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

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El Agua No Se Vende, El Agua Se Defiende. Water is Not for Sale; We Will Always Rise to Defend Our Precious Water. New Mexicans are passionate about their water, and with good reason. Water can be here today and gone tomorrow in a high mountain desert climate where, during a drought, monsoons can go MIA and rivers can run dry for years. Many elected officials have begun taking into account the conditions of climate change and being in a long-term, 20-year megadrought and how that will affect decisions they make.

Santolina, a community development located on Bernalillo County’s southwest mesa, is essentially a city about the size of Rio Rancho that will be located on land the British Barclays Bank received through a foreclosure. Western Albuquerque Land Holdings (WALH) is developing the project for Barclays. The local community, with support from the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, has locked horns in advance of the development’s passing in 2015 by the Bernalillo County Commissioners and 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 development does begin. At this point in the legal process, the development has no valid water contract, as well as the wrong zoning for the land, and has introduced a Level BII Master Plan to the Planning Commission they are calling “interim use.”

According to organizations who are opposing the development, WAHL appears to be trying to circumvent the Planning Commission with their Level BII Master Plan “interim use.” It is essentially a complete rework of Plan A that was initially approved. A 300-acre tire dump they will need to haul water to and 6,400 acres for a solar farm (half of the development’s acreage) have suddenly appeared in the reworked development plan where homes and a planned community existed before in the original plan.

The Opposition

The Paper. spoke with Santiago Maestas, president of the South Valley Regional Association of Acequias (SVRAA), and Marcia Fernandez, a South Valley farmer who has taken the WALH developers to court over the proposed Santolina development. Both have been a part of the Contra Santolina group since the beginning. “We couldn’t have a better ally than NMELC [New Mexico Environmental Law Center] representing the Contra Santolina Groups in our legal battle to stop the development,” Maestas said.

“The development is a direct threat to our local population that depends upon water rights to irrigate our traditional lands. We have 60 days left to do only three irrigations before the end of September.” He said the SVRAA needs those irrigations for winter wheat and cover crops to grow over the winter. “The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District will debate on August 20 whether to stop irrigation prior to the September 30 scheduled cut-off. At the same time, they are trying to approve water rights for Santolina, a development of 90,000 plus people.” When completed, it is estimated the development would use 18 million gallons of water per day.

Maestas said the group’s position is that the Bernalillo County Commissioners must remand the development back to the Planning Commission and basically start all over again approving the development. The Santolina development does not have the water that it needs for the development. “The service availability statement for the development’s water has expired and is no longer valid. A new plan would have to be put in place by the water board,” he explained. While a recycling system being planned will provide some water for the development, potable water would have to be taken from the aquifer, which is already overloaded with the current drought and community and other developmental needs.

WALH no longer has the Planned Community zoning that it needs for the Santolina development. At the time of the zoning change from agricultural to a planned community, one of the commissioners violated the equality of the judicial process by stating his position prior to a hearing where all the parties present their evidence and then the commission makes a decision. “The district court said this was a violation and remanded it back to the County Commission. The County Commission and the developer appealed that decision. The Court of Appeals upheld the district court, and then the Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeal,” Maestas said.

“Barclays is a big fish,” Maestas contended. “The community feels it has no choice but to fight WAHL to stop the development. What we are doing as a small fish is what we call Muerte por 1,000 Cortes. Death by 1,000 Cuts.”

Marcia Fernandez told The Paper. the Contra Santolina group has been working hard against sprawl development. “We aren’t against progress or development at all. What we’re against is inappropriate development.” She explained the group has engaged two administrations in discussions over the past eight years. “There is no water, and we think the development is environmentally unsafe. We have talked to the planning and zoning people in the city and told them they need to be very afraid of this development, and they need to regulate it and make it better, or defeat it, because they will lose in the long run if they don’t. Eventually, the taxpayers will be paying for everything that happens up on the mesa,” Fernandez predicted.

So Where Are the Next Battle Lines Drawn?

WALH is pushing for a special-use permit that would allow it to avoid 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—if they successfully apply for a special-use permit.

WALH was scheduled to present the Level BII Master Plan on June 2 to the Planning Commission and canceled at the last moment. WALH has appealed a recent decision by the zoning administrator, which was upheld by the County Planning Commission, to deny WALH’s request for interim use for a tire landfill. WALH has appealed that decision to the full Bernalillo County Commission, and that appeal is scheduled to be heard on August 25.

The Bernalillo Board of County Commissioners agenda for their virtual zoning has been changed to rehear NMELC’S appeal that was first raised back in 2014-2015, over the recommendation of the Bernalillo County Planning Commission (CPC) for the zone map amendment from agricultural to planned communities. The August 25 hearing will consider WALH’s appeal of interim use definition at a later date.

NMELC, the agent for Southwest Organizing Project, New Mexico Health Equity Working Group, and Pajarito Village Neighborhood Association, appeals the decision of the County Planning Commission to recommend approval of a zone map amendment from A-1 Rural Agricultural to Planned Community Zone in connection with the Santolina Planned Communities Level A Master Plan. The original request was submitted by Consensus Planning, agent for Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, Youth Development, Inc. and Central New Mexico Community College, and Martin Eckert, (agent for Albuquerque public Schools. The zone change was remanded from the State of New Mexico Court of Appeals to correct a procedural issue.

In accordance with rules no public comment will be allowed. The Board will base its decision solely on the evidence on record from the County Planning Commission (CPC) hearing for the case. The Board will only accept new evidence if good cause is shown. If new evidence is submitted that was not previously presented, the Board may remand the case to the CPC for consideration.

To access the agenda and zoom link for the August 25 hearing (available 72hours before the hearing) go to: bernalillocountynm.iqm2.com/Citizens/Default.aspx?blm_aid=0

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