Downtown Master Plan And County Code Chapter 16 Rewrite

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To Los Alamos County Council

Councilors:  I welcome the proposed study and rewrite of the Downtown Master Plan and Chapter 16.  Both are in desperate need of revamping, however it is imperative that they be done with consideration of the desires and needs of the community, and that the shortcomings in the existing documents first be recognized and corrected.

In the last 40 years I have had numerous and mostly unpleasant interactions with the Comprehensive Plan, with Code  Chapters 16 and 18, and with the Planning and Zoning (Land Use) function of the county.  In these interactions I had various roles: as a public citizen, as an attorney representing at different times both business and residential interests,  as a homeowner representing my own and my neighbors’ interests vis-à-vis proposed neighborhood developments, and as a member of the County Council.

Recent changes to the Comprehensive Plan have been mostly beneficial.  I hope to see the community involvement process used in that plan continued and expanded.  I would take exception to one aspect of the previous process and that is the rather arbitrary last-minute revisions made when the plan received its final edit by the Commission with little opportunity for additional public review and comment.   In particular the Commission approved several “aspirational” goals that were at variance with those adopted in previous public hearings. 

As a near neighbor to the Los Alamos Downtown District I am especially concerned with the implementation of two principles enunciated in the  presentation document: “protect existing neighborhoods from incompatible development” (exhibit A, Key Goals and Policies),  and grading or “stepping down”  height, setback,  and density near District boundaries, Exhibit A, “Downtown District Standards” and the accompanying illustrations “Considerations Downtown Zoning.”  This has been a problem in recent years as our neighborhood had to organize to successfully resist a proposed development that would have been a gross violation of these universally recognized urban development principles.  

Chapter 16 is a hodge-podge collection of ordinances, regulations, procedures, and standards that are often inconsistent or vague and ambiguous.  It is so difficult to interpret and put into practice that staff and even legal counsel often just “wing it”; once in my experience the legal department simply created a process out of thin air that was inconsistent with the existing  process in the code and also inconsistent with usual legal procedural standards. Persons who chair hearings on various parts of the code in my experience have been untrained and unfamiliar with the code and with the fundamentals of due process.  In spite of having studied, cited, and otherwise used this document for many years I still find it difficult to navigate because of its chaotic disorganization.

In the absence of clear guidance in the code P&Z bodies are often reliant upon the staff to tell them what to do:   the staff does tell them what to do, often “winging it“ to the detriment of applicants and parties in proceedings and damaging the credibility of the County’s processes.

The related nuisance section in Chapter 18 Article II should be included in the revision process.  It has been controversial for years since a major revision in 2014, a committee created by council to review it has not had noticeable effect, and it should be totally rewritten to be consistent with nuisance law and standard municipal practice in New Mexico.  There are excellent existing municipal codes that could be used for guidance.  

Thank you for your attention and the opportunity to present this information.