In 1979 I was appointed to the San Miguel County Planning Commission. My old friend and mentor, Glenn Ruffe, Doris Ruffe’s father, fell ill. He recommended to the County Commissioners that I be appointed in his place and I had the backing of the Placer Valley Association.
In 1971, the State of Colorado had passed a law which declared that all counties in the state must establish a Planning Commission, adopt zoning rules and regulations and draw up a county wide Master Plan. Prior to 1971 San Miguel County didn’t really have zoning regulations. Any changes needing an approved would have been reviewed by the Building Inspector. Unfortunately, San Miguel County didn’t have one of those either.
As part of the State Legislature proposing and adopting Senate Bill 1035 the Senate made sure everyone knew about it. At the time, all any one had to do was go to the Court House and file a plat and that was a subdivision. In conjunction with the new law every property owner was given one exemption to break off a piece at a later date in the event that it became necessary.
It was this State Bill that introduced everyone to the 35 acre rule. Meaning, only property under 35 acres had to go through zoning hearings, anything larger was essentially exempt and could be subdivided simply by filing a plat in the Courthouse.
With the new rule the action in the county was taking place at the Planning and Zoning Commission level since the County Commissioners only granted Final Subdivision and Planned Unit Development Approval and if the County Planning Commission had already granted Preliminary Approval then the game was pretty much up.
The members of the Planning Commission when I joined were: Mario Zadra, Chairman, Les Smith, Bob Garber, and Kirk Alexander. Bob Garber was the other “newcomer” on the Commission. However, Bob was fifteen years older than I and was an architect from Chicago with lots of experience. Mario, Les and Kirk were “oldtimers”. Mario and Kirk being major ranching families based out of Norwood and Les a former miner.
The action started slow enough, but within a couple of years the work load and time commitment became too much and several alternates were appointed. A few that I remember very well were Rick Lane, Chuck Williams and later, Dick Unruh. All were “newcomers” but real level headed.
There’s a story that concerns three of the young “newcomers” that needs to be told just because it’s not really much known. In 1980 uranium mining in the West End (Slick Rock, Egnar, Naturita and Nucla) was going full tilt. The price of uranium was sky high and big operators were making noise. The biggest, Union Carbide, was running milling operations in Moab where all the ore was being processed. They were building up a huge depository of waste that needed to be dealt with. The San Miguel County Commissioners at the time, Tillman Reed, Tom Hale, and Fred Ellerd, hatched a plan with Union Carbide to build an underground uranium waste storage facility in Dry Creek Basin. By the time it came to the Planning Commission, it was not only a done deal, it had grown bigger. It was to be the depository of uranium waste from the Western States. Due to some technicality, approval could only be granted by the Planning Commission, as it was a Special Use Permit and not a rezoning.
We heard through the grapevine that the item was going to be on our monthly meeting and I remember being apprehensive. I was only one vote out of five and didn’t have much sway over the older guys. Well, the meeting came up and lo and behold the only three people to show up that month were me, Chuck and Rick. Now this had never happened before and I can tell you it never happened again.
Well, the railroad hit a wall. Despite some very pointed threats from the County Commissioners and the “suits” which Union Carbide had brought in—the vote was 3-0.
People threw chairs (one of my favorites) and stomped out threatening to return with bigger guns, but that was the end of it. Tom Hale made fun of me after the meeting for stating I felt that a uranium dump would lead to trouble for our county some day.
What we know now is that if the motion had passed San Miguel County would be the National Uranium Dump and we would have had many thousands of trucks rolling down our highways with more to come. The national facility, located outside of Las Vegas, is about as big as Dry Creek Basin.
You’ll have to read the TREPAC story, but in 1978 SMC had just adopted a Master Plan and it was clear that Telluride’s future was based on growth, development and more people. The battle for the future of Telluride would be the deciding story-line that set the future planning for the rest of the county. Norwood claimed for a while that they weren’t part of it and didn’t want to be involved, but we all knew that didn't carry much weight. We were playing some high stakes poker and no one had any money to raise the bet with. We hardly had enough to ante up.
Telluride had been an economic disaster for so long that there weren’t many landowners outside of the Town of Telluride. We were really only talking about the Telluride Ski Resort holdings (which in 1979 were purchased by the Benchmark Company who had just come from developing Avon, located just north of Beaver Creek), Aldasoro Ranches, West Meadows (which had been retained by Joe Zoline when he sold the Ski Resort), and Idarado Mine (which had the Valley Floor and the mine holdings which were actively being worked).
The point is: we had five major landowners to deal with instead of five hundred or five thousand.
The solution was to get the five major landowners to voluntarily agree to a down-zoning of the Telluride Region, agree to a development plan for the future, and do it quickly before we either starved to death or someone figured out how to make and end run around the system.
The answer was TREPAC, Telluride Regional Planning Advisory Committee. I’m not sure who came up with the idea but it was so obvious that it was worth a try. So it was, in 1980, a fifteen person committee was appointed: five from the development community (Charlie Hughes, Sunnyside; Albert Aldasoro, Aldasoro Ranches; Johnny Johnson, Idarado Mining Company; Ron Allred, Telluride Ski Resort; and Joe Zoline, West Meadows - five from government: Mike Conlin and Nancy Webster, Town of Telluride; Tom Hale and Scott Brown, San Miguel County; Tommy Smith, County Planning Director and Randy King, Town Manager shared a seat) - five citizens at-large: Mark Silversheer, Barry Cook, Jim Botenhagen, Jim Bedford and Bill Leenheer.
After a year and a half, the committee came up with a plan, based on a study, which determined the lowest possible number of people living and visiting Telluride in the year 2025 which would still allow economic viability.
The number turned out to be 18,500 people. We split it up and invented something called Planned Unit Development Reserve, which allowed land owners to have their zoning but not be under any time pressure to utilize it. This was key, because State law mandated that developers had to make substantial progress within two years of zoning or they would lose their zoning and have to start all over again. Plus, it worked in the sense of sustainable economic development in that we wanted to grow slowly and orderly over forty-five years—no more boom and bust for Telluride. An interesting twist was that in 2045, Allred would be 85 years old and I’d be 77 years old - the point being that by 2045 none of the committee would be around with a “dog in this fight” anymore and the next generation, pursuant to democracy, could do anything they damn well pleased. But we had a plan.
Another part of the plan was that “the car” was identified as the demon of growth. Everyone agreed that we’d have a plan to make “non-rubber tire” transportation mandatory—meaning gondola. The other monster lurking was the availability of “affordable and attainable housing”.
The plan was that the Ski Resort would build a gondola from the town to the Mountain Village first. Then as each development kicked in there would be another gondola built. Aldasoro was to build a gondola from the airport/hotel site to the Valley Floor. The Valley Floor was to build a gondola to the Mountain Village and an electric train to town ending at the Town Park (that is why the little street that runs by the Coonskin Lift is narrow—it was a train right of way). And, Zoline would build a gondola from West Meadows to the Mountain Village (all these right of ways still exist). When it was all said and done, you would not need a car.
The answer to the question you are thinking is: GREED AND LACK OF PATIENCE. Over the next three years, the county P & Z zoned the Telluride Ski Resort property and created the Telluride Mountain Village and followed by zoning West Meadows, Aldasoro and the Valley Floor.