Cabins above treeline would be limited to 750 square-feet in draft plan.
By Mark Esper
Anyone hoping to build a trophy home in rural San Juan County may have to rethink their plans and settle for a modest cabin instead.
New cabins or homes in San Juan County above 11, 000 feet in elevation would be limited to 750 square-feet under new backcountry development standards approved unanimously by the San Juan Regional Planning Commission last week.
But the proposed regulations would allow property owners to add another 250 square-feet if they demonstrate sensitivity to the viewshed impacts through use of materials, siting, and height limitations, or if the property owners provide public benefit such as trail access, or retiring development rights on another mining claim.
“They (property owners) will be given a very large toolbox,” said County Planning Director David Michaelson.
And he noted the planning commission would still have the ability to limit a project to less than 750 square-feet if the project is “problematic.”
The regulations would also limit the size of homes elsewhere in the county to 2,000 square feet, with an additional 500 square-feet allowed under some circumstances.
Those limits would not apply to subdivisions and developments already approved, such as Mill Creek and Cascade Village.
The planning commission conducted a public hearing on the proposed rules Tuesday, Jan. 24. Only a handful of residents attended, most in favor of strict limits — if not an outright ban — on homes above timberline.
“We’re at the point where we have developed a code that is legally defensible and not arbitrary,” Michaelson said. “This is based on science and the county’s master plan.”
County officials are facing a May 12 deadline to get the new backcountry development regulations in effect. That’s the day when the county’s moratorium on approving new land-use proposals above timberline expires.
The moratorium was imposed after a Houston attorney last summer proposed a 5,000-square-foot home above timberline in the Mineral Point area. The county commissioners rejected that proposal and subsequently were slapped with a lawsuit, which is still pending.
Commissioners at that time said they needed to formulate more specific rules for land-use applications in the sensitive high-alpine tundra.
“We need to move ahead with a logical proposal,” Planning Commission Chairman Fritz Klinke said during the commission’s meeting Tuesday, Jan. 24. “At some time in the future it could always be amended. But we have to move ahead with what we have before us, and give the county commissioners something they can act on and have on the books by May 12.”
Klinke added that “I think what we have here is pretty good to excellent.”
And Klinke said the current housing slowdown has a silver lining in that the county is “not facing an avalanche” of land-use applications.
“This whole discussion was triggered by the moratorium on approving new development above timberline,” said planning commission member Ken Safranski. But he questioned the need for restricting home sizes to less than 1,000 square-feet above timberline.
“I’m afraid the pendulum has swung too far away from a 2,100-square-foot home,” he said.
Safranski said he sees a place for “reasonable and sensitive” development in the high country, noting that it provides jobs, for one.
Planning Commission member David Zanoni said that with proper construction materials high-alpine homes can be made less obtrusive.
“There’s a reasonable compromise,” Zanoni said. “An all-out ban is just too extreme.”
And Planning Commission member Bev Rich pointed out a political reality — that whatever the planning commission recommends still has to get through the present board of county commissioners, which may be reluctant to enact an outright ban at any rate.
Klinke said that 20 to 40 years ago “this discussion would not even happen. This is radical.” And he agreed with Rich that “we have to be politically aware.”
Scott Fetchenhier of Silverton said he’d still like to see an outright ban on new cabins above treeline. He said the county does not have the ability to adequately monitor water and sewer systems on such homes.
“How do we know that a leeching field or septic system works five years later?” Fetchenhier asked. And Fetchenhier said San Juan County is in possession of a great treasure, with “a wilderness-quality environment criss-crossed by mining roads.”
That resource brings a lot of backcountry enthusiasts who would likely be turned away if the area is widely developed, he argued.
“They’re not here to see cabins and homes,” Fetchenhier said. “We depend on those people.”
Fetchenhier pointed to cabins on the tundra above the Gold King Mine, which he described as very visible.
“I think it’s really unsightly,” Fetchenhier said. “Don’t allow anything on the tundra. Keep it in the trees and the development corridors.”
Fetchenhier acknowledged that such a blanket prohibition on new high country homes may be challenged in court.
“I think we ought to try to test it. This thing is so big we’ve got to do it now,” Fetchenhier said. “To me, even 500 square-feet is too much. There is the potential for a lot of damage up there if we allow any development.”
Everett Lyons of Silverton said he agreed with Fetchenhier.
“This is kind of a flash point,” Lyons said. “If you open the door it could be a flood before you know it.”
Lyons acknowledged that an outright ban on development on the alpine tundra would take political courage and it may be controversial and face court challenges, but it was still justifiable.
“The hard thing to do is sometimes the right thing to do for government,” Lyons said. “Hold your ground, ‘man up’ and do it. I don’t know if this is the right place for compromise.”
Michaelson noted that even with the new backcountry regulations, mining remains a land use by right in San Juan County.
“No permit is needed from the county for a mine,” Michaelson said, though he noted permits are still required from the state and federal governments.
Bill Dodge of Silverton said that regulating backcountry development is a high priority for the county.
“This strikes me as a very critical decision that in many ways will shape the future of the county,” Dodge said. He said San Juan County cannot afford to develop a reputation as a place where development can run amok.
He said the purpose of identifying development corridors along Cement Creek, Mineral Creek and the Animas River above Silverton in the master plan was to avoid “sprawl on the tundra.”
Dodge warned the planning commission that “whatever you think you wrote will be redefined by developers who want to go outside that scope.”
Michaelson noted the county has more than 3,000 patented mining claims. While several of those properties are not suitable for building due to steep slopes and avalanche hazard, perhaps 1,100 could be developed.
“The potential is alarming,” Michaelson said, noting that there are only 49 cabins or homes on mining claims in the county at this point.
Hearing Feb. 22
The San Juan County Board of Commissioners is planning a Feb. 22 public hearing on the proposed backcountry development standards. That hearing begins at 7 p.m. at the County Courthouse.