Routt County investigates update of regulations designed to protect streams and ponds from development
Steamboat Springs — After hearing conflicting testimony from their constituents, Routt County commissioners agreed Sept. 22 to extend a review of their waterbody setback regulations to determine if an update is needed.
The question is whether the waterbody setback regulations as drafted accomplish clean water without unduly hindering development, Commissioner Doug Monger told the gathering.
The setback regulations, passed in 1996, are intended to protect rivers, streams and ponds from encroachment by human development. They prohibit driveways, structures and “improvements” — which can include grading the soil — from taking place closer than 50 feet from water bodies without a permit and unless they are “unavoidable.”
There was some sentiment among the 23 people in attendance this week that, while waterbody setbacks are important, the one-size-fits-all approach might be too strict in some cases. Others suggested the setbacks are critical to the future of water supplies in the region.
Bill Badaracca — a manager with the general contracting firm Fair and Square Construction and a member of the Yampa, White Green River Basin Roundtable, which makes recommendations to the state of Colorado on water policy — said the current waterbody setback regulations have never been a problem for his company, nor for its clients.
“I would urge you to think long and hard before changing anything on waterbody setbacks,” he said.
Commissioners resolved in August to revisit their regulations after they disagreed with the stance taken by County Planning Director Chad Phillips, who recommended against permitting the developers of a small private golf course on Windwalker Ranch to build a bridge over the Yampa River. Phillips felt the applicants could avoid building the bridge by using nearby county roads to access the portion of the golf course on the opposite side of the river.
Phillips stood fast in his opposition to allowing the Windwalker owners to encroach on the county’s standard 50-foot setback requirement in order to build the bridge.
However, the commissioners voted to allow the encroachment after the owners offered to give up their right to build a bridge elsewhere on their property in order to build a home on a 50-acre parcel that could not be reached any other way. They further promised to enter an agreement to enhance the natural riparian habitat along the river within their property to offset any impacts the bridge might pose.
In the case of the golf course, commissioners concluded the owners’ plan would result in a net benefit and granted the permit.
That determination led civil engineer Jeff Lake, of Civil Design Consultants, to suggest this week the language in the regulations should be changed to replace the words “unless unavoidable” with “unless adequately mitigated.”
Seasonal streams protected
Staff Planner Alan Goldich reminded the gathering that the 50-foot water body setbacks in Routt County regulations apply to the high water mark on streams, rivers, lakes and ponds that hold water for at least 60 days of the year. Agricultural operations enjoy immunity from those regulations, except in cases when a structure requiring a building permit is planned to encroach on the setback.
Since 2000, Goldich reported, there have been 88 applications (carrying a $400 permit fee) for waterbody setbacks. Of those, 16 were abandoned, and only one was denied.
Goldich and Phillips displayed a map illustrating how some existing homes in the Steamboat II subdivision, which was platted in the 1970s, prior to the establishment of waterbody setback regulations, are closer than 50 feet to a small seasonal tributary of the Yampa. Those homes would not have been allowed to be built in their present locations today, they agreed.
Walter Magill, of Four Points Surveying and Engineering, pointed out that situations similar to the one in Steamboat II can become problematic when a property owner seeks a permit to add a garage to an existing home, for example.
“They’re forced to go through the waterbody setback process no matter what the size of the stream is,” he said. “Fifty feet is too much in some cases.”
Former Planning Commission Chairman Jay Gallagher, who currently sits on regional and state boards working on the new state water plan, urged the county to keep in mind there is a link between water quality and water supply.
“Water quality is essential to water supply,” Gallagher said. “Any degradation of water quality can limit its use and, hence, limits the supply of water we have to put to beneficial use.”
County commissioners agreed this week they would like to conduct an additional work session themselves, before referring the matter to Planning Commission for another work session. Monger said should the county commissioners decide to direct planning staff to create a new draft of the waterbody setback regulations, they would go through a round of more formal public hearings.
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