There isn’t much point to asking for public input if a decision is preordained by elected officials and government administrators.
Town of Taos Manager Rick Bellis made it plain in emails between himself and a hotel developer that he intended to ensure the city’s height restriction was modified to allow a four-story hotel – a year before it came up for public review. Those emails and interactions were detailed by reporters Cody Hooks and Jesse Moya in the May 11 edition of The Taos News. The emails in question can be viewed at taosnews.static2.adqic.com/uploads/files/a2c7cb6864.pdf.
Setting aside the issue of whether a 48-foot tall, four-story hotel fits in Taos or not, the question is whether town officials and the town manager should assure a business applicant that an ordinance can be modified and a variance granted before it comes up for public comment.
That’s not the way the public process is supposed to work.
Bellis alone didn’t change the ordinance to allow a variance for a four-story hotel. Two town councilors and Mayor Dan Barrone, in a tiebreaker vote, approved the change. They said they didn’t know about the assurances Bellis made to the developer via email. They said they based their decision only on the need for hotel rooms in town and assurances from the hotel developer that the project had to be four stories. But where is the report that shows the data that a three-story hotel can’t work as well as a four-story hotel?
If Barrone and town councilors didn’t know about the exchange between Bellis and the hotel developer, are they bothered by his actions? Or do they see those interactions, as Bellis does, as simply part of his job?
Bellis is right that it is his job and the job of the town council to look for ways to boost economic development and jobs. But not at the expense of a true public process.
Bellis might even be right that only a handful of people in Taos – affectionately called “CAVEs,” an acronym referring to “citizens against virtually everything” – truly oppose the four-story hotel. A petition sent around by hotel opponents garnered more than 3,000 signatures, the majority of those from the Taos Valley. Without the issue going to a popular vote among Taos residents, Bellis, the council and opponents can’t know for sure how Taoseños feel about the matter.
As members of the planning and zoning commission consider the variance for the four-story hotel today (May 18), they need to double check their information from the developer, make sure they are looking at both the intended and unintended consequences of the project and question how they arrived at this point.
If they recommend the project moves forward and the council agrees, the four-story hotel will be built and there will be no going back. The nature of Taos and its skyline will be forever changed.
Whatever the commission’s decision, in the future, the town manager should guide a business applicant through the town’s existing process, but should not guarantee changes to the regulations.