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More appeals by Santolina opponents voted down

County Commissioners Debbie O’Malley, left, and Art De La Cruz hear from constituents during the commission meeting Thursday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

County Commissioners Debbie O’Malley, left, and Art De La Cruz hear from constituents during the commission meeting Thursday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Amid shouting and tears, Bernalillo County commissioners narrowly rejected three appeals late Thursday filed by opponents of the Santolina Master Plan.

The chaotic votes, one right after the other, came as dozens of opponents gathered in the aisles of the meeting chambers in Downtown Albuquerque.

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“Shame! Shame!” they shouted as the commissioners continued to vote.

“Corruption,” someone yelled from the back.

The chaos came at the end of a six-hour hearing on the Santolina Master Plan – a proposal that would establish new zoning and guide development on 22 square miles atop the West Mesa.

Opponents describe it as sprawl development that would sap resources from the rest of Albuquerque and strain the water supply.

Supporters say it would provide for well-coordinated growth and make it easier to attract employers to the West Side.

The commission has now – on a series of 3-2 votes – rejected all four appeals filed by opponents of the plan. But they have not yet acted on the plan itself or a development agreement that would serve as a contract between the county and Santolina’s property owner.

A hearing on those items is scheduled June 16.

Kelly O’Donnell, speaking for the South Valley Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, tells the county commissioners that Santolina opponents are concerned about the lack of economic development to come from the project. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Kelly O’Donnell, speaking for the South Valley Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, tells the county commissioners that Santolina opponents are concerned about the lack of economic development to come from the project. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Meeting disrupted

Thursday’s hearing came to a halt just as commissioners were wrapping up hours of testimony and preparing to vote on the appeals filed by opponents.

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South Valley resident Virginia Necochea, surrounded by her children, walked to the front of the chambers and began to read a statement, with tears in her eyes. Other Santolina opponents gathered around her.

“You have chosen to stand on the wrong side of history,” she told commissioners.

County staff members intervened and tried to get her to sit down. Commissioners, at first, just watched, then briefly recessed the meeting.

“We cannot allow this proceeding to go forward when the public will not obey our rules,” Commissioner Wayne Johnson said.

After a few minutes, the commission resumed its meeting, even as Necochea and others stood in the aisles or tried to approach the dais.

Art De La Cruz, Lonnie Talbert and Johnson stuck together to vote down each of the appeals.

Maggie Hart Stebbins and Debbie O’Malley opposed the denials and asked to postpone a decision for now.

Johnson, in any case, said he hoped people would behave better when the commission meets again next month.

In an interview, Necochea said she didn’t take her action lightly.

“It was symbolic of the frustration with the entire process and blatant lack of respect shown to our families and community,” she said.

New challenges

Two other challenges to the Santolina Master Plan emerged Thursday – a lawsuit filed by opponents of the proposal and an objection by Isleta Pueblo over “lack of water available.”

The legal action centers on the commission’s rejection earlier this month of an appeal filed by the SouthWest Organizing Project and other opponents of Santolina.

The group has filed a petition in state District Court seeking to vacate the commission’s dismissal of their appeal. They say the commission prematurely denied their appeal and didn’t state any reasons for the decision.

County Attorney Randy Autio said he disagrees with the appeal and “we’ll address their arguments in court.”

Isleta Pueblo also lodged an objection Thursday. The pueblo, which lies just south of Albuquerque, along the Rio Grande, asked the commission to consult with its leaders on a “government to government basis” about Santolina, according to a letter submitted to commissioners.

The Santolina plan “will drain aquifers and de-water wells upon which we all rely, compounding the future water shortages we already face,” Isleta Gov. E. Paul Torres said in the letter.

Water use has emerged as one of the key objections to the Santolina Master Plan.

The development team seeking approval of the plan, however, says those concerns are better addressed by the water authority, a public utility that would provide the water. Santolina would have to negotiate an agreement with the authority to get service.

The authority is governed by a board of county commissioners, city councilors and the mayor.

John P. Salazar, an attorney for the Santolina property owner, said the development won’t increase demand for water. It’s simply a place to accommodate population growth, which has to happen somewhere, he said.

“Santolina is not causing the problem here,” he told commissioners Thursday.

“We’re going to have growth,” much of it simply as residents already here have children, Salazar said.

Regardless, he said, the development is committed to serving as “good stewards of this community’s water supply” through conservation, low-flow fixtures and other measures.

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