Teller leaders say no to unchecked camp expansions

IMG_8360Teller leaders say no to unchecked camp expansions

Rick Langenberg

Proponents of Teller youth camps and church retreats, a growing segment of the local tourism industry, have suffered a huge regulatory defeat that could put a clamp on their future expansion pursuits.

In a big victory for a group of rural residents who have questioned the growing outdoor recreational, retreat and resort movement, the Teller County Commissioners last week unanimously denied the bid of Sanborn Western Camps and the Colorado Outdoor Education Center. Sanborn, along with other youth retreats, had sought a change in the current land use regulations so they could do minor expansions and improvements without having to undergo so much red-tape and without having to go through any public hearings, period. Under their proposal, properties that obtained a recreational resort designation and a special use permit, could do a slight expansion and would only have to receive the administrative green light by the county. Also, their plan called for more legal leeway for operators of existing recreational camps and retreats.

Despite a strong presentation by Teller camp proponents, the commissioners clearly sided with their staff and vetoed the recommendations of the Teller Planning Commission. The planning commission approved the requests of Sanborn Western Camps last month. Although lauding the efforts of Sanborn Camps and other outdoor retreats, the commissioners concluded that they couldn’t adjust their rules just for the benefit of a certain business category or group

“I get that,” said Teller Commissioner Dave Paul, following several hours of testimony, dominated by pro-youth camp sentiments, in commenting on the many positive things Sanborn Camps does for the county.

But he cautioned that in taking an oath as commissioner, he was obligated to represent all the residents of the county and not just approve a measure that would benefit a certain group. “It’s a slippery slope, said Paul. “I don’t want to be unfair to anyone.”

His fellow board members, Norm Steen and Marc Dettenrieder, echoed similar views. They both sympathized with the camp proponents, but concluded that there are other ways to accomplish what they desire for facility improvements and slight expansions. They feared setting a bad precedent by favoring a certain business type.

The commissioners, although blocking the request of Sanborn Camps, agreed to open the door for a possible compromise to cut back on the costs and red-tape associated with camp-related facility improvements. They conceded that the current regulations, requiring groups like Sanborn to present detailed plans for their entire property development and not just for the impacted areas, needs to be refined. Another idea mulled is to create an agricultural/business zone that would only apply to youth and recreational camps.

Camp representatives argued that under the current system they had to foot extensive consultant costs just to make a few needed improvements.

Ridiculous regulations

And once again, Teller’s land use regulations came under fire.

“Let the camps thrive,” blasted Doug Page, a representative of Page Construction, who played a big role in the updating of land use regulations in Teller County. Unfortunately, Page argued that youth and church camps weren’t represented in this land use overhaul process.

He questioned the logic of making it difficult for camps in their efforts to make basic improvements and to modernize their facilities. “They (the county’s land use) rules are broken,” said Page.

The strongest pro-camp presentation came from Jane Sanborn, the owner of Sanborn Western Camps, who cited the changes as a way to allow many of the county’s youth camps and retreats to progress to the next level. She also noted that these camps play a positive financial, educational and environmental impact for the county. But under the current restriction, she indicated Sanborn Western Camps, which operates a 3,200-acre area, is being forced to operate with a hand tied behind its back in trying to modernize and improve its facilities. “We pay a lot of money to stay in compliance (with Teller land use rules). “This is a threat to our continued existence…We are asking for the right to thrive.”

According to Sanborn, the current documents they must abide by are extremely onerous and amount to a “foreign language for a lay person.” Moreover, she estimated the costs at well $10,000 for a slight change, such as adding a few more beds at a current facility.

Sanborn received strong support from other camp operators in Teller County. “It’s a bit much,” said Dan Faulkner, of Camp Elam, when describing the current regulations. “It is very frustrating and feels like over-regulations,”

Andrea Barlow, a consultant for the N.E.S., which represented Sanborn Camps, stated that the requested changes would actually make the process run smoother and would set clear guidelines for what constituted a camp expansion and what could occur at current recreational facilities. “It will improve the transparency,” said Barlow. “The impacts would be minimal.”

Under their plan, a 40-bed or 20 percent expansion of camp activity represented the threshold for when these pursuits could occur by legal right and wouldn’t require additional hearings. Like Sanborn, she told the commissioners that it was unfair to ask camp operators to fork out huge monies for additional permits for minor improvements. The consultant also advocated the historical importance of Sanborn Western Camps.

Too good of a deal

No one spoke against the request at last week’s hearing. But a number of Teller residents and neighborhood groups sent letters to the commissioners in opposition to the request. They complained that it opened the door for huge increases in traffic and impacts without any public oversight. A group of residents for several years have voiced concerns about the growing designation of resort uses in remote areas in Teller and say that virtually all of these retreat groups don’t have to pay any taxes.

“These camps, save one, are tax-exempt. They already enjoy benefits that normal businesses do not,” said Steve Storrs of Divide, in a letter to the commissioners. “Make no mistake, these camps are in it for the money, and there is a competition for the recreation dollar among them. It is not fair to neighborhoods that they impact, and to the legitimate businesses they compete with, to allow them to operate outside established regulations.”

The pro-camp proposal also got a skeptical response from the county’s transportation department, which questioned how the new expansion criteria could be enforced.

In the final analysis, the commissioners told the camp advocates they agree with their mission and support their intent, but they need to work with the staff in developing a better solution.

Following last week’s hearing, Jane Sanborn said she wasn’t surprised by the commissioners’ decision and looked forward to working with the planning staff in coming up with a solution. “We knew this was a possibility,” said Sanborn, in referring to the prospects of the commissioners denying their request.

The decision, though, represented one of the biggest regulatory setbacks Teller camp proponents have experienced in recent years. Camp and retreat advocates had previously made much progress in lobbying elected leaders for land use changes that allow them to operate and expand in an easier fashion, especially following the Hayman fire of 2002.

Plus, a few big camp projects, like Golden Bell, have gotten the thumbs-up for significant expansions.