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OPINION: Strange Happenings on the Planning Commission
Muriel Eason | 6/4/12
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I attended the Town Planning Commission's Walmart Design Review — all 4 1/2 hours of it.  Understandably, not many others of the public were able to last that long.

The meeting on May 22 was fairly well attended by the public, mostly those with concerns about how the project would impact them, their neighbors and our community.  Most came prepared to respectfully give input or at least play the role of interested observers.  No one came expecting a 4 1/2 hour meeting — except the Walmart team and the Planning Commission, no doubt.    Wonder why?

A resolution quietly passed by the Planning Commission in early May had set forth a very rigid format for public comment:  sign a list, wait until the end of the agenda topic, then you would be called to speak in the order you signed up, and your comment would be limited to 2 minutes apiece.

Very limited information on the format for the Design Review was shared ahead of time, so participants didn’t know how limited their opportunity would be to provide input, or come prepared to last until the end.  Wonder why?

In fact, minimal efforts were made by the Town to even publicize this meeting — a very small legal notice in the Pagosa Sun.  Even the signs that were supposed to be prominently posted at the proposed Walmart site were posted in places where even people looking for them didn’t see them, not big signs along Hwy 160 where most of the traffic passes.  Wonder why?

When I attended the Town Council mid-month meeting the week beforehand, the Design Review was not on the agenda.  I wanted to know the format so I could be prepared.  Others in attendance also wanted to know.  So I patiently waited for James Dickhoff to finish his Planning Department report and I asked about the format.  The Mayor was impatient to stop the inquiry and continue on with the agenda, but James did give some unrehearsed answers, not mentioning the rigid format for public participation but saying that we’d have 2 minutes each to speak.  He said he wanted all written submissions in the day before the meeting so he’d have time to share with the Planning Commission ahead of time.  Wonder why this wasn’t shared with the public?

I submitted written input, but it was not shared with the Planning Commission ahead of time.  Wonder why?

So, when many members of the public showed up at the Design Review and were advised of the format, most just patiently waited to speak.  But then the Walmart crew presented their boring, plain, anything-but-customized plan for Pagosa Springs — for over 3 hours.  During that time, people who had a hard day at work and had to arise early the next day, parents with kids at home, and retirees uncomfortable about being forced to sit on hard chairs for many hours, and those who didn’t arrange to have dinner in advance of the 5:15pm meeting that were hungry, began to leave one by one.  By the time that the public comment time came, there were only a handful of diehards remaining.

This format had to be intentional, to discourage public input.

Then, even after enduring the long meeting, waiting for an opportunity to speak, many were not allowed to speak their 2 minutes during public comments.  The Planning Commission chair, Kathie Lattin, arbitrarily and brusquely dismissed people making comments she subjectively deemed irrelevant.  So, after suffering through more than 4 hours of boring meeting to that point, people are not allowed to even speak respectfully for 2 minutes.  Wonder why?

Those who were able to speak raised very relevant, weighty and well-thought-out issues.  On the other hand, members of the Planning Commission, with one notable exception, raised only “gingerbread” or “window dressing” type issues.  James did not even go through the Bohannan Huston review documents to highlight areas of the plan at variance with our LUDC, choosing instead to do a benign summary instead.  They couldn’t set aside the time, even though the meeting was 4 1/2 hours long?

There were other oddities I noted at the meeting too.  James Dickhoff was sitting with the Walmart team, as though representing them — representing not the LUDC or the local residents affected, but Walmart.  Wonder why?

Bobby Hart and Ron Maez were missing from the Planning Commission panel that night without any pre-notice to the public.  They were quietly asked to recuse themselves because of previous statements in support of Walmart.  Bobby Hart submitted a comment card at the Walmart open house and Ron Maez was quoted in a Durango Herald interview supporting Walmart.  Yet Cameron Parker, who lives in a townhome that will have a view of the back of Walmart and who, knowingly or unknowingly bought his home from Aspen Village Ventures, LLC (Walmart’s holding company — according to the County Assessor's website, the address of Aspen Village Ventures LLC is "PO Box 1860, Bentonville, Arkansas.") was still seated on the Planning Commission.  Wonder why?

If Bobby Hart was supposed to recuse himself, should he have even been in attendance — even as a member of the audience?  Wonder why?

Natalie Woodruff was seated on the Planning Commission since she is an alternate member.  How is she not conflicted, as the Archuleta County Assessor?  As Bill Hudson has mentioned in his “Shooting Blanks” series, the property values for the townhomes in Aspen Village have declined sharply.  I’m sure that Alpha residences (rural horse properties) will also take a hit on valuations.  Natalie, as the Assessor, will have to rule on appeals for reduced property valuations for those property owners.  Wonder why that is not perceived as the conflict of interest that it is?

Thinking ahead, when this matter passes to Town Council from the Planning Commission, what other conflicts of interest on Town Council will be addressed?  Kathie Lattin, as the head of the Planning Commission was very strictly managing the Design Review process (including what the Commission was allowed to consider and what input they received) and thereby, perhaps the ultimate recommendation to Town Council as well.  Yet she is fully intending to vote on approving the project as a Town Council member.  Darrel Cotton and Don Volger have both made pro-Walmart statements on the record.  Will these 3 be asked to recuse themselves too, like Bobby Hart and Ron Maez?  I wonder.

I went to the Town website on Thursday, and visited the Planning Commission page...
walmart design review may 2012 pagosa springs
...and I noted that Cameron Parker is now gone from the Planning Commission; there is now a vacant “alternate” spot; and Bobby Hart and Ron Maez are still listed.
walmart design review may 2012 pagosa springs
This is yet one more flagrant instance of the Town trying to deliberately exclude the public from the process.

It is time to let the Town know that this is not acceptable and we, the people, have the power to change the old guard.
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