TAOS – The day the Taos Planning and Zoning Commission voted unanimously in May to approve a “large scale hotel development permit” for a proposed four-story, 85-room Holiday Inn Express on the south side of town, one of the commissioners found 16 tires, valued at $10,000, slashed on vehicles at his propane business.
Was the incident, in which two shadowy figures were seen on surveillance video entering at night, connected to Commissioner Billy Romero’s vote?
“In my opinion, it was,” said Romero, owner of Rio Grande Propane. “If it was connected to that, it sends a very negative message to people who volunteer for these kinds of positions and to elected officials.”
The Holiday Inn apparently would be the first building in Taos with four full stories (not counting the historic multi-story adobe buildings on adjacent Taos Pueblo).
Even though the hotel site is a few mile south the town’s historic center, many residents are angry about the prospect of pushing the town skyline upward.
Opponents also allege a back-room deal has brought the hotel near final approval — it still must come before the Town Council next week — and say it’s out of scale for this resort town and will block views.
While they allege coziness between local officials and Columbus, Ohio-based developer Jay Batra, town manager Rick Bellis says the town is doing what towns do: pursuing economic development.
Batra “is a very professional and successful investor interested in investing in and creating jobs in Taos” and “has already demonstrated his commitment by turning around the once bankrupt Hampton Inn to 90 percent-plus capacity,” Bellis said in an e-mail.
“Should we be chasing him away?” Bellis said, adding that 40 percent of the Taos economy “is purely tourism, which means we have to get people here and get them to stay, eat, sleep, drink, shop and spend money.”
Local activists, including resident Lawrence Baker, said they have gathered over 3,000 petition signatures against the project. Baker points to e-mails between Bellis and Batra as evidence that an October Town Council approval of a hotel specific “overlay zone” allowing heights up to 48 feet “was all done behind closed doors.”
In one message, Bellis asked Batra to prepare a preliminary site plan with the footprint of the building and an artist’s rendering of possible three- and four-story buildings, according to a March 2015 e-mail from Bellis to Batra.
“I believe that we could have a quick and inexpensive preliminary answer for you,” the town manager told the developer. “This should allow you to then either apply for and likely obtain a variance within a month or for us to adjust the codes accordingly within a similar time frame.”
Later in the same month, Batra e-mailed Bellis that he wanted to close quickly on the land for the Holiday Inn, which is next door to the Hampton Inn he purchased about four years ago, and to move on ground breaking.
“I know the town won’t absolutely allow anything more than 3 stories but thought (I) would ask,” the e-mail states. “We are also very interested in developing something downtown.”
Batra called the allegations of coziness with the town government “bogus” in a telephone interview. “The government out there is always going to take a look at who is pro-development. They are going to want to attract developers to take the town in a forward direction and that’s all they are trying to do,” he said.
Against town’s ‘character?’
Danielle Vigil, who was born and raised in Taos and returned four years ago, opposes the four-story hotel. She obtained the e-mails through Inspection of Public Records Act requests.
“I think it goes against the character of Taos and goes against the reasons people come here … for the beauty and the expansive (view),” Vigil said in a phone interview. “If Taos is no longer unique, why come here?”
Santa Fe attorney Chris Graeser, who represents opponents, said he intends to file a lawsuit by next month alleging approval of the overlay zone’s new height allowance violates the town’s land use plan which “would not have allowed a four-story hotel.”
“There is information from e-mails that my clients received indicating it was done to facilitate this particular hotel,” he said.
Bellis said the overlay zone was meant to keep in step with lodging industry changes. “The planning commission, like the Town Council, was also convinced of the argument that the Town had been unable to get any individual developer or hotel chain to agree to build a two-story or three-story facility,” said Bellis via e-mail.
“It was less an accommodation of this individual project than a realization that the code was ambiguous, (and of) the cost of land in Taos and limited undeveloped locations available or zoned for hotels,” Bellis wrote. He added that city officials “didn’t want to change the height requirements within the downtown” and felt “that the code, at least as it applied to hotels, was out of date with the changes in the industry.”
Batra sees no problem with his communications with the local government. “It’s the town’s obligation to format good relationship with developers to attract growth within the region,” said Batra. “The status quo is something that doesn’t work for anybody in today’s market. So how would you fault the government officials?”
Taos loves a fight
Most rural communities around the country likely would welcome a new hotel, but Taos is a town that loves a good controversy before breakfast.
Activists beat back a proposal for a Walmart Super Store a couple of decades ago, turned back a town-supported move of the downtown post office, once picketed the then-mayor’s radio station and were part of a major kerfuffle over dumping the name of Kit Carson Park in favor of one that honored Native Americans instead. Taos is home to the infamous “sign man,” whose day-glow protest signs that he holds up along the town’s major thoroughfare were once collected for display at an art show.
The Holiday Inn issue has drawn local traditions and a historic community into the fray. The hotel would be about one mile north up the road from the much photographed and painted, at least 200 year-old San Francisco de Asis Church in the Ranchos de Taos Plaza, which is outside Taos town limits.
“They are building this hotel in our neighborhood,” said David Maes, president of the 25-member Ranchos Neighborhood Association, which voted unanimously in September to opposed the project and its 48-foot height. The church is 27 feet tall and the historic Martinez Hall, across the road, is 30 feet, said Maes.
A three-story hotel would probably not have been opposed, he said. “It’s just the height, it’s too tall, too big,” said Maes.
In October 2016, according to his written presentation to the Town Council, Maes stated that whether the planned four-story hotel “is AT or ON our doorstep, it is too close, and generally not wanted. Ranchos residents would like to preserve our community in the lifestyle we have lived for centuries — as a small farming, ranching and residential community. We want to preserve this lifestyle we cherish — living our lives practicing our centuries-old traditions.”
Taos’ tallest building?
The new hotel “could conceivably be twice as tall as the Hampton Inn next door,” said opponent Baker.
“This valley has no building that high,” Baker added.
The Holiday Inn opponents dispute accounts comparing the height of the hotel to that of the existing Taos County Administration/Judicial Complex, further north along the same road. There have been reports that the two-story county building is also at least 48 feet high, if rooftop appendages or a stairwell or elevator tower are included.
The longtime Sagebrush Hotel is across Paseo del Pueblo Sur, which is N.M. 68, from the Holiday Inn site.
Developer Batra said the height of a chain hotel won’t change the essence of Taos. “What defines the town of Taos is a lot more than just adding a couple of stories here,” he said.
The new hotel is needed in town because of aging, existing lodging stock, said Bellis. “The town has lost about half of its hotel and motel rooms and recently order a condemnation order for the Indian Hills Hotel and is about to extend orders to at least two other dilapidated hotels,” he wrote. “After two years of negotiating and pleading with the owners of many of the hotels to correct dozens of fire, building, health and life safety violations, we have few alternatives.”
He also said four stories “was the only way for the economics to work, for the town to get substantial concessions in the design that added costs and eliminated rooms, and to get national approval and financing.”
Opponent Maes, though, said of the planned hotel’s Pueblo Style design, “It’s like putting lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig, it’s still too high.”
Batra also hopes to rehab and reopen Taos’ old Don Fernando de Taos hotel, which he acquired about a year ago, in part with $500,000 in federal funds. He said his three properties will provide a total of 110 full and part-time jobs. Critics say pay will be low, perpetuating struggles for Taoseños trying to earn a living wage.
The Town Council will consider project Tuesday.