It’s tough duty sitting in on an Española Planning and Zoning Commission meeting. The Oct. 14 meeting ran from about 6:15 p.m. to 12:38 a.m. the next day.

    Part of the problem lies with the commissioners themselves. The meeting started late because the chairman was not there. A couple of commissioners come unprepared for public hearings. Others are clearly not engaged with what’s going on or are only looking at variances and exceptions through one lens.

    However, the three real problems are the zoning laws themselves, the people who come before the Commission to skirt those laws and the existing structures throughout the city.

    The zoning laws have been updated many times but are still sorely lacking. For instance Planning and Land Use Director Mohammad Hussein worded the language in the proposed cannabis sales and growth code change to put all retail stores in B3 (business) zoned areas.

    Commissioner Erle Wright pointed out about midnight that evening, B3 zones only exist in small patches on the west side.

    “Do you want pot stores by the birthing center on the west side,” Wright asked Hussein.

    However, even where the zoning is proper and encourages proper growth, as is zoning’s purpose, so many residences and businesses have been grandfathered in, the zoning makes no sense. The Rio Grande SUN sits in an R-6 residential zoning, meaning it’s zoned for homes, not businesses. This makes sense as we’re surrounded by houses. But we can’t exactly pick up the building and move.

    However, if someone wanted to develop the lot next to us, it would have to be housing or request a variance.

    That variance is the crux of most issues that come before the Commission. Those people fall into two camps: they want to do something with their property for which it’s not zoned or they want to violate the rules of how they can use their property, usually setback violations.

    Both of those groups usually come before the Commission after they’ve violated the code and been caught. Two such cases came before the Commission. One guy had already built a structure too close to his neighbor’s boundary. Another person had built a fence too high and too close to his neighbor.

    Commissioners are flesh and blood and certainly have compassion for their fellow human beings. What are commissioners to do? Tell them to tear down the building? In most cases that’s exactly what should happen. Asking forgiveness instead of permission is no excuse.

    However, Wright also correctly pointed out that looking at an aerial view of the petitioners’ neighborhoods almost everyone has a code violation, either buildings too close to property lines or too many structures on their property. That puts them in a tough spot.

    It’s a case of, “My neighbors all got away with it but I got caught so I have to move my illegal building and they don’t?” That’s tough to sell.

    It’s a conundrum that won’t work itself out in the short term. Taking the human feeling aspect out of the equation, what would address the problem would be to reject all requests. In theory, over a very long period of time, as properties changed hands, the zoning would eventually be correct.

    Most residents think zoning laws and the commissioners who enforce them or grant variances to them are draconian and overreaching. However, they are there to create a cohesive city design, provide a safe plan for each property and allow for city services, such as fire, law enforcement, water and sewer.

    One of the most common impediments to someone requesting a variance or exception is that fire trucks can’t reach homes located on our many narrow streets, with sharp turns and dead ends. Most people petitioning for such exceptions argue that fire trucks can access the lot in question.

    Guess what happens when the fire truck can’t reach a house and it burns down? Right, the fire department (city) gets sued. It’s all their fault. That is why fire and police must sign off on all variances and exception requests.

    Planning and Zoning meetings won’t have fewer petitioners as the city grows in fits and spurts. However, the meetings would run more smoothly and be much shorter with prepared commissioners, strong leadership pushing the meeting along and snipping the random rambling remarks from participants of all stripes.

    We could all put the Commission out of business if everyone adhered to the proper zoning and the requirements for changes to property. Again that human factor in the equation usually is the driver of the problem.

    Lastly, in these days of Zoom and Facebook meetings, few elected officials are conscious of the oh-so-important microphone. Residents speaking at public meetings are oblivious. For the last few hours of the Oct. 14 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting two of the commissioners had their microphones off. It’s a public meeting. Instead of the chair controlling the hearing as if it were a hearing, they all had a conversation no one outside of the chambers could hear.

    Again, protocol, leadership, sticking to the law regarding a hearing, would alleviate most problems with public meetings.

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