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Homeowners left out of ABQ’s development ordinance ‘fixes’

There’s widespread disappointment and frustration with the Planning Department’s ongoing actions regarding the Integrated Development Ordinance (IDO). The IDO promise was “to ensure a high-quality built environment for nearby property owners and neighbors.” Without a vision for Albuquerque, however, unenforced and arbitrary rules in the IDO neither create new design nor ensure a high-quality built environment, and planners aren’t asking for it.

The apartment monstrosities built in the near North Valley – one right next to St. Therese Church – are resultant examples of what the IDO, under planners’ interpretation, wrongfully allows. Planners can’t explain away these IDO-based approvals. Instead, they’re soaked in language they created and inflexibly defend as they continue to promote the minimum standards for development. If the IDO correctly allowed these developments – and if the IDO can’t meaningfully protect sensitive lands, signature open spaces and valuable cultural assets – for those reasons alone the IDO is seriously flawed.

The Planning Department also has a problem with strict adherence to state statute; if not de-facto violations of the law, then due-process breaches and potential violations of the Open Meetings Act ignore its spirit. The Development Review Board (DRB) was granted gratuitous discretionary power by the IDO to hold hearings and grant variances without the requisite conformity to strict standards. The Land-Use Hearing Officer (LUHO) warned planners about potential problems in courts.

Obviously the City Council heard, because just recently councilors unanimously passed R-19-150. This resolution sponsored by Councilor Trudy Jones allows the DRB to further circumvent strict state statute requirements. “To hold public hearings”‘ was changed to “hold meetings” and “variance” was replaced with “waiver.” These changes further diminish the process and discredit policy making. It’s policy change without public engagement favoring one sole stakeholder – the development community. If these are the kinds of “fixes” we’re going to get, then we’re stooping to a new low.

The IDO blatantly removes the public from the development review process, and it was the planners’ clear intent to do so. Telling are 2013-14 inter-office planning memos: “Keep neighborhoods under control … Rebalancing Neighborhood Association input into the process … need to either remove from (the) process or give them a charge … growth no matter what … eliminating sector plans …” The flaw is that against written promises, coupled with planners’ open advocacy on behalf of commercial development interests, they created an unbalanced domination by the one stakeholder. Rather than standing as honest brokers, planners continue in their staff reports and testimony to present the most favorable cases for certain developers or their agents with apparent imbedded undue influence within the city.

Although initially touted as a badly needed document to clean-up conflicting zoning regulations, planning staff now has identified over 500 “fixes” needed to amend the IDO. Astute neighborhood people have also identified numerous essential amendments. It’s what happens to a document that’s constructed “in a fairly strict timeline in order to complete this monumental project during the remainder of the Mayor’s term and we need to get this RFP out by early June in order to accomplish that.” Thus, in a special meeting, City Council passed the IDO on the eve of the mayoral election. The clear aim was to get Mayor (Richard) Berry to sign it before Mayor Keller took office. Six of 9 councilors, city planners and supporters of the IDO gave in to the development industry, wiped out publicly supported sector plans and left resident landowners hanging.

Property owners wanted to keep their sector plans – their sense of place. IDO form-based zones were created to set the forms of buildings and allow development to proceed more quickly without public hearings, something easier done in an urban environment like Downtown. The flaw? Without visionary planning you can’t reasonably attempt to create “downtown environments” citywide. After all, a key objective of this effort was “to develop zoning that protects neighborhoods while encouraging the revitalization of commercial areas.” Where are those neighborhood protections?

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