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Autumn treats beckon
10/19/2007 By: Carole McWilliams
SaRya Coyote shows off her pumpkin she picked out to decorate and take home during the Fall Festival on Thursday at the Southern Ute Montessori Head Start in Ignacio.
County approves plan for rural water district
The La Plata County Commissioners have approved the service plan for a rural water district covering the southeast part of the county.
Proponents now must gather 200 petition signatures from eligible electors within the service area to take it to district court for a judge to set an election.
The county commissioners approved it Tuesday morning after clarifying that water rights language in the service plan matches a decree for water rights that could serve the system.
Around 20 people, plus district proponents and county officials, turned out for the service plan hearing Monday evening at SunUte Community Center.
County Planning Director Nancy Lauro reported that new exclusion requests received by the extended Oct. 5 deadline bring total exclusion requests to 34 percent of assessed valuation in the service area, Most of that is gas development companies.
The commissioners voted Monday night to accept all the exclusion requests.
But the 34 percent of assessed valuation takes the remaining valuation to $925 million, versus the $984 million used in the financial projections for the service plan. Financial viability is one of the statutory criteria the county commissioners must consider in a service plan.
County Finance Director Karla Distel reported on her analysis of the plan. It projects $85 million to build out the system, with $15 million of initial construction through a bond issue. The rest will be built pay-as-you-go.
The plan has a 5 mill property tax. Distel said the revenue projections from that need to be reduced with the additional exclusions. “That would put the district around $300,000 short in the first year,” she said.
The district board could reduce capital spending, reduce the initial bond offering, or seek a higher mill levy, Distel said. She projected it would need to be 5.3 mills to raise the same money despite the additional exclusions.
She said it is hard to estimate now what assessed valuations will be when the property tax actually takes effect — if voters approve forming the district and then approve the property tax and bond issue.
She noted that this and any district with a lot of gas industry valuation can be hurt if that market or gas production drops. Audience member Vernon Greif also raised the possibility of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe buying gas facilities and those coming off the tax rolls, as has happened.
But Distel concluded, “The financial plan shows a reasonable fund balance through the construction and life of the bond.” It doesn’t include revenue that could come from grants, she said.
David Greer, attorney for the district proponents, asserted that the district could operate without a mill levy if voters reject that, but everything would happen slower. As for the loss of assessed valuation from the exclusions, he said the county assessed valuation has approximately doubled during the past three years.
Lauro said, “It’s clear there’s not adequate (water) service from any other source in the near future. The county comprehensive plan supports the development of rural water systems.”
She clarified how the service plan handles the county’s southeast planning area, which does not have a county approved land use map. Any existing lots of record will be able to get water service, but any new subdivisions or commercial development will not be able to get service until there is an adopted area plan.
Jim Benesch from County Road 330 had concern about the pay-as-you-go plan. “Is there any requirement to finish the project?” he asked and expressed the common concern that “The project may never get to some people.”
Proponent task force chairman Dick Lunceford urged Benesch to run for the district board “to make sure we don’t abandon the project.”
The plan includes bulk water haul stations for areas that don’t get service early on.
The service plan has been modified since September to satisfy concerns by Bayfield and Ignacio town officials who want to have some control over development in unannexed areas near the towns.
Nancy Adams from County Road 318 wanted to know what the status is for people in Ignacio’s claimed three mile planning area to vote in district elections and get water.
Bayfield also has a claimed growth area where it wants a say, especially the Gem Village/ Homestead area.
Greer told Adams, “As part of the service plan approval process, Ignacio requested that the three-mile radius would not be included in the initial service area.” He didn’t know if the town notified affected out-of-town residents.
Adams wanted to know if she could opt in individually.
Lauro said, “If the town has told us they are capable of serving in that area, the plan shouldn’t overlap.” Lauro speculated that if the town doesn’t provide service, the person could apply for district inclusion with approval of the town.
County Road 509 resident Tom Givon asked if the town is obligated to provide service if it keeps someone out of the district.
“I don’t think there’s any way the county can obligate a town to provide service,” Lauro said.
Adams objected that Ignacio is never going to provide service beyond the tribe’s Cedar Point housing.
Lunceford said proponents adjusted the service plan to satisfy the town growth area claims. “The town can take their own sweet time serving those areas,” he said. “I hope we can come to some understanding with the town that if the district is ready to serve in that area, that we can serve it if they aren’t ready.”
He continued, “We had that arrangement with Bayfield in the first plan (in 2004). It’s up to you to put a lot of pressure on the town to serve those areas or allow us to serve those.”
Bondad area resident Carl Weston worried about how much power the district will have, including taxation and property condemnation. He asked about outside checks on those, and whether the district has to follow county land use rules.
Lauro said each phase of the system will have to go through the land use review process.
Caryl Helmin-Schmid said included landowners represent only 17 percent of service area valuation. “How do you relate 17 percent to such great need?” she asked.
The dominant assessed valuation is oil and gas, but that doesn’t reflect the number of households that would benefit from the rural water system, Greer said.
Givon objected to letting gas companies exclude themselves.
County attorney Jeff Robbins noted that when the commissioners approved the 2004 service plan in the previous district effort, they didn’t allow the gas company exclusions, “and costly and time-consuming litigation ensued.”
Helmin-Schmid objected, “We don’t know where the water will come from, the diversion points, the location of storage or pumping, the location of right-of-ways, so we can’t know the financial viability. The plan needs to be more concrete rather than fluid, or you could be looking at the largest financial debacle in county history.”
Commissioner approval of the service plan was delayed Monday night when two residents near the County Road 310/ Highway 550 intersection challenged the service plan description of a water diversion point on the Florida River above the CR 310 bridge over the Florida.
Jeff Kennedy objected that the pumping station is on his land, but he wasn’t consulted.
Sharon Hargett asked if the pumping station is on the Florida or the Animas River.
The rights are 15 cubic feet per second on the Animas, Lunceford said.
The commissioners wanted to check the decree wording before they voted on the service plan. Commissioner Wally White said the plan refers to 15 cfs on the Animas and the Florida near the confluence.
Lunceford said that wasn’t right, but on Tuesday morning Greer said the service plan wording matches the decree. “The decree has three potential diversion points - two on the Animas and one on the Florida,” he said. “The service plan is accurate as presented.”
Commissioner Kellie Hotter commented Tuesday morning, “I’d like to go on record that the board’s role is to review this service plan against the statutory criteria. Ultimately this goes to the voters, which it should. This is a long time coming.”
She and White commended BP for not opting out of the district.
“I’m really disappointed at the other gas companies,” White said. “They have impacted the county and they are stepping away.”
Hotter added, “I really want to commend BP for stepping up and doing what’s right. This is an investment to enhance the quality of life here. They are the biggest contributor (to district valuation) and they didn’t shy away.”