Sunday, April 2, 2023

City Moves to Add Poole Property to Open Space

Community Battle to Save Wetlands From Development on the Cusp of Victory


The word in the neighborhood is the cranes are dancing on the Albuquerque Bosque, celebrating their continued peace and quiet. Albuquerque City Council Resolution R-21-134 would add the disputed Poole property, bordering the bosque at the city's San Antonio Oxbow wetlands, to the priorities list for the city's future open space land. This resolution presents a real opportunity to save the property for the city. Members of the community and adjacent neighborhoods recognize the ecological, cultural and aesthetic values of the Poole property and have been fighting to preserve the 23-acre parcel, a prime lot of land on Albuquerque’s Westside with panoramic views of the mountains.

The resolution appropriates up to $2.2 million dollars from the city's Open Space Trust Fund for the acquisition of the Poole property and some other properties. “The City has the opportunity to acquire the Poole property, a section of the Bosque critical to the refuge of our wildlife and community, where the state has given a great amount in investment to its purchase. The resolution that I have sponsored looks for all mechanisms of funding, and I have made it one of my capital outlay requests for its full funding, because we cannot miss out on the investments we have made so far, as well as an opportunity to protect it.” said Councilor Lan Sena.

Riverside History

A bosque is a type of gallery forest habitat found along the riparian flood plains of stream and river banks in the Southwestern United States. It derives its name from the Spanish word for woodlands. The cottonwood forest that borders the Rio Grande in central New Mexico is a diminishing, unique habitat. Unfortunately, the Rio Grande and its bosque have been heavily altered by human activities, particularly during the last century. Regulation of water flow in the river has also changed the variety of vegetation and impacted organisms and wildlife that live in the water. Wetlands were once common in the floodplain but have been greatly reduced, and the cottonwood forests are dying out.

The Poole property, as it is known, belonged to Susan and Rufus Poole. After Susan's death, the property was sold to a local businessman, who decided to develop it into a pricey subdivision, setting off a David vs. Goliath battle pitting neighborhoods against big developers.

Under the city's zoning code, the Integrated Development Ordinance, nearby neighborhoods had the right to object to various components of the development plan, and they did through at least a half-dozen zoning and City Council hearings.

New York property developer Gamma jumped all the hoops for the owner and made its way through the legal maze process to receive the rights to develop the property from the City Council. Right alongside this process, members of the community and adjacent neighbors to the property advocated saving the land from being developed. Susan Chaudoir, one of the leaders of the efforts to protect the property, created a GoFundMe page, which to date has raised over $16,000 to pay for legal fees associated with the fight. Some advocates spoke of delving into their retirement funds because saving the open space was so important to them. Neighbors have pledged those funds to a district court challenge to the developer that could drag on for years.

But while one group of neighbors was fighting the development permits in the city's zoning process, others began a campaign lobbying state legislators and local electeds to make an offer to place the property into public trust.

While it's difficult to say what the property is worth, help from the state is what will likely be what allows the city to acquire the property. Last February state legislators agreed to Senator Jacob Candelaria's request to set aside $4.5 million to purchase the 23-acre Poole estate and the open space attached to it. With that money in hand, city officials quietly reached out to the owner with a new plan. The owner consented to an appraisal and opened talks about a city purchase that could avoid years of legal fights with neighbors, which would delay or potentially stop development.

Last month the mayor's administration asked the Open Space Advisory Board, a citizen group appointed by the mayor and councilors to recommend new public space purchases, to add the massive Westside property to the priority list.

With that approval in hand, Councilor Sena introduced this week's new council resolution, authorizing $2.2 million from the Open Space Trust Fund to add to the $4.5 million from the state. Though a final purchase agreement has not been signed, sources say the additional city funds would be enough to meet the appraised price.

Next up: Sena's resolution, supported by the mayor, will be heard by the City Council's Finance and Government Operations Committee and Land Use, Planning and Zoning Committee next Monday and Wednesday. If both committees endorse it unanimously, it could be back before the full council for consideration on Feb. 17. Councilors we spoke to said that as long as the landowner is publicly in favor of the purchase, the legislation could move quickly.

This Time, the Little Guy Wins

This is the first big win for a community trying desperately to save the area since the council rewrote the city's zoning codes a few years ago, giving neighborhoods more input in the process. It also shows that neighborhoods can actually use existing laws to save land from being developed. The zoning changes forced developers to discuss their plans with neighborhoods at the front end of the process. The zoning laws now support the neighborhoods so that they can get their voices heard earlier and have a more collaborative process. They also offer support for investors before they invest millions of dollars on a project and then get delayed during disputes.

“It is essential, now when we have the opportunity to acquire it, that the City Council supports its acquisition and protection. Community, neighborhoods and conservation groups that have been championing the protection and acquisition of Poole property have been waiting for this moment, so we must seize it—not just for community benefit but for our future generations and equitable access to our green and open spaces," Councilor Sena said.

Add your voice!
Albuquerque City Council Committee Hearings on R-21-134. (Read it in the link.)

Finance & Gov. Operations Committee: Monday, Feb. 8, 3pm via Zoom
Land Use, Planning & Zoning Committee: Wednesday, Feb. 10, 3pm via Zoom


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