Commissioners delay rezone vote and change voting districts...again
The San Juan County Commission changed school board voting maps once again, and gave an additional two week window of public comment for a rezone as part of a their latest meeting.
On January 18, the commission unanimously voted to allow for more time for public input regarding a rezone of property north of Monticello.
The request to rezone 18.69 acres of property of the Ranches of Elk Meadows subdivision was met with opposition from about one dozen neighbors of the property. As the developer has stated plans to create eight lots ranging in size from one-third to one-quarter acres.
According to a county staff report, the Ranches of Elk Meadows subdivision was established in 2007, with 67 lots on 751.61 acres.
In 2011, the zoning ordinance was amended, resulting in the subdivision being zoned as an Agricultural District and Rural Residential District.
In 2019, the zoning ordinance was amended again to allow lot sizes as small as one-quarter acre with approval from the County Board of Health.
Monticello Development Company LLC, based in Provo, UT, has requested to rezone 18.69 acres of the subdivision from an A-1 Agricultural Zone to an RR-1 Rural Residential Zone, as well as amendment that would allow for eight lots ranging in size from one-third to three-quarter acre.
The county planning and zoning commission approved the amendment to the subdivision, contingent on the approval of the zone change by the county commission.
Scott Burton, San Juan County Planning and Zoning Administrator, explained that the company could still apply for approval from the planning commission even if the zoning remains as an A-1 Agricultural Zone, because of the 2019 amendment to the subdivision, the developers can build on lots as small as one-quarter acre.
Burton said that concerns voiced about available water and the creation of a septic system are ultimately addressed by the Utah Division of Environmental Quality.
When asked about the availability of water, Burton replied, “We largely don’t have control over it, because the property owners have the right to apply to the state for the water rights to drill a well.”
Burton added that the smaller lots allow for clustering of housing, which requires fewer wells and less roads, which ultimately protects the water table. Additionally, the Utah Department of Natural Resources has declared fire risk to be low to moderate for the area.
Bryant Black, one of the developers for the project, said the necessary wells had been permitted and drilled following approval by the Utah Division of Environmental Quality.
Black said the project would develop only eight lots and donate the remaining 48 lots to wilderness conservation dedicated to the protection of sage grouse.
The commission listened to public comment concerning the subdivision rezoning. Several residents of Elk Meadows, a development just south of the subdivision, all commented against the rezoning of the Ranches of Elk Meadows.
Most residents cited water scarcity as a problem. Elk Meadows resident Stewart Smith described the subdivision as an area with “no water, poor drainage, and absolutely no services.” He added the county is facing an historic drought which continues to worsen. Residents of the area must dig wells to access water and are concerned the aquifer cannot accommodate eight more lots.
A number of residents claimed this rezoning is an example of spot zoning that goes against the master plan in place. Residents asked the commission to reject or postpone this rezoning.
Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy directed County Administrator Mack McDonald to keep public comment open for two weeks and to collect the comments in writing, with the intent to revisit this issue in the next commission meeting.
The commission also approved a $60,000 La Sal drinking water feasibility study.
As development continues to increase in the La Sal area, county staff requested assistance from an engineering firm to explore the possibility of a public water system.
Staff reports the study is not only for conservation efforts, but to also to get ahead of the development of more unregulated wells that all utilize the same water resource.
The commission approved a contract with J-U-B Engineering to study the issue and provide recommendations.
The commission once again changed a previously adopted voting district maps for the San Juan School Board. More information about how that will impact the board can be found on page A1.
Following the 2020 Census, the commission is responsible for redistricting. They approved maps of the San Juan County School Board and Commission districts at their final meeting of 2021.
The map approved for the commission districts was created by the county’s hired redistricting expert Bill Cooper. The map approved for the school board district was drawn and recommended by by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC).
While the map perfectly balanced the county population across the five districts it also created some issues, including putting residents of the Eastland and Ucolo area in District Four, which is dominated by the Montezuma Creek / Aneth area.
The commission revisited the issue at the January 4, 2022 meeting and changed the map to include portions of Eastland in District One, instead of in District Four. That put these voters in a district in the. Monticello area where their children attend school.
