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Expansion nightmares

Modifying land in El Paso County requires research and plenty of leg work, especially if one is opening a business or making changes to residential property. And it can be a grueling process.David Corder, owner of Perfect Fit Wellness Center, opened his business in Falcon four years ago. Corder, a personal trainer, said his parents operated D&L Sanitation for 30 years on the property where the wellness center is now located. Last year, when Corder decided to expand his business, he learned the property was not appropriately zoned to meet his needs.After further investigation, Corder was told that his land would have been grandfathered in if he wanted to start another sanitation company, but if he wanted to start another type of business he would need a different zoning designation – even if the land was already commercially zoned.Carol Weber, El Paso County development services project manager, said a business operating before the 1999 blanket rezoning is grandfathered in to the zoning that was established prior to rezoning. The sanitation company that was operated by Corder’s parents is grandfathered, but the wellness center is not.Before he learned of the zoning issue, he hired a contractor to build an addition to the wellness center, but six months into the project he fired the contractor because the building was improperly constructed. The contractor was unlicensed. Because the building was constructed improperly, Corder needs to have it taken down, but he cannot get a permit to rebuild because of the zoning discrepancy. For the same reason, he cannot secure a loan on the property.Today, Corder is $30,000 in debt and no further along in a process that he was told would take 120 days.If his application for rezoning is approved by the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners, he will be zoned only for the existing business and will not be allowed to make changes to the wellness center.The processMark Gebhart, El Paso County Development Service Department land development code administrator, doesn’t deny the negative issues associated with the zoning process.He said if the plan involves five acres in the middle of nowhere and the master plan does not support commercial zoning in that area, the county commissioners have the ability to approve or deny the application.Corder said he attended several county meetings where he was told, “You don’t match the Falcon/Peyton master plan.”Lynne Bliss, Falcon Peyton Small Area Master Plan Advisory Committee chairwoman, said the committee can make suggestions about developing the area, but potential business owners don’t need approval from the master plan committee. “All we can do is make recommendations to the county,” she said.Transitioning from a restaurant to another restaurant does not require a zoning change, Gebhart said, while a change in the type of business on a zoned property does. They consider everything, including building plans, parking, landscaping, the water system and sewer system, he said.Gebhart said most land is zoned as rural residential or agricultural, and property owners or developers must go through the process to rezone.The first step in that process, he said, is for a landowner to submit an application, which is reviewed and presented to the planning commission. The commission then makes a recommendation to the county commissioners.Before the planning commission reviews it, the plan is sent to numerous departments – engineering, roads, storm water and drainage, Gebhart said. As the plan moves to the planning commission, a program manager is assigned to make certain the county commissioners are apprised of the details of the plan. The land use also has to be compatible with neighbors, who have a say in the zoning. “Rezoning is a public process,” he said. Neighbors are notified in a letter and an advertisement is placed in a local newspaper.The problems with the processCorder said he is frustrated by the lack of communication among county departments.Roger Lovell, El Paso County Regional Building plan review supervisor, said there is a clear distinction between functions of the regional building department and the planning department. The regional building department is involved with the actual structure of a building, while the zoning department deals with the land the building occupies. “The regional building does not enforce zoning,” Lovell said.Corder’s plans for a walkway inside the wellness center went through 22 county departments before it was approved, he said. Corder said only seven of the 17 departments have responded to the plan.Weber said a Colorado state statute requires a review agency to be given at least 21 days to review an application. She said some agencies take longer, depending on the project. For example, Weber said, CDOT may take longer to respond to a large-scale project, and the plan cannot move forward without the agency’s input.She said the timeframe “depends on how a particular agency impacts the project.”Each department in a construction project is critical, Lovell said. “They all look at every piece of the puzzle.” He said the timetable for approving a plan is contingent on the size and quality of the project.Gebhart also said it is difficult to pinpoint the timeline for approval of an application. “A commercial property with a Target Super Center is different than with a commercial 7-11,” he said. “The timetable varies depending on the type of application. The system is designed to be as expedited as possible through the review process, and the owner needs to provide information in a timely manner … they don’t always do that.”Weber said Corder was on the Jan. 15 docket for the first public hearing at the planning commission meeting. The second public hearing is held during the county commissioner meeting.But Corder faces other issues. He lives on the same property where he operates his business. Because of the commercial zoning designation, he cannot occupy a residence on the same property. Gebhart said there are ways to combine residential and commercial property, such as dividing the land through a subdivision procedure or allowing a variance, but he would not recommend doing this because of the loan approval process.Zoning issues are a widespread problem in Falcon, Corder said. “I know that there are more people out here,” he said. “They’re either laying low and saying ‘OK, we’re not going to do anything, and we’re not going to ruffle any feathers because nobody is saying anything,’ or if they’re like me and trying to expand and trying to make a living, then they’re in the process.”Business owners are not the only ones that need to make sure the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed when it comes to building and zoning issues.Gary and Shirley Vande Brake own two parcels totaling 20 acres. The Vande Brakes have paid taxes on their property since they purchased it in 1996 and only recently learned the land at Gladstone Acres was zoned A-35, which means it’s at least 35 acres of agricultural land.They only found out about the designation when they tried to sell part of their land to friends. Shirley Vande Brake said the county told them they need to rezone the property. But she said the property registration and covenant agreement signed Oct. 4, 1964, prove the property was originally zoned correctly.”It’s stupidity and an inconsistency that should have been taken care of years ago,” Vande Brake said.Without the proper zoning, the Vande Brakes have had to put any plans for their property on hold. “We couldn’t even put on a new roof if the wind blew it off because the property is not considered to be legal,” she said.Because taxes have been paid on the property and the property has been platted and surveyed and a septic permit issued, Vande Brake said the property should be considered legal.Corder also resides in Gladstone Acres, and Weber said the covenants need to be removed because, according to the current covenant, the only access to his business is via a residential road, which means there is no legal access to his property. The Vande Brakes, on the other hand, said the existing covenant is proof that their property is legal.To remove or modify the covenant, a resident must obtain signatures from area property owners. “It’s up to the property owners,” Weber said.”It’s one process after another,” Corder said. “Every time I turn around, it’s something else.”He’s trying to remain optimistic.”If it doesn’t go through, I am bankrupt and out of work, and I have a plan that is not worth anything,” Corder said. “If it doesn’t go through, that is literally what happens – my family goes hungry and I have nothing.”

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