BERNALILLO — Sandoval County could enact new zoning requirements next year for the parcels west of Rio Rancho, and implement new strategies and incentives for development of that region as part of its proposed Rio Rancho Estates Area Plan.
The report under consideration foresees two very different outcomes: “Either the area is planned for appropriate growth and development, or the area, over time, will become an environmental disaster amidst conditions that increasingly reflect blight and slum conditions.”
County Manager Phil Rios told the county commissioners at a workshop Thursday he expects to put the area plan on the agenda for a commission meeting in September. Michael Springfield, county director for planning and zoning, said the associated ordinances could take effect in about a year.
Roughly 60 square miles, or about 44,000 acres, of the original Rio Rancho Estates remain outside city of Rio Rancho boundaries. Almost 1,300 people occupy about 500 dwellings in the unincorporated portion of the estates, which generally lack infrastructure, the area plan reports.
The area plan describes the challenges and possibilities facing the land left over from AMREP’s efforts in the early to mid-1970s to convert a high-altitude desert into residential lots for out-of-state buyers.
The county first adopted a comprehensive plan in 1989. Its P&Z department and commission have spent the last quarter century developing the area plan for that portion of the estates that falls outside of the municipal boundaries of Rio Rancho.
According to the area plan, the county wants to conserve the water available underground in the western lands, which are located between the city’s western boundary and the Rio Puerco tributary of the Rio Grande.
If scattered residential development continues in the western area, without regard for any plan, the city will see its water supplies decrease and individual septic systems will deteriorate the quality of underground water resources, according to the area plan.
Makita Hill, a long range planner for the county, on Thursday cited a recent water study that found the aquifer could provide residential water to no more than half of the parcels west of the city, but much of that water is 1,000 feet below the surface.
Wells licensed by the State Engineer generally cost $30,000 to $50,000, but are more expensive with deep drilling, he added.
Springfield said the county has found 80 homes in the unincorporated Rio Rancho Estates area without any connection to water or sewer. The new zoning ordinances would require those homes, as well as any new residences in the area, to obtain State Engineer-approved wells.
The county and the New Mexico Environment Department also would likely require advanced aeration low-pollution septic systems in the western portion of the estates, as outlined in the area plan.
As the population increases and infill occurs in Rio Rancho, filling the city’s empty spaces, it will need to secure more water supplies. The city and county would pursue water conservation, with help from the Southern Sandoval County Flood Control Authority, by locating nine municipal wells within open spaces and recreation parks around the western arroyos, Hill said.
The county hopes to obtain vacant privately owned land for those parks and open spaces through outright purchase, limited use of eminent domain, government funding and private donations, according to the area plan.
Special assessment districts could generate revenue for constructing and maintaining water lines and new roads, as called for in the area plan, but Springfield said those districts would be for industrial and commercial development, not residential.
Springfield said the private sector would likely play a role in the development of the western Rio Rancho Estates. The county proposes to offer incentives to businesses willing to locate along King, Northern and Southern boulevards.
Paseo del Volcan appears in the area plan, but Hill said the county has not yet secured funding to extend the highway that would connect US 550 with Northern and Southern, and eventually Interstate 40.
Changes in the undeveloped portion of Rio Rancho Estates would dovetail with existing residences in the area, Hill said Thursday. The county wants to avoid displacing any residents or homes, but the plan also restricts residential areas to about 6,000 acres.
Nearly 7,000 acres are set aside in the area plan for larger scale commercial and industrial development.
The state Land Office has nearly 2,900 acres within the lands covered by the area plan. One of those parcels, with about 530-560 acres, will soon be leased by the county for economic development.
The area plan says the county already has an industrial park master plan for that acreage.
Springfield said the county is working with the city to bring water and sewer services to that large parcel. Much of the remaining acreage would be reserved for open space, recreational parks and water conservation efforts.
City spokesman Peter Wells said City Hall has no objections to the county’s area plan.
The city has expressed no interest in annexing the unincorporated land just west of its boundaries, according to Hill.
“In the future, any annexation proposal would be evaluated by city staff,” Wells added.