Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
A bid to build a residential subdivision above the Oxbow wetlands on Albuquerque’s West Side has opponents lining up to decry the potential impact on everything from public enjoyment to the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse.
It now also has sparked a feisty exchange between the developer and Mayor Tim Keller’s administration.
Keller recently invited the landowner to discuss trading the parcel at the end of Namaste Road NW to the city’s Open Space Division in exchange for other publicly owned land to ensure its preservation. He wrote that the site – known to many as the Poole property – has “significant natural and cultural resource values.”
But the developer’s sharply written response suggested that the mayor’s attempted intervention was “misplaced, inappropriate, cowardly” and undermined the city’s development rules and planning staff recommendations.
The administration calls those allegations “absurd” and characterized parts of the letter as “disrespectful.”
Gamma Development’s proposal includes building 76 single-family homes on 23 acres on a bluff above the Rio Grande. The land – previously owned by the late philanthropist and environmentalist Suzanne Poole – was sold to the Daniels family.
Keller wrote Kevin Daniels on Feb. 28, proposing he meet with the city on possible preservation options.
“It’s my understanding that as the owner of this private property, it is your choice what to do with the land,” Keller wrote. “It is my hope, as mayor of this great city, that these values can be protected for the benefit of the public, while respecting the private property rights of the owners.”
But Gamma’s Brian McCarthy wrote Keller back on March 5 saying the land is not for sale.
Gamma is presently under contract to buy it from the Daniels family, which had never previously fielded inquiries from the city or any other organization looking to buy or trade for the land, according to McCarthy’s letter.
McCarthy also co-owns Abrazo Homes.
He told Keller that Gamma already has invested more than $300,000 in the project – a project the city’s own planning department has determined meets the standards in the Integrated Development Ordinance passed by City Council in 2017. Albuquerque planning staff has recommended that the Environmental Planning Commission approve the Overlook at Oxbow site plan with conditions when it hears the case today.
“Pandering to the opponents and brokering an acquisition or ‘exchange’ of this site would do nothing more than fuel the NIMBY-ism that the IDO sought to impartially regulate and control,” McCarthy wrote.
He said the mayor’s letter may “constitute an attempt to ‘take’ the property without due process and at least show a contempt of the process” outlined in city policy.
McCarthy declined to comment until after the EPC hearing.
The city disputes McCarthy’s contentions.
City attorney Esteban Aguilar Jr. wrote McCarthy’s attorney on Monday, denying that Keller’s original letter interfered with the administrative development process or undermined city ordinance or city staffers’ performance.
“Nothing in the IDO or any other law prohibits open discussion about the possibilities for public-private collaboration, which was all that the mayor’s letter was,” Aguilar’s letter said.
He wrote that Keller’s invitation to discuss possible preservation aligns with the IDO’s purposes, which include a connected system of open spaces that promote outdoor activity and to “encourage conservation and efficient use of water and other natural resources.”
But given the developer’s lack of interest in speaking with the mayor, Aguilar wrote, the city considers “the offer of a conversation to be closed.”
Aguilar also wrote that his letter “graciously disregards the disrespectful and problematic content of Mr. McCarthy’s missive because that rhetoric should not be dignified with a response.”
Neighbors, environmental groups and other citizens have raised objections to the project, including Susan Chaudoir, a West Side resident and post-doctoral researcher helping lead an effort to preserve the site. She said the plan to replace the Poole property’s two existing residences with 76 single-family homes “doesn’t live up to the specialness of that space,” noting that the property sits above the wetlands, next to the city’s Oxbow Major Public Open Space and across the river from the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park.
“I think it goes beyond private ownership and people claiming a private owner has a right to do what he wants,” Chaudoir said. “This isn’t simplistic; this is major and you’re going beyond the private and into commercial.
“Once you turn it over to a commercial developer, I think that’s a very different scenario, and I think that there is an obligation we have socially to each other regarding signature spaces.”
She is among those whose comments are included in the planning department’s most recent 139-page report to the EPC.
Opponents have inundated the city’s planning department.
In a Dec. 10, 2018, letter to the EPC, the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club raised concerns about birds and wildlife in the Oxbow wetlands since the development “did not appear to have an adequate setback” to avoid disturbing them.
“The Oxbow is now one of the few remaining wetlands in the middle valley, and its preservation and protection is thus critical,” the group said.
About 55 individuals and organizations wrote dissenting letters – one that included a 32-name petition – before a scheduled EPC hearing last December. Another 131 people sent a form letter objecting to the project, according to a city report.
“Many of the letters express opposition, but do not explain how the submittal does not address or meet applicable IDO regulations,” the report said.
The department has continued to receive negative feedback since then, and no comments in support, the report says.