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RBC — Rio Blanco County commissioners and staff have a better idea of residents’ likes and dislikes after hearing the results of a countywide survey.
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One thing they learned is they have some work to do, especially when it comes to informing the public.
“One thing, for me, that comes to the forefront is that there is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about what the county is doing and why,” said Jeff Madison, county natural resources specialist and planning director, responding to the results of the survey, presented at a public meeting last Thursday. “I put the blame for this directly on us. It is clear to me we are not doing a good enough job of communicating with the public, and that we need to take steps to improve that.”
Results from the survey showed the majority of respondents — 45 percent — think the county is moving in the wrong direction, while 25 percent stated the county was headed in the right direction. Thirty percent of respondents said they “did not know,” when asked if the county was progressing in a positive direction.
“Right out of the chute, we asked the question, ‘Is Rio Blanco County progressing in the right direction, or do you feel it’s gotten off on the wrong track?’” said Chris Cares of RRC Associates of Boulder, which conducted the survey. “This is one that, frankly, is a little sobering. You’ve got 25 percent of the population saying right track. Almost half — 49 percent — saying wrong direction, and about a third saying don’t know … you are dealing with a part of the population that doesn’t necessarily have an opinion, but they took the time to fill out a 20-minute survey. So, they care about the community.”
The survey also showed that 46 percent of the respondents thought quality of life in the county had gotten worse.
“You have to have a thick skin to do one of these surveys,” Cares said. “There are some negative comments that come out, and you always see that.”
The quality of life question was a way to gauge public opinion, Cares said.
“It’s kind of a barometer question, checking the temperature,” he said. “On this one, quality of life, the vast majority of people will tell you their opinion. Here again, the dominant answer is in the most negative column, gotten worse, but the stayed the same is also a pretty significant number of the responses. In terms of the past two years, it’s been challenging in terms of quality of life. … Now remember, when we asked this question … it was out in the field in February and March, so the national attitude was pretty negative, and justified.”
The findings from the survey — along with input from stakeholder groups, including an advisory group — will help shape what will eventually become a master plan to guide the county during the next 10 years and beyond. Results of the survey were presented during a public meeting in Meeker, which was also available via videoconference in Rangely.
“I think it marks the starting point for developing a new land use master plan,” said Commissioner Ken Parsons of Rangely. “Most of it confirms what was suspected by those of us who’ve been engaged in public and business issues for a long time.”
The survey represents one step in the master plan development process.
“From here, we need to get into great detail and focus on points directly related to land use in our county, now that we have some data on broad perspectives,” Parsons said. “Growth expectations/concerns may be over-accented by use of the highly speculative oil shale population number.”
A report by the Associated Governments for Northwest Colorado estimates the population of Rio Blanco County could soar to more than 39,000 people by 2035, with an increase in natural gas and oil shale production. Nearly 45 percent of respondents said their quality of life would diminish due to the population increase.
Energy production was among the topics covered in the survey, which also included questions about infrastructure, level of county services, housing and the environment, as well as other issues.
“All of this information will be pulled together and combined with existing conditions,” said Davis Farrar, a consultant who is heading up the team for the master plan project. “We’ll be looking at population numbers, county budget, building permits, energy activity, all of these kinds of factual pieces, what’s going on in the county right now, what’s happened historically. All of that material will be pulled together and used by us as part of our comprehensive plan and process. This is sort of a snapshot of what’s going on today, and then we’ll be looking into the future and developing a plan that will be your blueprint as we move on.”
A little more than 500 people responded to the survey, representing about 19 percent of the total number of surveys sent out. Ninety-two people responded to the survey online.
“We mailed 2,689 surveys. It’s a large sampling, and a fairly good turnout for this kind of survey,” said Cares, who is a partner with RRC Associates. “We sometimes see a little higher (response); we often see quite a bit lower.”
Peggy Rector of Rangely, a former county commissioner and town mayor, said she did not receive a survey in the mail. She said she would be curious to know how many other people did not receive one.
“I know I didn’t get one,” Rector said. “I did mine over the Web.”
Cares said RRC purchased a mailing list that provided names and addresses for the survey.
“The attempt was to reach everybody,” Cares said. “The basis for the list was credit reports. Even if you have bad credit, or you don’t use a credit card, typically, you are in their database. (But) that’s one of the challenges, particularly in a transient area. We tried to make sure everybody had an opportunity to get asked.”
Not everyone thinks the county is putting out enough information about the survey and the public’s input in developing the master plan.
“I think something this important … I don’t think they are giving the public enough information,” said Ginny Love of Meeker, who has been at odds with the county over its land use policies. “I am wondering if there needs to be more public education. I think they need to spell out the process and the dates of the meetings. We are taxpayers. We need to be aware of what’s going on.”
Farrar emphasized the survey is a way to solicit feedback.
“A survey is one of a number of tools we would use to reach out to folks,” Farrar said. “It’s an opportunity to get your input, not necessarily in the context of a meeting, which can be intimidating. It gives us a pretty good factual basis to start with. We can reach out to a larger audience in the process, and all of this culminates into the master plan document.”
Of those who responded, 45 percent were from Meeker, 30 percent from Rangely and 25 percent from the unincorporated parts of the county.
“What we found here is (the responses) vary very significantly by whether you were in Meeker, Rangely or the unincorporated county,” Cares said. “What we’ve done here is begun to measure some of those differences of opinion. Maybe a key finding is we didn’t see as much variation by age and income, but we saw considerable (differences) by the geography.
“This is one where we start to see pretty pronounced differences between Rangely and Meeker,” Cares added. “In Rangely, 48 percent said stayed the same, 32 percent said gotten worse. That’s in contrast to Meeker, where 50 percent said gotten worse, and the unincorporated county 54 percent. There were some significant differences in terms of this question by the geography of where people live.”
Rector, who is a member of TAG, the Technical Advisory Group, said the difference in attitudes between the two ends of the county was understandable.
“On this end of the county, in Rangely, has been predominately energy,” Rector said. “So we live with that and accept it more so than the other end of the county. Now the other end of the county is becoming more energy (based), and so is going through that phase of adjusting. I really believe that makes the difference.”
“I agree with that assessment,” Farrar said. “That’s a reading I would make as an outside observer.”
Rector attended last Thursday’s presentation of the survey results. She would like to see more people take an interest in the process of providing input for the county’s master plan.
“I am pleased that the county is taking time to hopefully gain some valuable information from the public,” Rector said. “It was sad on our end that we only had the TAG people and the planning commission as well as the contractors for the survey present, and not the general public. I had hoped to see more involved for input into the process. However, the contractors were meeting with the stakeholders, so perhaps that is sufficient for input.”
She said the two towns in the county will need to work together, moving forward.
“I believe we need to truly, with the economic times, put together a program with support from both towns for pursuing diversity, at the same time supporting both natural energy as well as alternative (sources such as oil shale),” Rector said. “We need to let the state and feds know what their political positions are doing to our county and towns, that we were doing well economically, until the layering on of rules and regulations at the local, state and federal level, as well as the lowering of gas prices at the same time. Increasing costly regulations at a downturn in the economy, is not the time to do this.”
Eventually, the master plan will be adopted by the county planning commission, and ratified by the commissioners. But the document will only be effective if it is put to good use.
“It is not a static document,” Farrar said. “I would hope, if we do our job right, the values, the vision, the core elements remain valid for a long period of time. Our indicator of success is to be able to come back to the county in five years from now and sit in on a planning commission meeting and hear folks say, ‘We’re following the plan.’ It would be disappointing to us to see the document sitting on a shelf covered with a layer of dust, not having been used.”