Business gets a nod from county

In Larimer County, it’s fine to grow wine grapes. But open a winery? Maybe. You definitely can’t have a tasting room or retail operation. Ditto for an apple orchard or cut flower business with a retail component.

Farm machinery or auto repair business? Sorry. Machine shop? Well, that depends…

Would-be entrepreneurs who want to set up businesses in Larimer County have been stymied by a dizzying set of zoning regulations and policies that have constrained their business-creating abilities. But that may change after the county conducts a pilot project aimed at removing some of those barriers.

“Fundamentally, what we’re trying to understand is what role does the community want Larimer County to play to encourage business in the county,´ said Geniphyr Ponce-Pore, a former county planner now spearheading the county’s Economic Development Pilot Project. “We want to look at things that make sense and fit into the community.”

The project is just getting under way, Ponce-Pore said, and is now in an information-gathering phase. “I’m hearing very much that we do have obstacles, some of which we’re already addressing, and others that need community involvement to decide how to address them,” she said.

Taking a second look

The county has always tried to balance entrepreneurial ambitions with a rural quality of life that includes freedom from excessive noise, dust, traffic, light pollution, odors, and the like. But county officials are now taking a second look to see if loosening some rules and regulations might still preserve those lifestyle qualities while allowing more latitude in rural economic development.

“We’re trying to identify compatible entrepreneurial activities that support a small business but also fit into the values of the community,” Ponce-Pore said.

She noted that some of the nation’s biggest businesses – Hewlett-Packard Co. and FedEx/Kinko’s – got their start at home or in a garage. “We want to at least give them the opportunity to get started,” she said. “Some people just want to do what they love at home.”

Karin Madson, a planner in the county’s code administration office, said the home occupations section of the Larimer County Land Use Code generally tries to keep a lid on noticeable economic activity. “The whole intent of the home occupations section of our land use code is to retain the residential character,” she said.

Retail sales, for example, are limited to a total of 30 days per year under the existing code, a situation that limits the scope of an on-site rural business. Madson said the county is aware that some would like to see a loosening of that policy, among others.

“Those are things that are on the radar but right now people cannot do those things,” she said.

Some economic activities are allowed as a use-by-right under the county’s zoning regulations. But the line of what’s allowed can soon get a little fuzzy.

Like a winery, for example. “In some ways, some ag uses are bordering on commercial uses and how do we clarify them,´ said Ponce-Pore. “At some point it’s OK with the neighbors and at some point it’s too big and where do you draw the line? How much is too much?”

Changes needed

Jim Reidhead, director of the county’s Rural Land Use Center, said he’s excited to see the county study the matter and be open to making some changes to the code.

“We make it difficult to be truly innovative in the rural areas because it’s not allowed by zoning,” he said. “We’ve inadvertently given farmers and ranchers two choices: the status quo or selling their land, without a lot in between. And we’re trying to look at that in-between.”

The Rural Land Use Center was created in 1997 with the goal of preserving open space and agriculture while allowing landowners to still realize most of the development potential of their property. Reidhead said relaxing some of the county’s constraints on what landowners can do with their property could help get more of them interested in RLUC-assisted development.

“In essence, what we’re trying to do is put not developing your land on a parity with developing your land, so they don’t feel compelled to sell it for development,” he said.

Reidhead said the current situation is flawed in its outlook on economic development and rural living. “We’re quite content to allow someone to drive 20 miles or more into the city to work and put their kids in day care, and not allow some entrepreneurial activity that allows them and the kids to stay home.”

Commissioner Kathay Rennels said the county is interested in stirring the economic pot in the rural areas and making it a little easier to create a business.

“What brings communities out of a recession is the small businesses,” she said. “If we can sustain the people here, give them information and assistance, we can allow more magic to happen.”

Rennels said the county will be taking a hard look at relaxing some of its laws, citing “antiquated zoning” in some areas. “There are some zoning and policies that need to be looked at,” she said.

Whether the pilot project will result in a new full-scale economic development program or simply a tweaking of some rules remains an open question, she said. “I don’t want to have a preconceived notion of what will happen. I don’t want to put a box around it.

“I don’t think we know right now where we’re going but it’s important to look at where we might need to go, and that people have choices,” she said.

Ponce-Pore, whose contract for the project runs through December 2007, said the next step will be a series of public meetings and information sessions to be announced soon.