Saguache County continues to grapple with code enforcement

Photo by Patrick Shea When devastating winter winds destroyed the Spring Grow cannabis-cultivation operation in Saguache County, potential profits died for the company and county codes dictated a costly cleanup effort.

SAGUACHE COUNTY — From property owners associations to town boards and county commissioners, code enforcement is a common thread through Saguache County communities. Without a court presence and clearly written codes that bare teeth, officials cannot enforce land use violations.

During a Moffat town board working meeting in August, Town Attorney Seth Walker explained how the costs incurred for hiring a judge can be offset by payments for fines and handling violations that would otherwise go unattended. Mayor Cassandra Foxx and board members combed through the town’s codes with red pens and made updates to provide clarity for enforcement.

During the Board of County Commissioners working meeting at the Saguache Courthouse on Sept. 13, Code Enforcement Officers Doug Chacon and Don McDonald detailed dozens of violations they have attacked.

“Since Don started,” Chacon said, “we’ve gotten a lot done.”

McDonald covered new ground by researching property ownership to provide additional contact addresses for sending notifications and cease-and-desist orders. When a certified letter is returned undeliverable and the property owners do not reside onsite, it takes detective work to find alternate addresses.

As County Administrator Wendi Maez said, “many people move and don’t notify us.”

McDonald discovered a North Carolina address for a principal owner of two properties under code violation investigation. Serving the same letter to two addresses increases the chance of receiving a reply and showing good faith in contacting owners.

In addition to clearly written codes, communicating violations to owners with hand-delivered or certified letters is key to enforcement.

If the property owner shows progress cleaning up blight or addressing other code violations, the process continues. If they have been given a chance to work out a payment plan, the county will work with them as well.

But if an owner disregards the notices, they will receive cease-and-desist orders. In the legal realm, further failure leads to eviction — officially called “forcible entry and detainment.”

Even when circumstances are difficult and owners comply, codes require enforcement. As Spring Grow Project Manager Joe Cenna described it, “a tornado came through” last winter and destroyed his company’s cannabis-growing operation on County Road T.

The mangled structures that remained on-site were beyond repair. Although some equipment still had sale value, the infrastructure rubbish piled high. For months, crews have been clearing away material. Plenty of it remains despite strong winds that blow lighter items onto neighboring properties.

The first Land Use Codes for Saguache County date back to April 4, 1988. Now 24 updates later, the most recent version from May 19, 2020, is 288 pages long. The list of violations and extensions is also long.

According to McDonald, “I have been researching cases, one since 2011.”

In many cases, McDonald said, land sales have been legal, but the deed has not been transferred. Similarly, he has spoken with owners who bought plots sight unseen, only to learn that they also inherited code violations that require costly cleanups.

As commissioner Lynne Thompson noted, “Buyer beware.”

McDonald also noted how they need to verify with property owners if people on their land are allowed to be there. Absentee owners may not be aware of squatters on their land, yet they are still responsible for code violations on the property.

Land Use Administrator Amber Wilson and County Attorney Brad Crowell discussed budgeting for potential court costs. After confirming code wording and the process for notifying offenders, priority cases will require time and money.

As commissioner Tom McCracken noted, targeting violators surrounded by other violators may trigger more responses before going to court. It will show that the county is serious.

On Sept. 12, Center Town Administrator Brian Lujan attended the Regional Resiliency Roadmap group meeting in Monte Vista. Town administrators from La Jara, Saguache, and Del Norte joined Lujan in the discussion. After forming the group a year ago, the group met with consultants to discuss the future of code enforcement for land use issues according to each municipality.

In the Baca Grande subdivision, the Property Owners Association includes two volunteer boards for covenant violations. The Environmental and Architectural Committee handles violations, and the Violations Appeals Panel continues discussions based on appeals.

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