A Citizen Initiative To Learn About
La Plata Land Use and Building Permit Process
Results and Interpretation (updated Sept. 12, 2022)
The results of the La Plata County Land Use and Building Permit Survey were first published here on May 17, 2022 after first being shared with the La Plata County Commissioners, the County Manager, the Community Development Director (Planning and Building Departments), and the 2022 candidates for County Commissioner.
No analysis of results was presented when the results were first published in order to give the public and the county officials a chance to comment, correct any mistakes, offer additional perspectives, or provide their own analysis.
To date, one County Commissioner responded with comments. County staff stated they would make no comments because I’m a candidate for County Commissioner.
Anyone, whether a La Plata County official, staff member, candidate, or member of the public is invited to provide commentary or perspective to my analysis. If any errors in this work are discovered, corrections will be made immediately along with any apologies due.
Scroll or quick navigate to the bottom of this page for my analysis and additional comments about the Permit Survey Project – Jack Turner
- Project Overview
- Land Use Permit Survey Results
- Building Permit Survey Results
- County Survey Results – A separate survey conducted by La Plata County staff
- The Challenges of Conducting a Citizen Initiated Surveys Comparisons between private and county surveys
- Analysis and Additional Information (published 9/12/2022)
What is it like to seek permission to build in La Plata County?
Demand for housing in La Plata County outpaced the inventory available, especially for affordable, attainable, workforce housing. Unless new homes and apartments are built, the cost of shelter will continue to escalate.
Commercial projects are also a priority to accommodate new businesses or expanding current facilities.
The cost of land, materials, and labor are factors in the expense to build. Notwithstanding the time it takes to actually construct buildings, the time and costs to navigate various permitting processes so that one is allowed to build is also critical.
The permitting process (application documents, fees, and project review, approval, and inspection) is controlled by La Plata County government along with specialized agencies such as fire districts. This is a process that can take days, weeks, months, or even years.
So how are we doing? We decided to ask Land Use and Building permit applicants about their experience navigating the process.
The information here documents a citizen organized survey of permit applicants and a second “official” survey conducted by La Plata County staff.
Independent Candidate for La Plata County Commissioner
“Identify the problems but give your power and energy to solutions.”
The purpose of the La Plata County Land Use and Building Permit surveys is to give voice to the property owners and industry members (developers, architects, engineers, planners, and contractors) that deal directly with the County Planning and Building Departments.
Their real-world, unfiltered, practical experience must be understood as one piece of the decision-making puzzle for efficient, productive county management of the planning and building process.
Survey results provided here are to help elected officials, county staff, industry members, and the public evaluate and improve the process to the benefit of our community.
3. Project Overview
Two reasons to conduct private surveys of permit applicants
#1 – Conversations and stories are not facts. As a candidate for County Commissioner, it would be irresponsible to make judgements about the permitting process based on people who seek me out to share their experience and opinions which are mostly negative. After all, who would make the effort to let a candidate know that the process was fair, efficient, and with no problems?
#2 – Fear of Retribution. Whether real or perceived, there is widespread belief that contesting the policies and practices of the Planning and Building Department staff will result in unfair penalization or harassment to the complainant. Permit applicants should have a forum to share their experiences and opinions privately and candidly.
Survey respondents have been guaranteed confidentiality for their responses to the surveys, but all other aspects of this project are open and transparent.
The County Manager and the Community Development Director (Planning and Building) were advised in July 2021 about the project. The Board of County Commissioners was notified as well. All questions, format, and the online testing program were provided to in advance of release. They were invited to provide comment and make suggestions regarding all aspects of the surveys, especially fairness.
How was the permit survey program developed?
Volunteers worked eight months to fund, organize, and administrate an independent, comprehensive, and confidential survey of Land Use and Building Permit applicants for a three year period. Total cost was $5,231.30.
Survey format and questions were developed with experienced local property owners, planning professionals, developers, contractors, and other experts. Multiple drafts and revisions were circulated before settling on the final survey question.
The Dean of the Fort Lewis College School of Business proofed the surveys and introduction letters for professionalism, objectivity, fairness, etc. This assistance was provided as a public service, as has been performed for other organizations. This help does not represent personal endorsement or endorsement by Fort Lewis College.
