ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A district judge has handed a partial victory to opponents of Santolina, reversing the Bernalillo County Commission’s decision to approve a zone map amendment for the massive planned development due to perceived commissioner bias.
District Judge Nancy Franchini issued a ruling on Wednesday invalidating the Commission’s zone change approval and ordering the county to restart the process on the requested zone change from rural agricultural to planned communities. But Franchini let stand the Commission’s approval of the Santolina Master Plan.
“We respectfully disagree with the judge’s analysis relating to the master plan,” said Douglas Meiklejohn, the executive director and an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. But he added that her ruling on the zone change decision is a “big victory for fairness and due process.”
At issue was an opinion piece written by former Commissioner Art De La Cruz and published in the Albuquerque Journal in March 2015 voicing support for Santolina.
“It is important for the public to know why I and others support thoughtful, well-planned developments in Bernalillo County, such as the proposed Santolina development,” De La Cruz wrote. “It is important that the county ‘get the facts out’ and dispel the distortions and misinformation being spread by opponents.”
The guest column was published prior to a series of hearings and the Commission votes on the master plan and zone change.
Prior to the votes, Santolina opponents requested that De La Cruz recuse himself from the matter or that, barring a recusal, the rest of the commissioners disqualify him from voting on the master plan and zone change. They argued that commissioners in this instance would be acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, and that due process required a tribunal free from partiality. De La Cruz, they argued, demonstrated bias through his column.
De La Cruz countered that he could be objective and said that he had been careful in his piece to avoid specificity related to any zoning issues. The Commission declined to disqualify him.
In the end, the Commission voted 3-2 to approve both the master plan and the zone changes, with De La Cruz voting in favor of both.
The SouthWest Organizing Project, the New Mexico Health Equity Working Group, Pajarito Village Association, Javier Benavidez, James Santiago Maestas and Roberto Roibal subsequently filed a lawsuit challenging the approvals.
County attorneys argued that Santolina was a legislative matters, meaning they were free to discuss it publicly. They said Santolina wasn’t a quasi-judicial proceeding in which commissioners are supposed to act as judges and limit their public comments.
Judge Franchini ruled that the master plan vote was a legislative decision, but the zoning proposal was a quasi-judicial matter.
“Appellants were entitled to a fair and impartial tribunal on approval of the (zone map amendment) and the concurrent denial of their (County Planning Commission) appeal,” the Franchini said in her ruling. The guest column, “in the court’s opinion raises questions of partiality and prejudgment, or the appearance thereof, sufficient to warrant at the very least the board’s consideration of the recusal or disqualification of Commissioner De La Cruz.”
The Santolina project covers 22 square miles west of Albuquerque, near 118th Street and Interstate 40. The development team envisions it as a place that could, decades from now, be home to 90,000 people, or roughly the size of Rio Rancho today.