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Bernalillo County delays decision on Santolina

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Bernalillo County commissioners inched closer Monday to a final decision on the Santolina development – the largest master plan they’ve ever considered.

They narrowly rejected one appeal filed by opponents of the plan, but they postponed several others.

And there was no action on the Santolina Master Plan itself. That decision was scheduled for a special meeting May 28, along with the remaining appeals.

Opponents, however, say the rejection of their first appeal is a sign of what’s to come – that Santolina has support from three of the five commissioners.

“They showed their cards,” said Javier Benavidez, a South Valley resident and executive director of the SouthWest Organizing Project, which opposes the master plan.

County Commissioner Wayne Johnson – one of three commissioners who voted to reject the appeal – said it wouldn’t be correct to “assume anything.”

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Johnson said.

Johnson joined commissioners Art De La Cruz and Lonnie Talbert in favor of rejecting the first appeal filed by opponents.

Commissioners Maggie Hart Stebbins and Debbie O’Malley voted “no” after County Attorney Randy Autio suggested the commission hold off on making any final decisions.

Autio said his office is still negotiating a development agreement – a contract of sorts that would outline in some detail the requirements under which Santolina can be built. A draft for public review could be available early next week, he said.

The commission on Monday also voted to limit public comment when it resumes deliberations at 1:30 p.m. May 28. On the same 3-2 split, commissioners agreed they won’t take more general public comment.

Opponents of the plan can still speak if they’re a party to one of the remaining three appeals filed in opposition to Santolina.

In an interview, Benavidez called the decision to avoid general comment a “message that they’ve made up their minds.”

The commission heard about four hours of testimony Monday.

The debate focused on a request for approval of a master plan and new zoning for 13,851 acres of undeveloped land southwest of Interstate 40 and 118th Street. It’s owned by Western Albuquerque Land Holdings LLC, a Delware company.

Supporters envision Santolina as a place that, 50 years from now, could be home to 90,000 or more people, rivaling the current size of Rio Rancho.

Approval of the Santolina Master Plan would ensure well-coordinated growth if there’s demand for it and make attracting employers to the West Side easier, they say.

Opponents describe the proposal as an unhealthy “sprawl” development that would sap resources from Albuquerque’s historic neighborhoods. About 50 people gathered for a rally on Civic Plaza before Monday’s hearing, singing and chanting in opposition to Santolina.

Water continued to be a critical part of the debate during Monday’s hearing.

John P. Salazar, an attorney for the Santolina development team, argued against a condition of approval recommended by the County Planning Commission.

The Planning Commission recommended that the county set a limit on how much water Santolina could use when fully built out: about 4.7 billion gallons a year.

Salazar, however, said water-conservation requirements are more appropriately addressed by the city-county water authority, an independent agency that supplies water in the Albuquerque area. It’s governed by a board of three county commissioners, three city councilors and the mayor.

The Santolina owners would have to negotiate a development agreement for water service with the water authority, Salazar said, so it doesn’t make sense for the county to interfere with that process.

“It’s only appropriate for the water authority to determine what should be in its agreement,” Salazar said.

Douglas Meiklejohn, an attorney for SWOP and others opposed to the master plan, argued otherwise, in part, because the county doesn’t make up a majority of the water board.

“The developer is essentially asking you to make a commitment that the county will be bound by an agreement that’s negotiated not by the county, but by the city of Albuquerque,” Meiklejohn said. “That’s inappropriate. You shouldn’t agree to that.”

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