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Santolina zone change will require do-over vote

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

With the New Mexico Supreme Court’s recent decision not to weigh in on the yearslong legal battle over Santolina, the planned community project is bound for a do-over vote by the Bernalillo County Commission to get its desired zone change.

Opponents of the project consider it a pivotal vote, contending that the rezoning is essential to proceed with the Rio Rancho-sized planned community.

Developers, however, see it as a more perfunctory matter, arguing that they already have something more meaningful with the approved Santolina Level A Master Plan.

The vote – which a county spokesman said is not yet scheduled – will follow years of legal wrangling over the development, which is planned to include more than 38,000 homes, business and industrial parks and more.

Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, which owns the thousands of acres west of Albuquerque, had in January petitioned the Supreme Court to review the Santolina case in an attempt to preserve the zone change for land where it wants to build the new community.

The County Commission had granted the zone change among a series of approvals it gave WALH in 2015 following several public hearings and intense community debate.

Santolina opponents appealed the approvals in state court.

Second Judicial District Judge Nancy Franchini in 2017 ultimately upheld the Santolina Level A Master Plan approval.

But she ruled that the zone map change – from rural agricultural zoning to planned communities zoning – was invalid because then-County Commissioner Art De La Cruz had a perceived bias.

Unlike the master plan deliberation, which was a “legislative” matter, the zone change necessitated an impartial “quasi-judicial” proceeding, Franchini wrote in her opinion. Since De La Cruz had written an op-ed column to the Journal explaining his support for Santolina prior to the hearing, Franchini wrote in her ruling that “raise(d) questions of partiality or prejudgment, or the appearance thereof.”

Franchini reversed the zone map amendment and sent it back to the County Commission to hold proceedings consistent with her ruling.

WALH and the county appealed Franchini’s decision, but the New Mexico Court of Appeals upheld it. WALH subsequently sought a Supreme Court review of the case – and the county signed on to the landowner’s petition – but the high court last month said it would not review it.

That means Franchini’s decision stands, and WALH must go back to the County Commission again to get the desired zone change.

The courts’ ruling on the zone change is significant, according to an attorney representing the SouthWest Organizing Project and other Santolina opponents.

Agricultural zoning allows only one dwelling unit per acre, while Santolina’s master plan calls for an overall density of 2.7 per acre.

“The zone map amendment is the fundamental underpinning of everything else, because the land where Santolina is proposed is now zoned rural agricultural,” New Mexico Environmental Law Center staff attorney Douglas Meiklejohn said. “In order for Santolina to proceed, the land there has to be zoned planned communities, and it isn’t.”

Representatives for WALH, however, see it differently.

Though the judge reversed the zone map amendment, they say WALH – and the county – have already emerged largely victorious because the courts upheld the Santolina master plan.

Jeff Garrett, who manages WALH’s land, said he’s optimistic the County Commission will reapprove the zone change because the zoning is almost inextricably linked to the approved master plan and because the county itself has spent over five years defending those original votes in the court system.

“I don’t know why they would spend all their money defending their decisions, and then unwind all their decisions and all the hard work that they’ve done,” he said.

But the five-member County Commission is almost completely different than it was in 2015.

Could Santolina proceed with its plan that includes over 38,000 residences with the master plan but without the planned communities zone change?

A county spokesman said the Santolina vision does not necessarily require the planned communities zone change, which he likened to a placeholder zone for a mix of future uses.

“It doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done (without the planned communities zoning),” county spokesman Tom Thorpe said. “It just becomes a little more complicated.”

Santolina has been a hot-button issue for years.

WALH in 2013 submitted to the county its big picture, or Level A, master plan for 13,851 acres southwest of Interstate 40 and 118th Street, presenting its planned community vision – with a 40-50-year development schedule – as a coordinated solution to the metro area’s expected growth.

Opposition galvanized, largely around concerns about sprawl and the impact on the metro area’s water supply.

Despite those objections, the County Commission in 2015 approved the Santolina Level A Master Plan and the zone change on 3-2 votes. None of the three commissioners who voted in favor – De La Cruz, Lonnie Talbert and Wayne Johnson – are still on the commission. Only Commissioner Debbie O’Malley – who, along with Maggie Hart Stebbins, voted in opposition – remains part of the commission today.

Additional approvals have since stacked up.

• In 2016, the commission signed off on 20 tax increment development districts, or TIDDs, which will reroute some taxes generated by Santolina back to the developer as reimbursement for infrastructure costs.

• In 2017, the commission granted WALH’s request to amend the Level A plan with regard to water. The Level A approval originally required Santolina to have a plan for water before advancing to the next stage of the planning process, but the change moved the requirement later in the process. (WALH and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority have no development agreement yet, and Garrett said they are not currently negotiating anything.)

• Also in 2017, the commission approved Santolina’s more targeted and specific Level B.1 master plan. It covers nearly one-third of the site and provides for about 9,400 homes across three residential villages, a town center, industrial and business parks, and open space. Opponents have also challenged that approval in court. They lost in state District Court but have an appeal pending before the Court of Appeals.

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