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.

Located on Bernalillo County’s southwest mesa, Santolina, a 13,700-acre community development about the size of Rio Rancho, is trying to figure out how to navigate the County Planning Commission (CPC) and a coalition of community members that are determined to stop it. Western Albuquerque Land Holdings’ (WALH) is developing the subdivision on land the British Barclays Bank received through a foreclosure. The project has been delayed in legal battles for more than eight years.

A Community Coalition is asking the CPC to deny Santolina’s Amended Level A Master Plan and defer consideration of its Level B.II Plan, saying that, if approved, the “mega sprawl development would be at the expense of future generations.”

At this point in the legal process, the development has no valid water contract and WAHL wants to use the land for other purposes until development begins. WALH had introduced a Level B.II Master Plan to the Planning Commission that they called “interim use,” with a 300-acre tire dump and a solar farm where homes and a planned community existed before in the original Master Plan A. The Bernalillo County Commissioners (BCC) denied their interim-use plans.

WAHL’s appealed the decision and on October 13, 2021 BCC voted 4-1 to deny their appeal and recommended the developer amend Santolina’s Level A Master Plan instead of applying for interim-use special permits in a piecemeal fashion.

“The permanent nature of a landfill, and the irreversible changes made to the land upon which it is situated, precludes a landfill from being considered for a Special Use Permit for interim uses in the Santolina Planned Communities Area,” the BCC said in its ruling.

On Wednesday, March 2 at 9am, the CPC is scheduled to hear and vote on Santolina’s Plans again.

WAHL is now seeking amendments to the Santolina development’s Level A Master Plan to provide consistency between the adopted Level A Master Plan and WAHL’s proposed Santolina Level B.II Plan, particularly in the areas of phasing, water and wastewater, and open space. WAHL is also seeking approval of the Santolina B.II Plan for interim use of approximately 630 acres within the development.

The coalition said the “proposed amendments would support piecemeal development without adequate oversight as the planned ‘waste disposal’ potentially allows harmful landfills and dangles solar/green energy projects as distractions—both as interim uses.” 

“Santolina continues the practice of an extractive economy, extracting local resources to benefit the developers and their shareholders—an example of environmental racism, low-income people of color once again bearing the brunt of sprawl,” the coalition stated. “The development violates the No Net Expense requirement with their latest ‘Bait and Switch.'” 

The coalition wants a new economic analysis for the development since the flawed original plan, approved over eight years ago, relies on outdated data. They also say the CPC consideration of Level B.II is premature. 

“WALH claims its latest plans won’t require water from the Water Utility Authority—they claim they will haul water to the area. All water usage will impact our very limited water resources. WALH continues to try to avoid water service requirements that bind and protect us all,” the coalition stated. “’El Agua No Se Vende, El Agua Se Defiende.’ Water is not for sale, water defends itself.”

The public can attend the March 2 at 9 am hearing virtually or by calling the following number: +1 669 900 6833 and entering Meeting ID: 813 1573 6333 and Password: 869755. The public may also participate in person in the Agave Conference Room, at 415 Silver Ave. SW, 2nd Floor, Albuquerque.