Weld County–“In the zone”

Zoning. What is it? Why does it matter? How does it affect people?

One of the most important tasks of government at any level is managing land use. By controlling what uses are approved at a location, a jurisdiction can cause orderly development or chaos. On the one hand, it’s important to respect the right of a property owner to experience the “quiet enjoyment of his property”; on the other hand, a property owner may not prevent his neighbors from doing the same thing.

The way that government manages this balance is typically through zoning–designating what types of uses may occur within any of several “zone districts'”–residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, etc. In a well-planned situation, highly intense uses such as heavy industry are separated from low intensity uses such as residential. In fact, uses may be fundamentally incompatible (and therefore should not be adjacent to one another) if their impacts (such as noise, dust, odor, traffic, etc.) are widely different.

In Weld County, we have had a unique situation.  The County is approximately 4,000 sq. miles, and a very large fraction is zoned for agricultural uses.  The map shown above of the southern portion of the county shows how important this is.  Aside from the areas included in the city limits of Weld’s 32 municipalities, the County zoning is overwhelmingly agriculture. 

However, until now, this has not reflected the way in which County land use has actually functioned. In reality, the County has been using a process called the “Use by Special Review” (USR) permit to allow nearly any use in the agricultural zone, whether it has anything to do with agriculture or not. Literally anything, from RV storage facilities to asphalt plants to concrete plants to junkyards to solar farms to waste digesters have been allowed on agriculturally zoned land. As the map above of the same area shows, this process has been used so extensively that there is no incentive to properly zone any region or to manage the compatibility in a systematic way. In fact, the language of the USR Ordinance has explicitly allowed this to occur:

“A Site Specific Development Plan and Use by Special Review Permit for a Use permitted as a Use by Right, Accessory Use, or Use by Special Review in the Commercial or Industrial Zone Districts”

Obviously, with this language, the zoning code completely negates the agricultural zone district.

However, this may be about to change!   

Weld County is currently in the midst of a substantial revision of its zoning process, Chapter 23 of the Weld County Code. You can learn more about the process and status at the County web site:  Weld Zoning Plan

But, in summary, the County is eliminating many of the possible uses of the USR process.  While some uses will be permitted more easily under a procedure known as “Z-PAG” (zoning permit, ag) a large number of more intensive uses will now be constrained to occur only on Commercially or Industrially zoned parcels.  The current version of these requirements is here:  Zoning Table

However, at a work session yesterday, May 13, 2019, the BOCC went a step further and directed staff to modify this table in two important ways.  First, permanent asphalt and concrete plants will ONLY be allowed in the industrial districts unless they are directly associated with a gravel pit.  Temporary plants would still be allowed in the Agricultural district only if they are needed for a public road project, and only for up to 2 years. And, second, the staff was directed to revise the standards for solar facilities to require them to be constructed only on industrially zoned parcels. (Note that this would NOT apply to solar generation used entirely to support activities within the parcel, so applications such as residential solar would not be affected.) 

There are various other changes that are likely to occur before the revisions are final. In particular, we have argued that there also need to be standards for compatibility established so that property owner who wish to establish a more intense use in an area will understand exactly what will be required.  In fact, we submitted an extended analysis, suggesting that some sort of comparative impact analysis should be included in this revision. Although Commissioners Conway and James seemed to be interested in this concept at the first reading of this ordinance, at the work session, the subject was not addressed.  You can review the document we submitted here:  Compatibility Analysis

In summary, there is still work to do, but we are cautiously optimistic that this major revision of Chapter 23 of the Weld County Code will result in more predictability in land use. Given that our county faces substantial changes as a result of the anticipated growth over the next couple of decades, the recognition of the need for these changes is a very positive step. 

Next Steps:  The Second Reading of Ordinance 19-02 is currently scheduled to occur at the BOCC meeting on June 10th.  We urge all residents to contribute to the process by expressing their ideas and concerns in writing prior to that date, or, in person at the public hearing on that date.