Tom Ross: Beware of annexing flying pork chops |

Tom Ross: Beware of annexing flying pork chops

Former city planner talks about Durango

— The first time I drove to Durango over Red Mountain Pass during winter, I swore it would be the last time I would behave so recklessly.

I had the big pickup in four-wheel drive, but the rear tires were slipping on the icy surface of the narrow road. We nearly came to a stop on a steep grade just before Colorado 550 entered an avalanche shed meant to allow snow slides to pass over the road without sweeping vehicles into the abyss.

I gripped the steering wheel of Grateful Red so tightly I thought it might snap off in my hands.

Given that experience, I was suitably impressed Friday when Durango city planner Tim McHarg showed up for a speaking engagement at Centennial Hall. True, it isn’t winter, but there’s plenty of early snow in the San Juans this year, and the next autumn blizzard could strike later this week.

McHarg, the former assistant planning director for the city of Steamboat Springs, was here to talk about Durango’s experience with historic preservation in residential neighborhoods.

However, it was a remark that had little to do with historic preservation and everything to do with managing annexation that grabbed my attention.

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McHarg said he hoped to talk at length with City of Steamboat Springs Planning Director Tom Leeson about a major annexation his city undertook in 2004 and early 2005 in connection with the construction of a new regional medical center. In addition to the land for the new hospital, Durango added enough land for a million new square feet of commercial

development and the

potential for 2,000 new homes.

Back in his office on Monday, he said the Three Springs annexation has proven to be an early success for Durango, even though in some ways it resembles “a pork chop flying out in space.”

Allow McHarg to explain. The Three Springs annexation is a parcel of land shaped roughly like a center cut pork chop, which is entirely separated from the existing boundaries of the city of Durango. Typically, cities do not annex land that does not share a boundary with the city limit.

However, the land between Durango and Three Springs is ground owned by the state of Colorado or the federal Bureau of Land Management. Because public lands border it closely, Durango was able to pursue a nontraditional annexation.

The other reason the Three Springs annexation went forward was that the developer was great to work with, McHarg said.

“The developers are the Southern Ute Indian Tribe,” he said. “They donated the land for the new hospital. They are the wealthiest per capita tribe in the country, and they are our neighbors.”

The Southern Utes have hired a strong team of professionals to help them diversify into real estate from their traditional base in oil and gas and gravel mining, he added.

“They are part of a development team doing projects in San Francisco and New York,” McHarg said. “They’re not your country cousins. And they have an incredibly long horizon line in terms of earning a return on investment.”

Direct comparisons between Durango’s annexation process and the Steamboat 700 annexation being contemplated by the city of Steamboat Springs may not be pertinent. Durango is less a “mountain town” than Steamboat, he said, and more of an amenity-based community that’s not far from the mountains. As such, its real estate prices aren’t being driven by ski base area redevelopment.

Still, Durango is feeling the pressure of escalating home prices.

Durango’s city council approved a temporary moratorium on construction of new buildings greater than three stories in the Central Business District this summer.

Planning Director Greg Hoch told the Durango

Herald last summer that

“radical” changes in Durango’s real estate market were driving developers to seek higher yields on their properties, and that in turn had the potential to threaten the character and integrity of downtown.

What can I say? It’s a small world.

I can’t wait to return to Durango and see all the changes that have taken place for myself. I hear early October is a great month for a scenic drive over Red Mountain Pass.