Total cost for the surveys was $5,231.30. All expenses were reported to the TRACER system in the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.
2019-2021 Permit Applicants
The intent was to give all Land Use and Building permit applicants over a three-year period (2019-2021) an opportunity to respond to the surveys regardless of the status of their permit application (approved, denied, in process, withdrawn, expired, etc.).
This time period spans the last year of the previous Land Use Code, the current Code (approved 2020), and the unpredictable, early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On December 30, 2021, a Colorado Open Records Request (CORA) was submitted to La Plata County requesting a cumulative record of all permit applications from 2019-2021 that would list information for each application displayed on the county’s CityView portal including:
- Applicant’s contact information,
- Permit type,
- Permit status, and
- Other identifying information
On February 11, 2022 (six weeks after the original CORA request), La Plata County responded to the CORA request and provided a spreadsheet with applicants’ permit and contact information for a processing cost of $277.50 paid to La Plata County.
An additional $207.53 was spent to convert data to a (semi)usable format. The records provided were problematic in both format and content (see Challenges of Conducting a Citizen Initiated Survey).
Contacting 2019-2021 Permit Applicants
Permit applicants invited to participate in the surveys were contacted First-Class U.S. Mail because the county is not required to provide email or telephone information.
The mailing included invitation and instructions to participate in an online survey. Invitees were also provided their permit application number(s) and project information. Printed surveys were made available to any applicant that could not participate online.
Online Surveys and Security
The website LPCPermitSurvey was developed as a portal for the online surveys. Invited participants were provided a password to access the live versions of the permit application surveys.
A non-editable version of both surveys (.pdf format) were provided so that anyone could see the questions asked.
The application SurveyMonkey was used to conduct the surveys. In order to ensure the integrity of the program, respondents were required to enter their unique permit application number before they could answer and submit their questionnaire.
Multiple responses for the same permit or non-existing permits were prohibited through the survey coding.
Two version of each survey (both Land Use and Building) were created for applicants with a single permit application, and another version for invitees that had multiple permits applications.
The survey results are published here in full. Respondents’ personal information is redacted to protect their privacy. The comments submitted for each question are published without any editing except to redact any personal criticisms.
Survey results have been provided to the Board of County Commissioners, the County Manager, the Community Development Director (responsible for both Planning and Building Departments), and 2022 County Commissioner Candidates Brad Blake (R) and Clyde Church (D). They are published here for public review.
No evaluation of survey results is provided here. This information is provided as a public service to the County Commissioners, staff, industry experts, and the community for their own interpretation, evaluation, and use.
5. Land Use Permit Survey Results
44 surveys were returned for land use permit applications initiated in:
- 2019 (8)
- 2020 (14)
- 2021 (22)
Land Use Permit Survey Results – Single Applications
Land Use Permit Survey Results – Multiple Applications
6. Building Permit Survey Results
95 surveys were returned for building permit applications initiated in:
- 2019 (24)
- 2020 (32)
- 2021 (39)
Building Permit Survey Results – Single Applications
Building Permit Survey Results – Multiple Applications
7. La Plata County Planning Department Applicant Survey
A separate survey conducted by La Plata County staff.
La Plata County staff conducted their own permit applicant survey in March of 2022 even though they knew that the citizen initiated permit survey (the work described here) had been in process for months. They also managed to delay our work so that the county’s survey would preempt our work (see #8 below).
La Plata County’s Survey Results
E – Official County Survey Comments
Note: Respondent comments were not published by La Plata County. These comments and questions were obtained through a Colorado Open Records Request (CORA).
Notes: about the County survey obtained by CORA request:
The Questions – Ten questions were asked of recipients. The first two questions were only statistical (type of respondent and type of application). The last question asked for confidential contact information from the respondent. Those responses are not posted here to protect privacy.
Seven questions were asked about the Land Use Permitting Process. Of those questions, two (5 & 6) were nearly identical.
Question #8 (Please provide any suggestions or comments on how we might improve your experience with the Planning Department) was omitted from the results released to the public on the county website.
