Fifty years from now, an enormous chunk of the old Atrisco Land Grant could be home to 90,000 people living in a self-sufficient community with its own residential villages, business parks and open space.
At least that’s the vision of Western Albuquerque Land Holdings LLC, the Delaware company that now owns most of the property.
The company is asking Bernalillo County to approve a master plan for 13,700 acres on the far West Side, near the city landfill and county jail and south of Interstate 40 and west of 118th Street.
Called Santolina, it’s the biggest master plan the county has ever considered, and it’s reignited a debate familiar to Albuquerque – how best to handle growth and development on the outskirts of the community.
A hearing today will focus on the project’s impact on the environment and water availability. But a final recommendation from the County Planning Commission isn’t expected anytime soon.
Another planning meeting, on the provision of government services, is scheduled July 30. Eventually, county commissioners will consider the plan.
“We know this is important to Bernalillo County, and we want to make sure we hold a thorough hearing,” said Nano Chavez, the county’s director of zoning, planning and building.
Her staff has asked for more detailed information from Western Albuquerque Land Holdings on how it will avoid piecemeal, sprawl-like development and for evidence that the growth will come at “no net cost to the government.” Planners also said the proposed residential development on the site may exceed what’s allowed in land-use planning documents.
Neighborhood leaders have a variety of concerns – from the project’s distance from the built-out parts of Albuquerque to stress on the water supply.
“I think it’s too big and needs to be scaled back,” said Roderick Mahoney, a South Valley resident and retired engineer from Sandia National Laboratories.
The Journal wasn’t immediately able to reach a local spokesman for the project.
But Santolina representatives have said in previous hearings that approval of a master plan would allow for coordinated development and creation of a self-sufficient community. Growth is already projected in the area, so it makes sense to craft an integrated plan for it, they say.
There would be a mix of residential villages, business parks and open space, they say, in addition to pedestrian and bicycle trails.
The proposed master plan provides for about 38,000 homes. It is consistent with the growth and land-use policies for the area, Santolina representatives say.
Westland plan withdrawn
The land covered by the master plan was once part of the Atrisco Land Grant, given by Spain to settlers in the New World. Westland Development, the corporate successor to the land grant, proposed a master plan for the land in 2005 but withdrew the request in 2007, though a county staff report doesn’t say why.
Western Albuquerque Land Holdings LLC apparently entered the picture in 2010. The company bought tens of thousands of acres of old Westland property at auction that year.
The Journal reported in 2010 that Western Albuquerque Land Holdings had been formed by three creditors of Westland. The company’s filing with the New Mexico Secretary of State lists its manager as Barclays Capital Real Estate.
Where’s the water?
Today’s hearing is focused on the environment and open space.
Among the criteria for approval of a planned community is “documentation of physical and legal water availability,” under county policy, Chavez said.
The Santolina site lies outside the service area of the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. That means the property owners would have to negotiate a development agreement with the water authority.
Such an agreement would require the developer to pay for water rights “that they bring with them or that they pay us, via a water supply charge, to obtain on their behalf,” said David Morris, a spokesman for the water authority.
“There must be no net expense to current ratepayers, which means new infrastructure must be paid for in advance by the developer.”
Approval of a land-use plan, however, must happen before the water authority will consider a development agreement, Morris said.
Development of the 13,700 acres covered by the proposed Santolina Master Plan would, of course, depend on market conditions.
The Albuquerque City Council approved a 12,990-acre master plan for of Mesa del Sol in 2006. The area remains largely undeveloped now, though the first few housing developments are underway and some key industry, such as Albuquerque Studios, is operating there.