of conversations, along with a substantial grant from Orton, the Cortez Planning and Building Department has been working to revise our 1996 land use code.
Kendig Keast Collaborative, land use code consultants, was hired in 2015. Following conversations with council members and city staff, they began work. It has been a lengthy process.
Currently, staff is reviewing the proposed code, tweaking language – a major goal was to make this document citizen-friendly – revising sections that were believed to be too restrictive for our community, and making sure that the new code lined up with the comprehensive plan and community input. The goal is to create as “clean” a copy as possible before moving to the next phase: taking the document to citizens for their comments. This is slated for late spring. Once a consensus is reached, it will be formally approved. The new code will speed up the permitting process, saving time and money for everyone.
Though reading land use and building codes is a guaranteed cure for insomnia, discussions surrounding codes can become lively. Some find the process cumbersome and restrictive; others argue, “It’s my property, and I don’t want government telling me what I can and cannot do.” Those favoring such codes point out that their purpose is to provide a basic plan for orderly development and construction that adheres to minimum standards of design and safety.
An LUC shapes growth from two perspectives. It provides a framework for development so that as our community grows, it will grow in a way that reflects community values. When I was first elected to city council, Planning and Building Director Kirsten Sackett had a quotation that appeared at the bottom of all of her emails: “Do you want new development to shape the character of your community, or do you want the character of your community to shape new development?” A carefully drafted LUC helps ensure the latter. It also helps guide the planning and installation of infrastructure, such as water and sanitation lines, broadband fiber, and the placement of driveways, streets and easements.
If development is allowed to occur willy-nilly, the result can be narrowly focused decisions that negatively impact future projects, increasing costs down the road or surprises resulting in friction or lawsuits between neighbors.
Along with revising our LUC, the Cortez Planning and Building Department is also in the process of adopting the 2015 Building Code. While the LUC governs what can go where, building codes are designed to protect public health and safety by requiring that new builds or renovations meet minimum design and safety standards.
Building codes govern all aspects of construction from the amount of soundproofing required between apartments – which may not seem important as you’re reading this, but when you can hear bacon sizzling in the apartment next door, it’s very disconcerting! – to the spacing and location of electrical outlets. Though we may never think about them, building standards and code enforcement are important to us all.
History is littered with disasters resulting from the failure to follow building codes, and while they add additional steps in the construction process, they also help ensure the safety of the buildings we live and work in, reduce the potential of a fire or disease spreading, and provide future buyers with assurances that the building they purchase conforms to a recognized set of standards.
As construction techniques and building materials change, so too must building codes. It’s an ongoing process, and one that is undertaken while staff administers the day-to-day responsibilities of the department: making fire inspections, doing code compliance calls, issuing permits, working with contractors and citizens, and performing site inspections with the ultimate goal of issuing a certificate of occupancy.
Last year, the department provided oversight on over $21 million in construction projects. Pretty amazing when you consider that they do it all with a staff of six!
To learn more about the LUC, building code, and planning and building department, go to the city’s new updated website at cityofcortez.com.
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 from 12:30 -1:30 p.m. the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month.