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Gwynne Ann Unruh is a former award winning reporter at the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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The Land of the Enchantment has enraptured developers from around the world with its scenery, culture, architecture and cuisine. They are certain the state’s stunning desert landscapes, breathtaking snow-capped mountains, hot springs and amazing national monuments will entice people from all over the world to want to come and live here.

The Santolina development, located on Bernalillo County’s southwest mesa, was designed to attract 38,000 such home buyers. The master plan for the development was approved in 2015 for a 40-to-50-year home development and includes business parks, a town center and more. The development is essentially a city about the size of Rio Rancho that will be located on land the British Barclays Bank got through a foreclosure. It is being developed by Western Albuquerque Land Holdings (WALH).

The community at large, through its organizing efforts and support from the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, has been able to delay the project for eight years. Since the proposed development has not begun, WALH wants to use the land for other purposes until it does. They have unsuccessfully asked the Planning Commission to allow an interim development of 300 acres for a landfill and approval to lease 6,400 acres (half of the development’s acreage) to a solar farm developer through special-use permits.

A special-use permit would allow WALH to skirt the long-range planning processes built into the existing Santolina Master Plan. WALH contends that their development agreement with Bernalillo County allows for interim uses, as long as they successfully apply for a special-use permit.

WALH was scheduled to present the Level BII Master Plan on June 2, at the last moment, possibly due to the amount of organized community opposition, WALH asked for, and was granted a 60-day deferral to present it to the County Planning Commission. WALH has also appealed the recent decision by the zoning administrator, which was upheld by the County Planning Commission, to deny WALH’s request for interim use for a landfill. WALH has appealed that decision to the full County Commission, and that appeal is scheduled to be heard on August 17.

“The Master Plan for the development has been approved, but underlying the approval of the plan is the fact that it’s on land that doesn’t have the right zoning. Our position is everything depends on that zoning change,” Douglas Meiklejohn, staff attorney/founder New Mexico Environmental Law Center. told The Paper. “They can’t do anything without the zoning map amendment.” Meiklejohn didn’t know whether the solar farm could be called interim, but said, “Once you establish a landfill, you can’t just pick it up and move it somewhere else.”

A solar ground lease might be considered a fantastic option for landowners, as it offers revenue to developers until more lucrative future development opportunities are available. The overall construction of a large solar farm typically takes four to six months. Solar farms spanning hundreds of acres can see yearly profits in the hundreds of thousands. The resale of solar electricity generated from one acre is between $21,250 on the low end and $42,500 on the high end, per year.

Albuquerque has the best solar electric collection potential in the U.S. with 310 days of sunshine a year and beautiful clear blue skies. With its close proximity to the grid, there’s potential for the solar farm to generate billions over the 25-year lifespan of a solar array of panels. The manufacturers and developers of a solar project of 6,400 acres could have recurring revenue that will pay dividends for years.

If Santolina becomes part of the paradigm shift to renewable energy with a large interim solar farm, there are some considerations for potential homeowners to contemplate. Studies in October 2020 have shown that solar farms reduced home values located within a mile of a solar installation by 1.7 percent and homes within a tenth of a mile went down by 7 percent. Lost amenities and infrastructure and a 25-year view of thousands of panels are another consideration.

Depending on what happens 25 years from now, WALH could cancel the solar farm’s lease to complete more of their Master Plan or choose to renew the lease. It may be difficult for the state to suddenly have the solar farm’s electricity plug pulled after 25 years of serving potential customers.

In the meantime community opposition to the Santolina development continues to grow among grassroots community residents, small farmers and people concerned about dwindling water supplies in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. At build-out it is estimated that the 13,700-acre development would demand over 14 million gallons of water per day.

A recent Zoom meeting—led by SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP), New Mexico Environmental Law Center and the Contra Santolina Working Group—was aimed at updating community activists about legal decisions and developments at the Bernalillo County Planning Commission. At that meeting Meiklejohn informed attendees that the decision by the zoning administrator not to consider a landfill as an interim use was a “very significant decision, as Santolina’s developer, WALH, is used to getting its way.”

Co-moderator of the virtual meeting, Alejandría Lyons from SWOP, told attendees that, “The acequias belong to our community. Developments like these continue to take water out of the hands of the community and into industry. And that is what we are up against.” Lyons reminded everyone that, “It takes a community to take down such large developers and to take down international banks that are coming into our community and trying to steal our water resources and take them out of the community. And we won’t let it happen.”

Farmer Marcia Fernandez spoke of her concern that a development project like Santolina will impact her grandchildren. “I’m terrified that my grandchildren, who seem to honor the land as much as we have, will have a lifetime that does not include this beautiful green belt that is in our mid valley.”

Virtual meeting attendee Maestro Santiago held up a sign: “El Agua No Se Vende; El Agua Se Defiende. Water is Not for Sale; We Will Always Rise to Defend Our Precious Water.” Bernalillo County residents may find out, in 60 days, if that sentiment is true.

The WALH appeal of the interim use plan will be held on Aug. 17 in front of the Bernalillo County Commission.

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