Planning Commission passes cell tower issue back to commissioners

Photo by Patrick Shea The Saguache County Planning Commission addressed nine applications during their meeting at the Road and Bridge building on Aug. 25.

SAGUACHE — A couple dozen people brought their concerns to the Saguache County Planning Commission meeting at the Road and Bridge building on Aug. 25.

With only one of the members absent from the 11-person board, they had a quorum for addressing nine applications. Following Roberts Rule of Law, the volunteer advisory board gave ample time for comments and questions from board members and residents.

The board recommended approving all the applications for the county commissioners, who will address issues starting at 2 p.m. on Sept. 20 in the courthouse. These applications included four consolidation requests, a change of ownership request, a subdivision exemption request, two conditional use modification requests, and under “Old Business” a zoning change request that in some ways has been in the works for 25 years.

The week before the planning commission meeting, dozens of residents from the Crestone area packed the county commissioner meeting on Aug. 16 with concerns about the zoning change request, particularly the plans for a cell tower proposed as part of the Community Resource Center application from Elaine Johnson and Steven McDowell. The commissioners recommended running the application through the planning commission one more time to give residents a chance to respond to the cell tower erection in the Elk Park subdivision.

At the start of the meeting on Aug. 25, planning commission member Steve Carlson said, “I feel that my voice was heard at the last meeting, and nothing has changed. I have nothing to make me feel like I should change the vote that I voted for last time.”

Although the text of the application had not changed, the opposition in the audience the second time around changed the tone of the discussion. In defense of her request, Johnson addressed false allegations she had heard and provided decades of history behind the project. Opposing the cell tower, residents cited language in the county’s codes that appeared to disqualify the application.

Two board members abstained from the vote on the zoning change request, one voted against it, and five members voted in favor of approving the application and sending it to the commissioners for a final decision. Along with the eight other applications recommended for approval, the zoning change request will be part of the Land Use discussion during the commissioners meeting on Sept. 20.

Johnson noted how cell service in Crestone declined to spotty at best after the Spring Creek Fire in 2018 took out the Verizon tower on La Veta Pass. Although some residents expressed concern about dropped calls and communication during emergency situations, one Crestone resident said she and her family have always worked around these issues.

The cell tower proposal is a key part of funding the Community Resource Center development. In addition to providing connectivity for the center, it would help fund the venture. The Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) encourages cooperation between groups submitting grants.

Commission member Kairina Danforth abstained from the vote. She said a collection of nonprofit organizations agreed to work on the grant application for the Community Resource Center together, but most of those organizations have since withdrawn their support.

As Johnson noted, the delay jeopardizes the project because of the sequence of requirements. Like the opposition, the delay is not new. As commission member Bill McClure noted, when Johnson and McDowell first proposed a community center with gas service and more during the 1990s, residents rallied in opposition. The application was denied.

At a table next to the board members, former Rio Grande County Sheriff Don McDonald sat with his new Saguache County Code Enforcement teammate Doug Chacon. McDonald and undersheriff Chris Crown resigned from Rio Grande County in early July, and McDonald started with Saguache in August.

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