On Dec. 3, the Bernalillo County Planning Commission will vote on a very large development proposal – the Santolina Master Plan – that would directly affect the future of urban growth, future taxes, water use and, in fact, the economic and environmental well-being of all the people in the Albuquerque Metro area.
The basic questions to be addressed are:
1) should we continue the outward sprawl of Albuquerque beyond the adopted Development Areas of the Comprehensive Plan; or
2) should we focus our physical and tax-based resources to maintain and enhance the livability, viability and sustainability of the already utility-served and committed areas?
The answer is this: The Santolina Master Plan would put enormous stress on an already-at-capacity potable water supply; it defers requiring the developer to pay for needed infrastructure to the far West Mesa, including road development and other transportation infrastructure that would be needed to accommodate an eventual population of just under 100,000 – more than the 2010 population of Rio Rancho.
And, most importantly, the development is just not needed. There is ample buildable space, served by roads and often rail access, for many times the proposed Santolina population, including industrial and commercial areas, within the utility-served and committed Development Areas of the Comprehensive Plan.
Unfortunately, Santolina seems to be based more on greed than on need, perpetuating a long-established pattern of politically powerful land owners or developers who build on distant, lower-cost land with the goal of optimizing development profit and, when possible, transferring the burden of providing utility extensions and services to the public.
The Dec. 3 public meeting will be the final Planning Commission hearing on the Santolina Master Plan, the largest single development it has ever considered. This proposal would sprawl atop the West Mesa south of Interstate 40 for four miles to the Pajarito Grant line and west from 118th Street to the Rio Puerco escarpment. It would cover 13,850 acres, more than 21 square miles.
Proponents propose that, over a 50-year build-out, this area would have 38,000 houses, plus commercial and industrial buildings. Currently vacant, the land mostly consists of rows of 10- to 15-foot-high, lightly vegetated sand dunes. It is zoned A-1 and is taxed at the Greenbelt Grazing rate of $3.66 per acre per year.
Development on top of the West Mesa does not need to be an either/or situation. Some development is, and can be, appropriate. Much of the area could be suitable for large-scale, metropolitan-area-serving uses, such as the existing Double Eagle II airport, Shooting Range Park and similar metro-area-serving multiple uses.
The members of the elected Board of County Commissioners represent all citizens within their districts, including residents of the city, not just in the unincorporated areas. As their agents, the Planning Commission must serve the well-being of the whole community, not just the area outside of the city limits.
Although some members of the commission may be under considerable political pressure to approve this development for its great economic benefit to the county, I feel that the more likely outcome would be a rapid resale of all or sub-parcels of this land at great economic profit to the applicants, but with the risk of very little long-term tax revenue to the taxpayers.
If approved and implemented, it also would result in a reduction of tax resources to all established areas represented by Bernalillo County commissioners.
Information about the proposal can be found at www.bernco.gov/santolina. I urge all to attend the Dec. 3 hearing of the Planning Commission in the Vincent E. Griego Chambers in the Civic Plaza building and voice their views regarding this proposal.
In my view, this is an unneeded, poorly located and potentially tax-base-consuming proposal. Unless or until an appropriately scaled, environmentally sound and economically believable alternative is presented, this proposal should be denied.
Lusk is emeritus professor of Architecture and Planning at the University of New Mexico.