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Bond backers: Rural identity at stake

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

CORRALES – To most people, these few acres near Toad Road in the heart of Corrales might just look like upturned dirt, dull brown and subdued.

But when the tall young man standing here gazes west over the disturbed ground he sees the vibrant greens of leeks, cabbages and kale, the startling yellow of summer squash, colors that will cover this field in the weeks and months to come. More than that, he sees the promise of making a future in the village he calls home.

“We are making a living farming in Corrales,” said Elan Silverblatt-Buser. “One reason we can do that is because we have lease agreements with people who have put their land in (conservation) easements.”

Silverblatt-Buser, 27, and his brother Aaron, 29, are the owners of Corrales’ Silver Leaf Farms, which grows certified-organic and pesticide-free vegetables for sale to area farmers’ markets, restaurants, grocers and schools. They lease two sections of land that are part of the seven farms, totaling 38.5 acres, saved by a $2.5 million farmland preservation bond approved by Corrales voters in 2004.

“It’s amazing,” Silverblatt-Buser said of the farmland preservation program. “We thought we would have to move south to farm.”

But all the proceeds from that 2004 bond issue were used up several years ago and the bonds paid off.

A sign supporting a Corrales farmland preservation bond stands near a field in the village. The issue, on the ballot in the March 6 village election, would provide $2.5 million in general obligation bond money for the preservation of farmland, open space, wildlife habitat and recreation areas. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

If Corrales voters wish to continue the program, which offers landowners an alternative to selling their property to commercial developers, they must approve bond issue No. 4 in the March 6 village election. That bond issue calls for the issuance of $2.5 million in general obligation bonds for the acquisition of conservation easements for the preservation of farmland, open space, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities.

Elan sees passage of the bond issue as important to the growth of Silver Leaf Farms, which now employs four people besides himself and his brother.

“We are creating jobs and paying a living wage,” he said. “We are selling veggies all over Albuquerque. Our biggest issue is we can’t grow enough. Right now, we have 10 acres in field production. But in the next three years, we will need 15 to 20 acres.”

He expects to lease that additional land because high property values in Corrales makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to buy land for farming. But commercial developers can afford the land and if they purchase it for housing sites, it will be lost to farming, wildlife habitat and recreational use.

The farmland preservation program allows property owners to sell development rights on their land while retaining ownership. The property, stewarded by a land trust, is protected from development in perpetuity, but the landowner gets some monetary incentive to resist lucrative offers from developers.

“The bond was structured so you could hold on to your property and keep on farming,” said Claudia “Taudy” Miller, who grew up in Corrales and is a former planning and zoning administrator for the village.

But supporters are quick to add that the bond issue does not benefit only farmers. They say land spared from development means open space that protects views of the mountains and the bosque; preserves wildlife habitat for a variety of birds and animals; offers a wide range of recreational opportunities; and retains the rural flavor that makes up the roots of Corrales’ identity.

That rural character is important to Alana McGrattan, who committed a portion of her property near Meadowlark and Corrales roads to the farmland preservation program.

McGrattan inherited the property from her aunt, Dorothy Smith. It had been a historic orchard and has also been used to grow different kinds of hay for livestock. Now some of it is being leased to the Silverblatt-Buser brothers for growing vegetables.

McGrattan said she felt a family commitment to keeping the land in farming.

“We are losing farmland in the U.S. at an incredible rate and we have the opportunity to save some of it in Corrales,” she said. “It’s not all about the individual. It’s more about responsibility to the community.”

To that end, McGrattan, a horse owner, also dedicated part of the property as an easement for a horse-riding trail from the Corrales ditch to the Loma Larga ditch.

Elan Silverblatt-Buser, left, checks out the soil as his brother Aaron tills the field they lease near Toad Road in Corrales. Elan credits farmland preservation with making enough land available for him and his brother to earn a living as farmers in the village they grew up in. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

General obligation bonds are paid for with property taxes. Phil Gasteyer, District 3 villager councilor, who is not seeking re-election, estimates that, if passed, the farmland preservation bond would add $75-$80 to the annual property tax bill of a person who owns a $150,000 house in the village. Gasteyer said that if all three general obligation bonds on the ballot, including the farmland preservation bond, are approved, he estimates the additional property tax for that $150,000 home would be $100 to $105. The fourth bond issue on the ballot would increase the gross receipt tax, not property taxes.

Gasteyer pointed out that village property taxes dropped this year because of the defeat, at the Sandoval County level, of hospital bonds in the November 2016 elections and because the Corrales farmland bonds approved in 2004 are maturing before new bonds would go into effect. He said that means that if all three obligation bonds are approved, village taxpayers will still be paying less than half of the property taxes they have been paying.

Miller said taxpayers will get something in return for the money they put into farmland preservation.

“Your property values go up when we preserve a piece of land,” she said “When we ask people to pay a little more in taxes, the gain is tenfold.”

Sayre Gerhart, a former Corrales village councilor, says Corrales needs the farmland preservation bond money to get matching money from the federal government.

“The federal government has long recognized the public interest and common good in protecting land from development,” said Gerhart, who now serves as board chair of the New Mexico Land Conservancy. “The federal government has grant programs to actively protect land. This is about food security and opportunities for recreation. It’s not just scenic.”

For many who support bond issue No. 4, it boils down to Corrales hanging on to the identity that keeps natives at home and continues to attract newcomers.

“This keeps Corrales rural,” Miller said. “This is farming. This is the root of it. This is the nut. Without it, we are just a bedroom community for people who leave at 8 o’clock in the morning.”