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County planning panel OKs master plan for Santolina

santolinaCopyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

The largest master plan ever considered by Bernalillo County – covering almost 22 square miles on the far West Side – is now headed to the County Commission with a recommendation of approval.

The county Planning Commission on Wednesday concluded nearly a year’s worth of hearings with a 4-2 vote in favor of the Santolina Master Plan.

But the group also adopted 12 pages of findings and conditions – many of which the Santolina development team objected to.

The conditions, crafted by county planners and other staff, would set a limit on how much water the new community could use. They also call for negotiation of an agreement that makes it clear the building of roads and other amenities must come at “no net expense” to county government.

The commission’s recommendation came after a four-hour hearing dominated by opponents of the plan. Critics questioned the proposal’s size, its far-flung location and potential strain on the water supply, the economic analysis prepared by the development team and other aspects of the plan.

One woman said she would rather give birth “in the wilds of Peru,” as she did 44 years ago, than see Santolina built. A man in a black cowboy hat swore at the commission and vowed to “fight you guys to the death.”

Other opponents wore brightly colored T-shirts with a message on the back: “Santolina. WTF. What’s The Future?”

But the commission seemed eager to send the proposal on for a final decision by the Bernalillo County Commission. A hearing is expected by the end of February.

“It’s not done by any means,” Commissioner Connie Chavez said just before Wednesday’s vote. “We all know that.”

The conditions of approval, she said, “adequately addressed” criticism by opponents.

Joining Chavez in favor of the proposal were Joe Chavez, Irene Serna and Toby Atencio.

Commissioners Javier Martinez and Lenton Malry voted “no.”

Martinez, who won election to the state House of Representatives last month, said he had concerns about water scarcity and interfering with the county’s other financial obligations.

“I think we should be thinking about smart growth,” Martinez said. “I think we should be thinking about infill.”

The Santolina Master Plan would cover 13,851 acres southwest of Interstate 40 and 118th Street. The land now has an agricultural zoning that allows for low-density, rural residential development.

But the property owners – identified by the county as Western Albuquerque Land Holdings LLC, a Delaware company – envision the area as home to more than 90,000 people in 50 years, living in a self-sufficient community. There would be a network of open space, parks and residential villages.

Jim Strozier of Consensus Planning, which is working for the development team, said approval of the plan would make it easier to recruit companies to the area.

“It’s very hard for us to predict exactly where somebody is going to want to locate,” he told the commission. But the plan has flexibility “to be able to address those job opportunities as well as we can.”

The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and several other business groups support the master plan, Strozier said.

He and other supporters also stressed that approval of the plan would trigger another round of more detailed planning.

John P. Salazar, an attorney for the applicant, objected to a variety of conditions recommended by county staff.

One dispute centered on the estimate of how much water Santolina will use when fully built out: about 4.7 billion gallons a year.

A county-suggested condition of approval – crafted with help from the local Water Utility Authority – said the development should be required not to exceed that estimate.

Salazar said companies recruited to Santolina might need more water and the estimate, developed by the Santolina team, wasn’t intended as a limit.

“We don’t think it should be pinned down,” he said.