Survey Recipients – The official County survey was sent by email to 128 persons who “applied for permits from 10/1/2020 to early March, 2022.” All the invitees had permit applications that were approved or denied. County surveys were not sent to any applicants without an email address on file. Surveys were not sent to applicants whose permit was still in process, withdrawn, or expired.
Survey Period – The email to invite survey responses was sent on March 17, 2022, with a follow-up reminder on March 24th. The survey expired on March 31st.
The county’s survey was conducted during spring breaks for all local school districts as well as Fort Lewis College.
8. The Challenges of Conducting a Citizen Initiated Survey
County staff requested that we reconsider conducting the citizen initiated surveys (i.e., cancel the project). The rationale was that the county would be conducting their own survey and the independent project would create “survey fatigue.”
Here’s what was learned during the process of working with the county for permit applicant contact information:***
A Colorado Open Records Request (CORA) was submitted on December 20, 2021 requesting contact information for all Land Use and Building Permit applicants from 2019-2020.
A few days later county staff replied and explained that La Plata County does not keep cumulative records of Land Use and Building Permit applications. Permit applications can only be viewed one-by-one through the online portal CityView which is a vendor to La Plata County.
Without such cumulative permit application record, La Plata County, cannot efficiently create statistical comparisons of permit applications (permit type, project location, project status, property owners, professional contacts, etc.).
It was estimated to cost as much as $15,000 to have county staff copy the data from CityView onto a spreadsheet (an expense the requester is required to pay).
The county offered to work with CityView to develop a program to export permit application records to a spreadsheet. To facilitate the county’s offer, it was agreed that the normal 4-day deadline for responding to a CORA request would be suspended to give the county time to work with CityView.
The county staff must be given credit for offering to work with CityView to extract the data. CORA requests do not require a government entity to create a record, only share existing records. This effort was appreciated.
On February 11, 2022 (six weeks after the original CORA request), the county provided spreadsheets for both Land Use and Building Permit applications from 2019-2021.
The spreadsheets provided by the county list 922 records for Land Use applications and 2,572 records for Building Permit applications (3,494 total records). Unfortunately, the county spreadsheets had many inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and were effectively useless as provided. For example, all the contact information, including column titles, were submitted in a single cell as shown here.
Nearly every record is unique in its format (i.e., there is no consistent presentation of information). Here is the record adjacent to example above:
The data is not delineated by commas, tabs, or other markers that would be normally used to convert a cell into columns for a usable spreadsheet.
Nearly a week was spent editing 3,494 applicant contact records so that “Property Owner” would be the first field in the cell. A subcontractor was hired to clean up the records so that name, address, city, state, and zip code were in separate columns (at a cost of $207.63 in addition to the $277.50 paid to the county – $485.13 total).
After culling records with no information and duplicates, 2,323 applicant records were identified with a property owner. Unfortunately (again) property owners are not necessarily associated with the individual that participated in the permit application process. For example, if a developer builds a house and sells it, the owner of the property has no relationship at all to the permit application process.
253 letters to permit applicants were returned by the U.S. Post Office as undeliverable.
The spreadsheet format and accuracy provided by the county certainly skewed the number of potential responses. Nevertheless, 139 survey responses were received compared to 25 responses to the official county survey.
*** Information here is based on responses from the county staff to Colorado Open Records Requests.
9. NEW! Analysis and Additional Information (published 9/12/2022)
To fully understand the information presented here, please review sections 1-8 above about the survey results and other factors.
The following analysis is presented with full disclosure that there were flaws in contacting Land Use and Building Permit applicants about their experience due to inadequate county records as explained in Section #8 above. In the time since the results were first published, I have had many hundreds of additional conversations, meetings, correspondence, and other interactions with parties affected by the permit application process. Their comments and experience have given additional perspective to this analysis.
It must be acknowledged that some practices and policies of the Planning and Building Departments may have changed since the permit survey results were first published in May.
Here is a brief summary of findings that are supported by the survey results and subsequent information received:
- Inadequate Record Keeping –reliance on the online portal CityView, an outside vendor to La Plata County, is not conducive to creating usable cumulative records. Permit applications and their status can only be viewed one-by-one rather than as a group in a spreadsheet the way that voter registration and property tax records are kept. There is great inconsistency in how permit data is recorded.Without manageable cumulative permit application records, La Plata County, cannot efficiently create statistical comparisons of permit applications (permit type, project location, project type, permit status, property owners, additional contractors, etc.). Nor is it possible to efficiently contact the person(s) responsible for interacting with county staff about a permit application.
