“Masterpiece Theater” couldn’t put more drama into a scene. It’s a David and Goliath confrontation from time immemorial. Bernalillo County Commissioners were rehearing an appeal for a zone change from agricultural to the planned community they voted for eight years ago that was remanded back to them by the New Mexico State Supreme Court.

On one side sits a community coalition represented by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC), which has been fighting for eight years to preserve the Atrisco Mesa in southwestern Bernalillo County from Santolina, a sprawling master-planned community slated for development. The coalition has been trying to stop New Mexico’s water from being sucked dry from climate change and unsustainable growth. They feel the impacts of Santolina are also an environmental justice issue. The development’s water plan includes a new river diversion and multiple new wells that will cause South Valley’s traditional farming communities to suffer worse shortages. 

On the other side of the appeal sits Western Albuquerque Land Holdings (WALH), representing British Barclays Bank, which has been trying to build a 95,000-person development about the size of Rio Rancho, with daily water usage of over 10 million gallons per day.

On August 25, a hearing was held to determine whether or not WALH would be able to move forward with the petition for a zoning change. Marcia Fernandez, the first community member to sue the developers, said: “I never saw so many people who didn’t really know what was supposed to happen. These are the people we elect and send to represent us, and that was very disheartening. They acted like they’d never had a hearing, or never been told to do something by a court. It’s a battle, it’s not the war.”

NMELC painted a similar picture. “It was painfully obvious that the commissioners found the entire process regarding this sprawl development confusing and unclear. Rather than delaying the vote to get up to speed on the issues and be better informed about their constituents’ views, whom they theoretically represent, they rushed the vote and rubber-stamped what county staff and the developers (or WAHL) were recommending. As one client put it: ‘It was keystone cops on display.’”

NMELC introduced two motions to delay the hearing until September when one of their experts would be available to testify and to allow for the introduction of new evidence. The evidence shows that drought and water availability have worsened in the six years since the appeal was first heard and that projected population growth has slowed dramatically and there is no longer a need for such a massive development. 

Commissioner Barboa made a motion to delay the hearing and received no second. Her motion to allow NMELC to introduce new evidence also received no seconds. “This is a real political move,” Fernandez told The Paper. “If a commissioner makes a motion and it dies on the vine for lack of a second, nobody can say ‘I didn’t vote against it.’”

The Commission went on to vote 3-2 to deny the appeal of the zone map amendment for the Santolina development for the Westside of Albuquerque. Commissioners Steven Michael Quezada, Charlene Pyskoty and Walt Benson voted to deny the NMELC appeal, while Commissioners Adriann Barboa and Debbie O’Malley voted in favor.

The wildcard vote was cast by Chair Pyskoty. Afterward, in an unprecedented move, Pyskoty tried to explain her vote, saying her vote to deny the appeal doesn’t mean she endorses Santolina, and that approving the zone change doesn’t mean it will be built. She said the project could be stopped at a future point when negotiating water availability. The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority is heavily stacked with Westside representatives from City Council and the County Commission.

“It was a bizarre justification of her vote, to say the least, especially given her vote was the deciding factor,” NMELC said.

“It was just bizarre. I’ve never seen that happen in a commission meeting. Pyskoty seemed like she was very confused,” Fernandez said.

Quezada said Santolina will provide “affordable housing” to his “historically neglected” district. “I’ve been reading the plan since it was first introduced in 2013, and I have never seen the word affordable housing written anywhere. So I don’t know where that came from,” Fernandez said.

State Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero weighed in on the hearing on Instagram saying, “Of course, Commissioner Quezada would vote to deny and others would follow without integrity! Thank you, Commissioners Barboa and O’Malley. You are always on the right side of Justice! Very disappointing indeed! The arrogance of privilege.”  

The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority report, Water 2120: Securing Our Water Future, states Albuquerque has “sufficient supplies in its current portfolio of groundwater and surface water to serve a growing community, even in a drier future, through at least the 2060s under the worst-case scenario.” Their worst-case scenario plops Albuquerque right in the middle of major climate change 39 years from now without sufficient water to paddle in. 

Lawyers and those they represent will be meeting in the next few weeks and strategizing their next move.

Read more about the Santolina Development from The Paper. archives: