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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Hang in there, folks, as the “Santolina Saga” continues. The saga is a win one, loose one, a piecemeal maze of plans, interim use, solar panels, an old tire dump and nearly a decade of court battles. There are Master Plans, Interim Use and Development Agreements ad nauseam. Deciphering the bottom line for the development is like a puzzle the mind can’t quite grasp. 

Opponents have criticized the project for being piecemeal—not planned — a sprawl development. They also assert developers are violating provisions in New Mexico’s Planned Communities Criteria and violating the No Net Expense Criteria. And then there’s the big straw the development would put into the Land of Enchantment’s dwindling aquifer. Here’s the latest in the court battles. 

Court Denies Santolina Opponent’s Appeal

Chalk up a win for Britain’s Barclays Bank in their drive to develop the high desert mesas of New Mexico. A recent Court of Appeals decision has affirmed the District Court decision denying the appeal of Santolina’s opponents, who charged that the District Court erred in upholding Bernalillo County’s approval of the Santolina Level B Master Plan and Development Agreement, Level B1 Master Plan and the Level B1 Development Agreement.

The New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC), legal counsel for the opponents, argued that the planning process is quasi-judicial, meaning community members are entitled to impartial decision makers and an administrative standard of review. 

Examples of quasi-judicial decisions include decisions on variances, special exceptions, subdivision plats, zoning code violations, site-specific rezoning to PUD, site plan review and the decisions of a board of adjustment and many decisions of a planning commission. 

NMELC also argued that, because the Zone Map Amendment (ZMA) was not in place while the Level B planning was happening, any planning was invalid.  

According to NMELC, in upholding the District Court’s decision that the Level B planning process is legislative, the Court of Appeals has held that, unless the planning process relied on by Bernalillo County is unconstitutional, the approval of a master plan will likely stand.  

“It is disappointing that the Court of Appeals ruled to affirm the District Court decisions made on the Level B1 Master Plan and Level B1 Development agreement for Santolina. If the court disregards the fact that government agencies ignore and contravene their own rules, then what kind of check and balances can we expect in the future from our judicial and bureaucratic systems?,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Center for Social Sustainable Systems (CESOSS), after the decision. 

Despite the Court of Appeals’ decision, opponents of Santolina’s development remain determined.

The community has been collaborating and cooperating with each other for nearly a decade to fight the massive development. They vow to continue to fight the Santolina development in New Mexico, which is funded by Britain’s Barclays Bank and their deep pockets. The community has been collaborating and cooperating with each other for nearly a decade to fight the massive development.

“I’m surprised and saddened by the Court’s decision, but I think everyone needs to know that we are not going away. We will continue our fight because it is the right thing to do,” Marcia Fernandez, a traditional small farmer in the South Valley, said after hearing the verdict. 

A major bone of contention with Santolina is water. At full build-out, Santolina is estimated to use 3.8 billion gallons of water or 11,700 acre-feet of water per year. At this point, Santolina’s original water permit has expired and they will have to apply for a new one. They have said they would haul water for interim use projects until then. From where? They haven’t made that clear.

The huge sucking sound a development the size of Santolina would make in the state’s scarce water supply has been stalled by community efforts and numerous legal challenges brought by community members since 2013. The project’s original proposal called for 37,000 residences, housing approximately 95,000 people, on Albuquerque’s West Mesa. That would be a city the size of Santa Fe. With no end in sight to New Mexico’s historic mega drought, 1,200 years and counting, water is in short supply and temperatures are rising due to climate change. High temperatures and hot blowing winds across the high desert land often evaporate any rain before it hits dirt. 

Opponents say a development that size would impact water availability for local farmers in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, the surrounding aquifers and all downstream traditional acequia farmers. 

These local farmers have been providing produce and feed for livestock in their surrounding communities for over 400 years. The acequia farming communities reduce the area’s carbon footprint with locally grown food and would be able to provide food for the surrounding communities if a future pandemic or catastrophe creates a supply chain crisis. They also replenish the aquifer through flood irrigation of alfalfa fields and provide a critical habitat for endangered species through their traditional farming methods. 

Let’s review a basic summary of the court proceedings in the past few years that got Santolina to the Court of Appeals’ most recent decision:

On 12/23/19, the District Court issued its decision affirming the County’s Level B Master Plan. 

On 1/13/20, the District Court also issued its Amended Order of Dismissal, upholding the County’s approval of the Level B Development Agreement.

In January and February of 2020 respectively, NMELC, on behalf of its clients, asked the Court of Appeals to review these two district court decisions. In July 2020, the Court of Appeals consolidated the two appeals. The briefing was completed in mid-December 2020. It is this decision, upholding the decisions of the District Court, that was issued on April 20, 2022.  

Opponents of the Santolina Development project include: the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP), South Valley Regional Association of Acequias (SVRAA), the Center for Social Sustainable Systems (CESOSS), Pajarito Village Association, the South Valley Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, plus several individuals.