- The Land Use Code Needs More Work (and quickly) – While there are significant improvements over the previous code, there are numerous contradictions, onerous requirements, confusing directions, and requirements that defy common sense or practicality. The 300+ page document is so complex that professional planners, engineers, architects, attorneys, and other professionals are required for all but the simplest of projects. The process of amending the Land Use Code is cumbersome and time consuming, even for the most obvious of needed changes.
- Operational Disfunction – The Community Development Department, especially Planning, is operating with many disfunctions and staff turnover. There are too few staff members, especially those with deep experience and understanding of La Plata County and its code, policies, and practices. There’s been a turnover of key staff. The pandemic, cost of living in La Plata County and other factors affecting all businesses contribute to the problem, but permit applicants, consulting experts, and I believe that leadership and management have contributed significantly to the issues here. Why have county planning staff quit to work for the City of Durango, but the reverse has not occurred?
- Separating Commissioners from the Public – The ex-parte communication clause of the Land Use Code is written so strictly that County Commissioners are prevented from reasonable opportunity to hear from the public, developers, contractors, or anyone else about any problems or abuse during the permitting process. One commissioner who suggested that that county commissioners should be allowed to follow a project through the process from start to finish to learn how permitting works was told it could not be allowed. This clause, written by staff, creates yet another barrier for elected officials to provide oversight of the development review process. Without oversight, the county lacks accountability to ensure that projects are moved through the development review process in a timely and efficient manner, and causes staff to have unchallenged leverage over permit applicants.”
- Legal Overreach – La Plata County budgets for eight full-time staff members in the Legal Department (5 attorneys, 2 legal assistants, and 1 administrator). The number of staff and budgeted legal expenses exceeds Colorado counties of similar size. The cost per each La Plata County resident for county legal expenses is nearly the highest in the State of Colorado (see paragraph 10. below). The Legal Department’s staff involvement in planning and building, an entirely separate county department, is a major factor in slowing and disrupting the permit process.
- Unreasonable and Unrelated Permit Conditions – An applicant’s permit approval is often held hostage to correcting other issues with a project not associated with the purpose of the permit. For example, an application for a boundary adjustment was conditioned upon performing a new review of water and septic systems. There have been many cases of the county demanding a right-of-way not related to the impacts of proposed development as a requirement for permit approval (versus purchasing the right-of-way when it’s actually needed).
- A Lack of Urgency and Clarity – Time and a lack of clarity is the enemy of productive development. Landowners, developers, contractors, and other professionals are subject to unreasonable and confusing delays, misdirection, contradictions, and bureaucratic hurdles that increase costs passed on to customers or kill projects altogether.
- Fear of Retribution – A reoccurring theme of nearly every interaction with permit applicants, developers, contractors, and land owners is fear of retribution from the Community Development Department. The overwhelming sentiment among everyone participating in this work is that dissent or questioning planning / building will result in some sort of punishment.
- Misrepresenting Facts – The permit applicant survey conducted by the county staff (#7 above) is flawed in both administration and interpretation. One cannot help but speculate that its presentation was designed to mislead the commissioners and the public about the process and results… or perhaps it’s simply poor work.
- Comparing Costs with Other Counties – Here is a draft comparison of the cost of La Plata County government, including legal and planning & building departments compared to eight other Colorado counties (4 larger and 4 smaller). It must be acknowledged that every county budgets and presents its financial information differently, so an apples to apples comparison is not presented here. Nor am I a CPA or financial professional. If elected, I will request fellow commissioners to require staff and outside professionals to conduct such a comparative study so that we may learn how our expenses and operations compare with other counties to see if changes are in order.
- Conclusion – The Big Question: Is process more important that results? These permit survey results, numerous public and private meetings, and widespread community sentiment indicate that a higher priority must be place on expediting positive, reasonable results rather than literal adherence to a flawed process and an unreasonable fear of making mistakes.