Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
In 2014, hundreds of people came out to Santa Fe County Commission meetings, with the overflow spilling out of the commission’s chambers, to fight a proposed basalt mining operation on La Bajada Mesa. Opponents said the mine would destroy the mesa’s scenic views for miles around, and produce too much dust and noise from blasting.
Bumper stickers against the project were ubiquitous. The sand and gravel mining plan was not rejected outright, but the result of the controversy was a commission-approved moratorium on “developments with countywide impact,” such as mining operations, landfills and junkyards.
Now, the county, with much less public attention, is taking steps to address these kinds of potentially messy projects in its land use code.
Only about 30 people attended a series of four meetings hosted by the county last month that aimed to get public input on proposed amendments covering regulations that address mining, landfills and junkyards.
The county’s Sustainable Land Development Code, adopted by the County Commission in 2016, sets the rules for development in unincorporated parts of the county and was meant to replace out-of-date sections of provisions developed 20 years earlier.
“The proposed amendments include new regulations for mining and resource extraction, and enhanced protections for environmental resources and public health and safety,” the county said in a news release announcing the public meetings.
“This draft is the culmination of an extensive process with community stakeholders, technical experts and county staff from multiple departments to develop a reasonable and protective framework to regulate developments of county-wide impact.”
The 2014 mining fight was over a proposal to open a 50-acre mine on La Bajada Mesa submitted by landowners Buena Vista Estates, Inc. and Albuquerque-based Rockology, Inc. Penny Ellis-Green, then the county’s growth management director, said in a memo at the time that “existing regulations are either non-existent or inadequate to meet the special regulatory needs” of “developments with county-wide impact,” such as a mine.
The term “developments with county-wide impact” – sometimes referred to as DCIs in county documents – also came up more recently in the fight over a proposed truck stop on 26 acres on the south side of Interstate 25 at the Cerrillos Road/N.M. 14 interchange, an issue that also turned out hundreds of opponents. Some said a big truck stop should be considered a development of countywide impact.
In the end, the Pilot Flying J truck stop was deemed by a 4-1 majority of the County Commission not to be “materially similar” to other allowable conditional uses under the county code. That was contrary to the findings of the case’s hearing officer and Ellis-Green, now the county’s own land use administrator.
Although the county held public hearings on the proposed new DCI rules in January, no one in county government will talk about the proposed amendments now.
In recent weeks, county government officials refused to grant an interview to a Journal reporter on the land use code changes and would respond only via email to submitted questions.
Ellis-Green did not directly respond to the Journal’s request for an interview, even after county commissioners Anna Hansen and Anna Hamilton referred a reporter to Ellis-Green.
Instead, the county’s interim public information officer, Tessa Jo Mascarañas, responded to a message to Ellis-Green and asked for questions to be submitted in writing. She said the responses should be attributed to “county staff.”
When told that it was important to attribute information to sources, the response was, “Several different staff members helped to provide complete answers to your questions. We wanted to ensure that we provided the best answers possible.”
County staff is now reviewing the input gathered during the four public meetings held at different locations. Staff will consider what, if any, changes should be made to the draft amendments before they are advanced to the Planning Commission for review in the coming weeks. The amendments could be voted on by the County Commission as soon as April, county staff said.
Nothing the county provided says whether the proposed amendments were spurred by the issues raised during the 2014 mining fight and the resulting moratorium. A lawsuit over the moratorium was eventually dropped by the companies that had proposed the mine.
The county says regulations for mining and resource extraction were written into the Land Development Code in 1996 and that new regulations are necessary to address present-day conditions.
“The new regulations will provide greater protection for water resources, require adequate financial bonding, and require applicants to show that their proposed activity does not pose an environmental or public health risk,” the county says. “The County’s objective in drafting new regulations is to ensure the protection of public health and the environment based on the best available science and procedures.”
Asked how the changes would provide greater protection for water resources, county staff said, “The proposed regulations require a more robust application process, including consideration of numerous factors to ensure that a proposed mining operation will not harm water resources.”
