Garfield County commissioners agree to keep river setbacks in code
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — A split Board of Garfield County Commissioners agreed Tuesday to retain the minimum 35-foot setback for construction near rivers, streams and wetlands in the county’s revised land-use code.
However, the county would consider granting a lesser setback in certain cases under the new development rules, if it can be shown that a particular use would not negatively impact water quality or the riparian and wetland habitat.
“I respect what our [code advisory committee and planning commission] have looked at in making these recommendations,” Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said at a continued public hearing Tuesday on the proposed code revisions.
Those entities both recommended as part of a broader overhaul of the land-use code doing away with county-level water quality and waterway protections, in deference to whatever state and federal regulations govern development near river banks.
“But I feel there is some merit to this,” Jankovksy said of the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s recommendation to reinstate the 35-foot setback, at a minimum, and to consider a 50-foot setback.
“I’m not opposed to increasing it to 50 feet,” Jankovksy said. “People need to know that the three of us fully want to protect the waterways in our county.”
Commissioner Mike Samson agreed to keep the 35-foot standard that’s included in the current code. But he didn’t want to increase the minimum distance to 50 feet.
“I don’t think you have to be a genius to figure out it’s not a good practice to build right up against the water,” Samson said. “In most cases, 35 feet is a reasonable length, and I say we need to put it back.”
He agreed there should also be a waiver for cases where some structures could be built within that setback, as long as the applicant can prove that it would not be harmful to the river and surrounding habitat.
Commission Chairman John Martin argued that retaining the setback rules would be “an enforcement nightmare.”
He said setbacks are consistently violated, both in the unincorporated areas and especially within city limits all along the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers. That ranges from private fishing docks and recreational structures on river banks to decks and various other structures overhanging the river, he said.
“People want to make this a public piece of property, and it’s not,” Martin said. “Those property lines go to the middle of the river. It’s a takings issue.”
He said it’s “common sense” not to build a house too close to the river, and homeowners assume the risk if they push it too far.
Added Jankovsky, “I hate to be too restrictive. But at the same time, with as many people along the river as there are, we need to make the statement that we want to protect it.”
Other language recommended by the Conservancy related to structures that would be permitted within the usual setback, and special provisions for steep riverbanks, will also be added back to the code.
“We presented what we felt were good, better and best,” said Rick Lofaro, executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, at the Tuesday meeting.
“Some level of process for people to ask for permission to do something [within the setback] stays in line with where we need to be on this issue,” Lofaro said. “We have done a good job of training the community to be protective of our rivers.”
Several individuals, as well as one other organization focused on protection of drinking water sources, the Colorado Rural Water Association, also encouraged the commissioners to keep the setback provisions and other protections in the county’s land-use code.
The more than year-long effort to revise the land-use code resulted in a 43 percent reduction in the size of the document, compared with the current code. Commissioners appointed the special code advisory committee in 2012 with the idea of streamlining the development review process and removing regulatory barriers.
Commissioners will review a final draft of the proposed code revisions during the afternoon session of their regular June 17 meeting, with the possibility of continuing the public hearing to the week of June 24.
A final document will be referred to the Garfield County Planning Commission for one last review before county commissioners will make a formal decision on the code changes later this summer.
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