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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In 1969, the Albuquerque City Council, spurred on by a public that was willing to be taxed to make it happen, bought and set aside acreage that would become the Elena Gallegos Open Space at the foot of the Sandias. Ultimately strict covenants were put on the deed to keep it pristine and undeveloped. When the Elena Gallegos Open Space (EGOS) was born, it gave life to Albuquerque’s Open Space Program.

CABQ’s Plan for EGOS Educational Center

A feasibility study was done by CABQ in 2021 to consider building an educational center at EGOS. A public meeting (virtual and in person) with 28 people in attendance and subsequent survey showed the educational center was opposed by 50%. CABQ continued to explore the project which has given rise to public concern.

The Paper. spoke with Dave Simon, Director of Parks and Recreation, about the proposed Educational Center, who said that CABQ is completing demographic surveys, an environmental impact to wildlife study, a Simms Road analysis and this spring will seek additional input from stakeholders. “It would be a total footprint of somewhere around 10,000 square feet,” Simon said. The Paper. is the only newspaper that has talked to him about the project, according to Simon.

Thousands of people are trying to stop the proposed educational center for EGOS by CABQ. Save The Elena Gallegos, a nonprofit, its co-founder Viki Teahan and 17 Bernalillo County residents have filed a complaint against CABQ in an attempt to uphold the Land Use Restrictions in the deed. They are seeking donations ($24,952 donated to date) to cover legal costs. Signatures on their petition are 9,559 and growing.

“There are ways of assembling an environmental education facility that’s different from what we have there now and still be consistent with the deed,” Simon alleged. “We’re not going to build something contrary to the deed, and we’ll cross that bridge if we feel like we want to move forward,” he said. “Further discussions on the deed are for the lawyers.”

Simon said discussions about a 10,000 square foot “Visitors Center” with a commercial kitchen, cafe and event center that was considered in the beginning of the study, have been discarded. The current conceptual plan is for a one story off-the-grid, sustainable 4,800 square foot, building with a teaching space, staff room, storage and electrical closets, and both the inside foyer and the surrounding ground level patios would have educational displays. They would reconfigure the existing parking lot, add more parking spaces and a place where a bus could park conveniently.

Simon said the building would potentially be located in the already-developed area of EGOS. “This is not the Serengeti of the Elena Gallegos. This is not a dagger in the heart of Elena Gallegos,” he said. “The function of education is critical to Open Space. It is not essential to have an environmental education building in order to do terrific education programs. However, based on thousands of environmental education programs, the best way to do it is this way,” Simon explained.

“I’ve been accused of spending money on this project that was for something else. That is a lie. One of the legislators who appropriated that money, NM Representative Melanie Stansbury (now US Representative Stansbury), expressly understood that we were going to consider this subject and that we needed some money to study it,” Simon alleged.

The Paper. requested documentation of monies spent so far on the proposed project, but have yet to receive them. According to Parks and Recreation Department the costs are: approximately $166, 744 (Feasibility Study, Habitat Survey, Simms Road Analysis, Community Engagement), $97,797 (Road Repairs) and $32,094 on improvements for the Elena Gallegos Open Space. 

The Paper. reached out to Stansbury for a comment on her Capital Outlay requests for EGOS. Her press department said Rep. Stansbury was “not aware of any legal questions surrounding the deed.” Scott Forrester, Stansbury’s Chief of Staff, gave The Paper. the following statement:

“As an avid outdoors person that loves the Elena Gallegos Open Space and grew up hiking its trails, Congresswoman Stansbury supported capital outlay funding in 2019 and 2020 for site maintenance at the park, including for roads and picnic areas. She appreciates the City of Albuquerque’s work to listen to the concerns of all who enjoy the park and is looking forward to an open public process in which all voices are heard and honored.”

Educational Center Construction And Rule of Law

The Paper. contacted Barbara Blumenfeld, an attorney and retired UNM Law School professor who is a plaintiff in the Elena Gallegos lawsuit against CABQ. Blumenfeld said she was terribly upset about the city’s proposed plans for an educational center before she saw the legal deed.

“There’s a legal deed, a legal document and within that document, a restrictive covenant that very, very clearly and specifically lays out the limited construction that can be done on the land. When you read that, you know a third grader should have seen that no buildings are allowed, certainly not the type of buildings that the mayor and the city are talking about. I don’t understand why they don’t say, ‘Oops, we can’t do it’, and move on. Let’s envision our project someplace else.”

“I appreciate that you’re calling and talking to the city because I truly believe that The Paper is giving a more complete picture than we’re seeing in any of the other news mediums. Honestly, I just really appreciate it because I think everybody else is just soundbites or whatever,” Blumenfeld said. “It’s clear, well written and well organized. I’ve shared your stories with a lot of people. Your stories give a complete picture of what’s going on and I appreciate that you’re doing that and I hope that you continue as we move forward with this because people need to know.”

The Plaintiffs in the court case seek a legal declaration in a court of law that CABQ has to follow the covenant in a way that it restricts them from building. They are also seeking a temporary injunction to stop the city and eventually a permanent injunction that stops them forever.

“My sense of this administration is that they tend to act first, and then tell the public later what they’re doing. If we can’t trust them to follow the deed, we can’t really trust them to follow the law. A lot of people may not really care about Elena Gallegos, but I think we all care that our officials obey and follow the law. The bottom line is the rule of law,” said Blumenfeld.

Blumenfeld believes the money spent on the feasibility study would have been better spent on a year pass for every child in school so they and their families could come up and visit the park.

“They had a vision to preserve this land for those of us who are sitting here today and we have to have the vision to preserve it for the people who are here 40 years from now. It troubles me deeply that our officials are even considering betraying that trust that we put in them,” Blumenfeld said.

As the Parks and Rec Dept. continues review their plans for EGOS, they say they are public comment, but there is no form on their website. The 19 original plaintiffs in the lawsuit continue to press on, and more and more constituents are reaching out to city council, and it’s clear this is an issue that isn’t going away.