County’s written comments said that applicants must submit detailed information regarding geology, meteorology, hydrology, mineralogy and geochemistry that shows that a proposed activity does not pose a risk to the public or environment.
The amendments would also establish requirements for applying for a permit. This will allow the county to “conduct the necessary analysis of applications, and procedures to ensure a reasonable and appropriate review process,” the county said.
County staff said updating the regulations would “provide a more comprehensive and up-to-date set of standards” than the rules now on the books.
Mining, an industry that thrived in parts of Santa Fe County in the late 1800s and early 1900s, is nearly non-existent within county boundaries now. The county, in its answers to Journal questions, initially said there was just one existing mine in the Ortiz Mountains that was being “closed out.”
Asked to identify the name or operator of the mine it was referring to, county staff said there may be several legacy mines in the Ortiz Mountains, adding that “without more information, we cannot answer your question.”
County staff said it hasn’t received any applications under an existing 1996 hard rock mining ordinance. They say that the proposed mine on La Bajada Mesa was not subject to the hard rock mining ordinance because it was for sand and gravel mining, not mineral resource extraction and processing.
“Large scale Sand and Gravel is currently a DCI,” county staff said, citing a section of the 2016 Sustainable Land Development Code.
The new regulations now proposed “make some amendments to general requirements for all DCIs, and add regulations for Mineral Resource Extraction and Processing.”
‘An extensive process’
The announcement for the public meetings said that the proposed changes are “the culmination of an extensive process in which the county sought feedback from a wide range of community stakeholders and technical experts, and county staff from multiple departments to develop a reasonable and protective framework to regulate developments of county-wide impact.”
When asked to identify the community stakeholders and technical experts involved in creating the draft, county staff responded: “County staff identified a number of interested stakeholders, including hard rock mining interests, sand and gravel operators, UNM professors, community members and organizations, land owners, and conservation groups.”
Asked again to identify who the people were who contributed to drafting the amendments, the county first responded that sign-in sheets for the stakeholder meetings could be provided in response to a public records request. After another exchange of emails with Mascarañas, the county provided the sign-in sheets for two working group meetings, one in August and the other in December.
The list contained names of attorneys; representatives of Earthworks, a nonprofit “dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development,” according to its website; the former head of the New Mexico Environmental Department’s Groundwater Quality Bureau; the president of the Ranchitos de Galisteo Water Users Association; a member of the Turquoise Trail Regional Alliance; representatives from a sand and gravel operation in Rio Arriba County; and a Cerrillos couple who were outspoken opponents of the La Bajada Mesa mine.
What about power lines?
Of the four meetings hosted by the county, the final one in Nambé may have been the best attended, with about 10 people showing up on Jan. 31.
Nambé resident Devin Bent said he probably dominated the discussion. His main argument, he said, was that high-voltage power lines – like the proposed Verde Transmission Line that would stretch for 33 miles across federal and tribal land in northern Santa Fe County – don’t fall under the county’s DCI designation.
“I tried to make the point that we have learned some stuff about power lines and fires that we didn’t know before,” he said. “We need to incorporate the lessons we learned from those fires into the code, and the way to do that is by calling them a development of county-wide impact.”
In New Mexico, the 2011 Las Conchas Fire, and the 2013 Tres Lagunas and Thompson Ridge fires were ignited by power lines during windy conditions. Bent referred to the Las Conchas Fire and November’s devastating Camp Fire in northern California that wiped out the entire town of Paradise and led to more than 80 fatalities, also started by a power line failure.
“I think it’s simply incredible that a 30-mile high-voltage transmission line is not regarded as a DCI when a junkyard is,” he said. “You can see a transmission line from miles away. How far away do you have to be to see a junkyard?”
Asked why transmission lines aren’t considered DCIs, county staff just said it’s because the County Commission hasn’t identified transmission lines as DCIs.
The public will still have an opportunity to provide more input on the proposed amendments at public hearings before the planning and county commissions. The County Commission is expected to consider publishing the title and general summary of the code amendments at its March 12 meeting, according to the county’s written responses.