North 90 project to help housing beyond Center

CENTER — When Brian Lujan took the Center Town Manager position in 2018, affordable housing — and the infrastructure to support it — topped his list of concerns. He was not alone.

Rather than tackle the housing crisis in isolation, Lujan worked with the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) to create a Regional Resiliency Roadmap with leaders in Del Norte, La Jara, and Saguache.

Combining efforts across four towns allows for stronger grant-writing and vendor management. Although each community faces challenges, the housing crises crosses all borders. Workers commute as far as necessary according to work status and available housing inventory.

The first step for Center entailed annexing land. Called the “North 90,” the patch of raw land north of town is just shy of 90 acres. Lujan said they can extend Center infrastructure, once they plan accordingly. Adding a lift station for extended sewer service, for example, requires advance preparation. But before workers can start digging, Lujan said he wants to refine the plan for not only utilities but zoning. Part of this refinement includes updating codes.

In addition to the four principal towns, the Regional Resiliency Roadmap group also includes Saguache County, Marty and Bonnie Asplin — formerly with Upper Rio Grande Economic Development — and ActionLab 360. DOLA accepted the application and awarded the group regional status. With funding established, DOLA offered a pool of consultants for planning. Lujan said they selected a person from the list, and the next step is to gather all four municipalities for discussion and planning.

Lujan explained that part of the resources — roughly $150,000 — will be directed to code language updates for all four municipalities in the Regional Resiliency group. Lujan said they hope to strengthen the codes in two areas. First, they want to refine procedures for rehabilitation and reconstruction of unoccupied homes. The updates will also address new construction codes.

“I feel like we're almost to the starting block,” Lujan said. “We’re still working with Downtown Colorado, Inc. We also had the American Planning Association come up with a report that would facilitate design for that land as well.”

Lujan described another Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section Four grant to work with MASS Design [Model of Architecture Serving Society], an international business that works for community engagement. The MASS Design scope of proposal submitted to Center reflects the company’s philosophy, which Lujan said includes making sure “it’s what the community wants and won’t displace anyone.”

Lujan noted how Center is collecting names of interested people who can help create a planning commission. The town board already meets twice a month, and it would be a burden to take on the detailed duties of an advisory planning commission.

“You need a planning commission to do all the vetting of material," Lujan said.

“We’re also looking to establish an Urban Renewal Authority,” Lujan continued. “We want to take advantage of any future development of projects out there that will give us tax-incremented financing for future taxes. Right now, it’s nothing. You still get your two years of assessment on the property.” Tax-incremented financing allows access to future revenue through taxes estimated on the completed project.

“The beauty about owning that land,” Lujan said, “is that we control the narrative.”

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