ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Bernalillo County commissioners narrowly agreed late Tuesday to adopt the Santolina Master Plan – the largest plan of its kind ever considered by the county – after months of contentious hearings.
The plan establishes zoning and other regulations intended to guide development on 22 square miles atop the West Mesa, near 118th and Interstate 40.
The development team envisions Santolina as a “self-sustaining” community that might someday be home to 90,000 people, rivaling the size of Rio Rancho today. Supporters say approval of the master plan will make it easier to attract employers to the West Side, an area desperate for jobs.
Opponents say the development would strain the water supply and shift resources away from the heart of Albuquerque’s metropolitan area. They arrived at one meeting this year after riding tractors through Downtown, a move intended to highlight the concerns of farmers and irrigators. One woman on Tuesday raised ears of corn and held them above her head for about 20 minutes as commissioners debated and approved the master plan.
The commission voted 3-2 in favor of the master plan and new zoning for the land. In favor were Art De La Cruz, Wayne Johnson and Lonnie Talbert.
De La Cruz, whose district includes the South Valley, argued against criticism that Santolina amounts to sprawl development. He said it took him about eight minutes to drive from Downtown Albuquerque to the site.
“The reality is, that’s abutting against the city of Albuquerque,” De La Cruz said of the master plan.
Voting “no” were Maggie Hart Stebbins and Debbie O’Malley.
Hart Stebbins and O’Malley did succeed in toughening some of the conditions of approval.
The commission, for example, unanimously agreed to add a condition that says the master-plan approval doesn’t commit the county in any way to providing public financing or subsidies for the development.
Commissioners also adopted another condition requiring that the Santolina landowners provide a plan for attaining their targets for job creation. Santolina representatives say they plan to bring 75,000 jobs to the West Side, or roughly two jobs for every home within the development.
Some proposals for more stringent language failed.
A move by Hart Stebbins to limit what kinds of jobs would qualify toward the employment target failed.
Also rejected was a proposal from O’Malley, who sought to make “water reuse and recycling an integral part of the water strategy” for Santolina.
A majority of commissioners said it was more appropriate for the local water authority – a joint panel of city councilors, county commissioners and the Albuquerque mayor – to decide on water conservation measures.
The commission’s debate and action came in front of about 200 audience members, including neighborhood leaders, activists, county staff and consultants for the Santolina landowners.
Opponents of the master plan, making up perhaps half the audience or more, wore bright yellow shirts – some with the word “denied” stamped in red over Santolina.
There were some tense moments during public testimony. At one point, a pair of sheriff’s deputies flanked the speaker’s podium when a woman kept speaking after her two minutes were up. She left voluntarily.
In any case, debate over Santolina isn’t over.
The commission has a third proposal to consider – a development agreement that outlines specific requirements for the property owner, Western Albuquerque Land Holdings LLC, a Delaware company. Barclays Capital Real Estate is listed in state records as the manager of WAHL.
The agreement is scheduled for consideration June 24.
Development of Santolina still appears a long way off.
The landowners must win approval of more detailed plans before they can get a permit to start building anything, a process that may take several years. They have also said that market conditions – the demand to live and work in Santolina – will shape how quickly it’s built out, which could take 50 years.
“Santolina is only accommodating that growth, not generating it,” the development team said in a written statement. “Santolina will complement existing master plan communities and in-fill.”
Javier Benavidez of the SouthWest Organizing Project, an advocacy group opposed to the master plan, said opponents will fight the county’s decision in court.
“It commits us to a pattern of development we’ve seen fail around this country,” he said.