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.

Community groups scored a big win today. For the past eight years, it’s been a back-and-forth battle with Santolina and community groups that oppose a development the size of Santa Fe on Albuquerque’s west mesa. In a highly unusual move, despite the County Staff’s urging to approve the Santolina amendments, the Bernalillo County Planning Commission (CPC) members voted 3-2 to deny amended Level A Master Plan and 3-1 to deny the Level B.II Master Plan for the proposed Santolina development project.

Over 100 people joined the meeting over Zoom and numerous members of the public spoke during public comment opposed to the Santolina project; none spoke in support of the development. Additional community members protested outside the county building in opposition during the hearing.

“Today was a landmark day in Bernalillo County’s long and tedious eight-year review of the proposed 90,000-person Santolina development. It was a breath of fresh air to witness the County Planning Commission’s decision to deny both Santolina matters that were under consideration,” said David Vogel, Planning Consultant. 

At this point in the legal process, multiple concerns were raised about where water would come from for the project. British Barclay Bank developers Western Albuquerque Land Holdings’ (WALH) has no idea where Santolina’s water is coming from, so their latest plans didn’t require water or sewer services from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.

“Hauling water does not negate the overall water footprint of the development and, as Commissioner Solares pointed out, we have no idea where this water is going to come from,” New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC) Staff Attorney Mia Montoya Hammersley argued, saying the “Level B.II deviated from the originally approved Level A Master Plan and was being used as a tactic to delay securing reliable water and wastewater services.”

“It’s nice to see that for the first-time members of the CPC seem to understand that there isn’t water for this development, and that hauling water from some undisclosed location will still impact… all water users in the Middle Rio Grande valley,” said Maslyn Locke, NMELC staff attorney. 

Commissioners Angela Solares, Joelle Hertel and Connie Chavez voted against the approval of the Level A Amended Master Plan. Commissioner Joe Chavez, chair, voted for approval of both the Level A Amended Master Plan and the Level B.II Master Plan. 

Community members were ecstatic over the historical vote.

Elaine Hebard, member, Contra Santolina Working Group said “…not even WALH, with its piecemeal development schemes, is treating Santolina as a planned community. In an attempt to make it viable, WALH tried to bend the rules, again, to circumvent planning.”

“The denial today is a vote for the future sustainability of our communities, and a vote of denial to unsustainable practices by entities that do not have the best interest of our communities here in the Southwest,” said Jorge Garcia, director of CESOSS, the Center for Social Sustainable Systems.

And South Valley farmer Marcia Fernandez said, “There wasn’t enough water eight years ago and there is even less now.”

What’s next for Santolina? Stay tuned.