The change disrupted the perfect balance of voters per district, with District Four just inside the allowable five percent deviation.
Following the meeting on January 4, the Navajo Nation sent a resolution to San Juan County expressing opposition to the amended map.
At their January 18 meeting, the commission once again switched their vote to approve the Eastland Adjustment map which was closer to the original map presented by the NNHRC.
The ordinance and map keeps Eastland in District one while also placing some areas near Monticello back into District Four.
During public comment, San Juan School Superintendent Ron Nielson asked the council to not pass the new ordinance, citing the issue of placing three incumbent school board members into one district.
Lauren Benally, representing the NNHRC, weighed in, saying, “Redistricting is for the people, not the incumbents.”
Commissioner Willie Grayeyes was the swing vote in all three votes taken on the school board maps, with Commissioner Maryboy on ly voting in favor of the Navajo Nation proposal, and Commissioner Bruce Adams only voting in favor of the modified map.
Stating the reason for his changed vote, Commissioner Grayeyes said, “There was no information regarding if that modification (meaning the map approved on January 4) does have impacts, effects, on other districts. There was no one afforded information, later I learned there are impacts.”
How the item ended up on the agenda for a third time was also the source of a disagreement. On January 13, Moab area attorney Liz Thomas sent an email to Commissioner Maryboy thanking him for agreeing to instruct McDonald to put the item back on the county agenda.
The email distribution also included Navajo Nation Human Rights Office Director Leonard Gorman, Commissioner Grayeyes, and Attorney Steve Boos, who represented the Navajo Nation in a civil rights lawsuit against the county. Commissioner Grayeyes forwarded the email to McDonald.
The county packet for the January 18 meeting included a letter from County Attorney Kendall Laws informing the county that any communication between two county commissioners constitutes an official meeting.
Laws wrote “The content of the email has made it apparent that a violation of the Utah Open Meetings Act has taken place.”
Laws told the commission that a vote at the January 18 meeting would be void and that the issue should instead be brought back to the next commission meeting.
Laws emphasized to the commission that drafting ordinances should be directed to county staff. “The use of outside parties for drafting such drafting has already financially damaged the county multiple times over the past few years and it must stop,” said Laws.
The email attached to the packet shows that Commissioners Grayeyes and Maryboy were both recipients of the email, but the attachment does not show they communicated electronically about placing the item on the agenda.
McDonald explained it appears like a lot had taken place behind the scenes, whether electronically, physically or via phone.
“Meeting with two commissioners constitutes a quorum,” said McDonald. “Some decision had been made, discussions had taken place and there’s this agreement to forward these items from that meeting or from that discussion that not all parties, not all commissioners, were represented at. Nor did the public, where it wasn’t done in an open public meeting.”
Commissioner Grayeyes disagreed, saying that placing the item on the agenda was not an agreement to approve the item.
“A lot of people I guess are straddling a running horse, getting together on this to either deface us, the two of us that were involved,” said Commissioner Grayeyes. “I’m sure they’re flying high with it, but to me that reads that there’s no decision, all that is set is an agreement. Generally, what do you do? You thank a person for presentation that’s all that was about. To me, that’s what it says.”
Commissioner Adams stated his opposition to the action, saying “We’ve been advised by our attorney that we are violating the law by doing this.”
Commissioner Maryboy also commented on the issue of the open meetings discussion.
“For some reason we have all this smokescreen,” said Commissioner Maryboy. “We never usually have our attorneys around or available at the time when we have a meeting but they seem to be available now.”
At the meeting the commission received a presentation regarding the Diné College microsite in Aneth.
Diné College is a public tribal college based in Arizona which primarily serves students across the Navajo Nation. Crystal Cree, the college director of legislative affairs, reported the Aneth microsite is located in the Headstart Building. Cree reported the site is equipped with broadband internet, which allows for local students to use computers and wifi to access their online courses.
Commissioner Grayeyes inquired about the possibility of more microsites in the county, specifically in rural areas like Navajo Mountain. Cree explained the choice to build a site in Aneth was due to the fact there was already a building that required few renovations and the location allowed for easy setup of broadband internet. They are looking at setting up more sites in Shonto, AZ and Oljato, UT.