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Developer, county spar over ‘interim’ definition

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The zoning change is not the only issue Santolina’s developers are taking to the Bernalillo County Commission.

Western Albuquerque Land Holdings (WALH) representatives say they are appealing to the commission in what has so far been their losing battle with county staff over the definition of “interim” – and specifically whether such projects as landfills and solar farms should qualify as interim land uses.

The question emerged in 2019 when the county was approached about putting a waste management facility within the Santolina Master Plan area, county documents say.

WALH itself is not building the facility – another company is buying about 300 Santolina acres for the project, which would include storing old tires for potential future recycling – but is invested in the debate the landfill helped trigger.

Representatives of WALH contend that their approved development agreement with Bernalillo County allows for interim uses, as long as they apply successfully for a special-use permit.

County staff, however, perceived the landfill bid as an attempt to game the system by circumventing long-range planning processes incorporated into the existing Santolina Master Plan.

“If a landfill is interim, anything is interim, and the concept of master planning is moot,” county Zoning Administrator Nicholas Hamm wrote in a county case file. “No incentive or requirement to ever engage in the (future planning steps) will exist if Special Use Permits can be issued for land uses that drastically modify land and exist in perpetuity.”

In an attempt to clarify, Hamm created a definition for “interim” uses that includes a 36-month limitation.

WALH unsuccessfully appealed Hamm’s decision to the Bernalillo County Planning Commission, an appointed citizen panel that hears land-use cases.

Santolina representatives told the planning commission in a hearing earlier this month that the issue is not the landfill, but rather the time-constrained definition, which WALH land-use consultant Jim Strozier said “we feel adversely impacts our ability to pursue other interim uses like solar.”

The Santolina master plan includes over 38,000 homes, business parks, a town center and more. When it was approved in 2015, developers said it would come together over 40 to 50 years.

That proposed development has not commenced and WALH wants to use the land for other purposes until it does.

It has lease agreements for solar users that could cover up to 6,400 acres in one area of Santolina, representatives told the Journal. That’s almost half of Santolina’s total acreage.

By seeking approval via the special-use permit process, WALH avoids having to amend its previously approved master plan, which does not account for solar generation of that scale.

WALH representatives believe it has the right to go that route, given terms of its existing development agreement.

“The problem here is there is no problem,” WALH attorney John Salazar told the commission. “The zoning administrator is trying to fix a situation for which there is no problem.”

He said creating a time-limited definition for “interim” was an unnecessary exercise and that county decision-makers still have discretion through the special-use permitting process to determine what is and is not appropriate on an individual basis.

But Hamm and others noted that upholding the definition does not preclude a landfill or a solar project – it would just mean going through the established process baked into the Santolina Master Plan, which was adopted in 2015 after numerous public hearings.

Enrico Gradi, deputy county manager for community services, told the commission that it was not appropriate to undermine the work behind that master plan with piecemeal development.

“What we were trying to get away from back in 2015 is … this notion of ‘case-by-case basis,’ ” Gradi told the commission.

“We adopted a master plan in its entirety to chart the future of the Southwest Mesa.”

The planning commission ultimately sided with county staff, voting 5-1 to deny WALH’s appeal, a decision WALH will appeal to the County Commission.

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