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PHOTO: The Archuleta County Courthouse, also known as the Fred C. Harman III Justice Center.

A curious government drama unfolded this month… which may have been resolved by the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners… or else, prolonged.

We will have to wait and see.

I heard about the fuss last Tuesday, during a couple of BOCC meetings.  At the second meeting, the BOCC passed a resolution that will presumably permit certain unsightly mechanical objects on the roof of the County Courthouse to be seen by the public, in perpetuity.  The BOCC did this by overruling the denial of a County variance request.  The variance request was denied by the Pagosa Springs Planning Commission.  But has now been overruled, apparently.

Resolution 2023-08:  Overruling The Town’s Planning Commission’s Disapproval Of The County’s Variance Application To Waive The Requirement To Install Screening On The Roof Of The Archuleta County Justice Center

On January 10, 2023, the Planning Commission for the Town of Pagosa Springs denied a variance application submitted by the County regarding the Archuleta County Justice Center. This resolution, if adopted and approved, overrules the denial of the County’s variance application by the Town’s Planning Commission.

The County has asked the Town to allow certain mechanical devices on the roof of the Courthouse to remain in plan sight.  As stated in the resolution:

WHEREAS, in December 2022, the County submitted an application to the Town’s planning commission seeking a variance for the Archuleta County Justice Center from the Town’s Land Use Development Code Section 6.10.4.D that requires “rooftop appurtenances, such as mechanical equipment and antennas shall be screened from view” because the requirement to do so would cost in excess of $100,000.00 of taxpayers’ money and the requirement is simply for aesthetics and nothing more; and,

WHEREAS, on January 10, 2023, at a public meeting, the Town’s planning commission voted to deny the County’s variance request.

The resolution states that the County is not subject to the Town’s Land Use and Development Code (LUDC) and will not be spending $100,000 on screening to hide the ugly mechanical devices.

Forgive me if I have considerable sympathy for the County’s position, in this particular controversy.

Not many businesses or organizations can thumb their noses at the Pagosa Springs Planning Department and live to tell the tale. But according to the Tuesday presentation by County Attorney Todd Weaver, the Town government — in spite of its extensive LUDC — has no legal authority to control the visibility of mechanical devices on the roof of the Fred C. Harman III Justice Center, regardless of how unsightly they might be.

Looking at the new Courthouse from the parking lot, you might not suspect that ugly mechanical devices had been installed on its roof.

Nor would you likely guess that the County government had carelessly allowed those nasty looking devices to be placed there without proper screening.

The Courthouse is next door to the County Jail, also part of the Fred C. Harman III Law Enforcement Complex. The jail had been substantially completed a year earlier, in July 2020.

The jail also had mechanical devices installed on its roof, without appropriate ‘screening’.  But the Town, for whatever reason, issued a permanent Certificate of Occupancy for the jail in September, 2020.

You can see several light gray mechanical devices in this photo:

Not knowing all of the details, I understand the situation this way:

In 2019, the Archuleta BOCC decided to put the taxpayers millions of dollars in debt to build a new County Jail, and a new County Courthouse, in the mostly-vacant subdivision known as Harman Park.  The BOCC did not ask the voters for permission to put us deeply in debt; the BOCC financed the two buildings using a clever fiscal scheme known as ‘Certificates of Participation’.

Wait a minute.  I take that back.  The BOCC did in fact ask us for permission to build a $20 million County jail, and we said, ‘No’.   But they went ahead and built it anyway. And then, since they were on a roll, they built a new Courthouse as well — this time, without even bothering to ask permission.  (Knowing, perhaps, what the answer would be?)

Because Harman Park is within the Town of Pagosa Springs, the BOCC brought the two projects to the Town Planning Commission for approval. The Planning Commission approved the plans for the Courthouse in July, 2020, with several “outstanding conditions of approval” (COAs) that the Town wanted the County to deal with.  One of them concerned mechanical equipment, which — according to the Town — should not be visible to the public.

The COAs included:

  • Fire District approval of hydrant locations
  • Parking lot dimensions and mechanical equipment locations with appropriate screening
  • Sidewalk connectivity shown
  • Light fixture specifications with shielding proposed and revised photometric/illumination plan
  • Trash enclosure details
  • Confirmation of the 15% landscaping
  • Evidence of financial viability

The Courthouse building construction was generally completed in October, 2021, with a Temporary Certificate of Occupancy issued, on the assumption that outstanding COAs would be completed.

Section 6.10.4. of the Town LUDC concerns ‘Mechanical Equipment’ and states:

Rooftop appurtenances, such as mechanical equipment and antennas, shall be screened from view…

The County did not install the screening that the Town Planning Commission expected them to install.  Then, the County submitted a ‘variance’ request to the Commission, asking to have their $100,000 oversight excused.   The Planning Commission refused to grant the ‘variance’ because, according to the allowable reasons in the LUDC, the County did not qualify for a variance.

Planning Commission chair Chris Pitcher summarized the decision this way:

“We all have to play by the same rules, whether government or private. That’s a tough one to waiver on…”

“I really feel like the County Courthouse is a building that we should be proud of. There are things that happen inside that building that are fundamental to being an American …

“…Screening the mechanical equipment on the roof is part of the rules of a finished product … So, it’s not only your neighbors, but the people who use the building that I think will benefit from the aesthetic of not looking at an HVAC unit as you’re walking into the courthouse.”

It seems to me, based on my several visits to the Courthouse over the past two months, that no one walking into the Courthouse would ever notice the HVAC units installed on the roof, and even if they did notice them, they would accept them as typical rooftop equipment like you can see all over town, and would pay them absolutely no mind.

Call me an old fashioned American, but I grew up during the 1960s when every home and business worth its salt had a TV antenna on the roof, often strapped to the chimney (which also appeared on the roof in plain view.)  I would even go so far as to propose that, back then, a TV antenna was something of a status symbol.

But it seems that rooftop appurtenances — antennas and HVAC units and such — have since become an eye-sore?  Something that bothers our fundamental, American aesthetic sensibility?

Meanwhile, according to the Town regulations, ‘screening’ is not an eye-sore.

Nor are chimneys, or vent pipes.

But if it looks like an antenna or some type of mechanical equipment, it “shall be screened from view.”   Except not always.   Only sometimes.

This municipal regulation has very little to do with how the roofs of our existing buildings look.  You might call it an ‘idealistic’ regulation… applied in some situations, at the whim of the Town Planning Department… and not applied in other situations.

For example.

Recently, two fairly large metal devices appeared on the roof of one of the Geothermal Growing Domes in Centennial Park.

These two mechanical objects would probably not strike an ordinary person as ‘ugly’ or ‘unsightly’ — partly because the growing dome in question is pretty much surrounded by various pieces of mechanical equipment.  Without any screening.

And while we’re on the subject of mechanical equipment and appurtenances appearing on rooftops…  I took a drive through the Town of Pagosa Springs yesterday, to get a sense of just how ugly the rooftops of our town had become…

Read Part Two, tomorrow…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson began sharing his opinions in the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 and can’t seem to break the habit. He claims that, in Pagosa Springs, opinions are like pickup trucks: everybody has one.