OURAY COUNTY – An alternative point system developed by the Ouray County Land Use Department that heavily weights blending without making it mandatory is gaining traction in Ouray County’s ongoing debate over visual impact regulations.
Land Use Administrator Mark Castrodale and Associate Planner Bryan Sampson presented their proposal at a work session with the Ouray Board of County Commissioners last Wednesday, July 21.
The alternative system was developed in the wake of last year’s bitterly divisive public hearings on the Ouray County Planning Commission’s proposed revisions to Visual Impact Regulations in Ouray County’s Land Use Code, Section 9, after which the BOCC tasked the county’s Land Use Department with developing an alternative point system that would be “workable, consistent, repeatable and fair” for the land use department to implement, and for the public to understand.
Embracing a “Blue Sky” philosophy, Castrodale and Sampson tweaked the current point system outlined in Section 9 (as well as proposed changes suggested in the Ouray County Planning Commission draft) in several significant ways, beginning with the elimination of “impact points” that accrue according to a building’s size and height, and “mitigation criteria points” which are subtracted from the impact points when a project addresses screening, maximum distance from a road and apparent building mass as viewed from a viewing window.
Instead, they developed a new system that simply awards weighted points in five categories – visibility, distance to a designated road, blending, screening, and whether the structure is built in an existing PUD or on a conforming lot– while eliminating the concept of “apparent building mass” and accompanying restrictions on a building’s size and height.
In order to pass the new point system, proposed structures must amass at least 100 points through a combination of these five categories.
The new draft places more emphasis on the concept of visibility (the percentage of a given viewing corridor along which a structure is visible), over the requirement for screening (which is measured according to how much of the building is visible from this viewing window, factoring in flora, topographical features and material elements).
Structures that are visible longer and/or are closer to a view corridor have more work to do, to get the points they need.
A structure’s distance from the view corridor remains a heavily weighted factor in the proposed revision, with up to 70 points available for owners and builders who are willing to locate their proposed structure a mile or more away from the view corridor. (All structures visible within 1.5 miles of a designated view corridor, measured on a two-dimensional map, are subject to the criteria of Section 9.)
The new proposal steers clear of mandatory blending. Instead, blending is incentivized by making it the most heavily weighted factor of the new point system, with points awarded in four categories, ranging from “none” (with no points awarded) to “exceptional” (worth a whopping 80 points). As Castrodale pointed out, it would still be possible in some circumstances for a structure to amass enough points to pass the new system without any effort to blend, through earning high points in other categories such as distance, screening and visibility.
Staff acknowledged that the concept of blending is subjective, so the draft also outlines means to apply the concept fairly and effectively.
Staff also worked hard to redefine the concepts of screening and visibility, in order to make them less subjective and more measurable.
For example, under the new system, a structure’s degree of visibility can be figured out through a simple math equation, by first measuring the total square footage of the side of the structure that faces the view corridor, and then calculating how much of that surface area can be seen by a passerby from the structure’s most visible point along a view corridor.
In short, Castrodale said, “It’s more straight forward and less open for interpretation. I see this as easier on the customer and very straight forward from our perspective.”
TESTING THE SYSTEM
In developing the draft proposal, staff used two years’ worth of data from homes that had already passed the existing version of Section 9, homes that the Planning Commission had used as examples during its review, and (for hypothetical purposes) homes that are not in a current view corridor.
Using computer simulation technology, they then changed various factors such as color and the degree of screening in the examples, running through as many permutations as they could, to test the proposed new point system.
“We tweaked the curve in different categories,” Castrodale said. “We tried to think of what garish, awful home could get through our system. Were there any gaping holes? We couldn’t find any.”
Some of their most interesting test cases came from an examination of homes (both within established and proposed new view corridors) that historically have gotten a lot of complaints. In most cases, such homes, in their current form, did not pass the test.
But with blending as such a heavily weighted category, some of these “problem” homes would be able to squeak by in the proposed new point system, simply by switching to a different exterior color – and not necessarily even to an “earth tone.”
One case in point is the “Blue Tooth” home along County Road 12, which is not currently implicated by the county’s Visual Impact Regulations. If County Road 12 were a designated view corridor, the home would fail the new point system as-is, but would pass if it were painted a deeper shade of blue, making it effectively disappear into the pinion/juniper-covered hillside it is built upon.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a home that “most people don’t even know is there,” of which just the very tippy top of the roof can be picked out from US 550 (a primary view corridor), passed the test in spades. Being 97 to 98 percent screened won the structure 80 points alone. Along with extra points earned in the additional four categories, the structure passed the new point system in spades, with 245 points.
But even if the home had had minimal to no blending, Castrodale pointed out that it would still manage to pass the new point system, simply because so little of it is visible from the highway.
There are still plenty of headaches under the new proposal. “When you start messing with the point system, there are a million different possibilities,” Castrodale admitted. “But I think we honed in on something that appears to work, using real life scenarios.”
Commissioners embraced the work that staff had done, and could not think of a reason why the current point system should be preserved over the new one.
Commission Chair Lynn Padgett said she appreciated the “big brains” that went into the draft revision. “We need to give you guys more latitude to be the professionals you are more often,” she said.
“The longer I look at it, the more I see almost brilliance in here,” Commissioner Don Batchelder added.
County Attorney Marti Whitmore recommended that if the draft revision is eventually adopted, a clause should be added to it such that property owners “shall not take any actions that would alter their structure’s compliance with the county’s visual impact regulations.”
(This would help prevent such specters as a new homeowner coming in and painting a brown home bright pink.)
The next VIR item up for a BOCC work session discussion is the proposed expansion of the number of roads to be considered as view corridors.
As presented last year, the Ouray County Planning Commission’s draft revisions to Section 9 proposed including 47 more roads throughout the county that have the same characteristics as the nine roads designated as view corridors in the existing regulations.
A work session on this thorny topic will likely be scheduled for late August or sometime in September.
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