Wells: ‘We haven’t been on the same page the whole time’

Grand County Council Member Curtis Wells speaks at a joint county leadership meeting earlier this month with the San Juan County Council. Wells recently voted against ordinances that removed lodging as a use by right in a vote that the council retook and passed a few days later. Photo by Doug McMurdo

Curtis Wells said his colleagues on the Grand County Council were aware he had serious concerns regarding the removal of lodging as a permitted use from existing businesses and commercial zoning long before the issue ever went to a vote on July 16 – saying the process morphed from one that would have implemented enhanced design standards for lodging operators to an outright ban, to building any more hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, condominiums, townhomes or private campgrounds.

Wells in an interview Friday, July 19, said raising those standards for highway development, to perhaps include a requirement for mixed-use development, was the idea in play when the council voted to place a moratorium on lodging development applications in February.

The process, said Wells, went off-track early when Landmark Design, the land use planning consultant that both Grand County and the City of Moab hired to help develop new rules for overnight lodging projects. He said the consultants were doing all the planning while the county council – and a steering committee tasked with guiding the process – remained out of the loop.

“I had a lot of frustration over who was doing the planning,” said Wells, “it certainly wasn’t the policymakers.”

He said town hall meetings brought out “lots of opposition” to overnight lodging that’s already here – much less plans to build anymore. “The comments drove policy before the council could look at legislation,” he said. “There’s a lot more than emotion from town hall meetings that goes into severely consequential legislation.”

Wells said he met with Grand County Vice Chair Terry Morse to express his concerns three months ago. With the moratorium set to expire Aug. 5, he said he was advised there wasn’t time “to change too much.”

He said Morse signed the memorandum Wells wrote regarding putting the focus on heightened standards and mixed use, but was ultimately told those issues “may” be addressed down the road.

Wells discussed his concerns with the Grand County Planning Commission and told members they needed to rethink removing lodging as a use by right, saying it was “too aggressive” and would lead to unnecessary litigation. He said there continues to be disagreement over the status of bed and breakfasts and whether they should be exempt with no resolution. “These are documented disconnects,” said Wells.

Wells also said he understands public sentiment. “The public’s frustrated,” he said. “I get that. I’m frustrated. Nobody wants to feel like an outsider in their hometown. I understand we want to slow down and guide the growth, but the politics of this was very roughshod and places the county in a risky position legally.”

Wells said he had to argue with staff and other elected officials when he asked to send postcards to commercial property owners warning them of imminent changes to their zoning rights. That was a process he said yielded a high return of comments and participation from people that own commercial property.

He also said the county council is doing other things that could harm the county, such as devaluing commercial property while on track for a property tax increase.

“This isn’t smart planning,” he said. “Infrastructure such as stormwater drainage and roads, as well as growing service needs, is requiring more revenue that might not be supplemented in the future as well as it has been in the past, which means Grand County for the first time in years is staring at a required property tax increase while we’re simultaneously attacking the economy.”