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Santolina jumps over final hurdle

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Javier Benavidez, left, and Santiago Maestas attend the County Commission meeting with their mouths taped shut, a protest against public comment not being heard as the Santolina development contract was up for approval. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Javier Benavidez, left, and Santiago Maestas attend the County Commission meeting with their mouths taped shut, a protest against public comment not being heard as the Santolina development contract was up for approval. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

They argued over Robert’s Rules of Order, how to define the word “jobs” and the meaning of a friendly amendment.

But in the end, after 3½ hours of technical and bruising debate, Bernalillo County commissioners narrowly agreed late Wednesday to approve the last key piece of legislation requested by the landowner planning to develop a new community of 90,000 people on the West Side – a project known as Santolina. At full build-out, 50 years from now, it could rival the size of Rio Rancho today.

The commission voted 3-2 in favor of the 16-page contract up for debate Wednesday during a special meeting. The agreement outlines how development may proceed on the 22 square miles covered by the Santolina Master Plan.

But some of Wednesday’s most contentious debate focused on the rules governing how the meeting would proceed.

The commissioners opposing the Santolina agreement accused the majority of trying to limit or silence debate on a development that could shape the future of Albuquerque.

Supporters, in turn, suggested the opponents were “stonewalling” to delay the inevitable.

Commissioners Art De La Cruz, Wayne Johnson and Lonnie Talbert voted in favor of the development agreement. In opposition were Maggie Hart Stebbins and Debbie O’Malley.

Final item

The commission has held about a half dozen hearings on Santolina this spring, though Wednesday’s meeting was dedicated to one last item that hadn’t yet been acted on: a development contract, which outlines the rights and responsibilities of the county and the landowner, including a requirement that the developer create 300 new jobs there before it can build more than 2,000 homes.

“At some point, we can’t continue (extending) the same hearing ad nauseam,” Johnson said.

Hart Stebbins, on the other hand, said she had legitimate questions that ought to be aired in public, based on her review of the document and concerns raised by residents in her central-city district.

“This is a huge development,” Hart Stebbins said. “This is a huge issue for the community, and the development agreement is where the details of the future are outlined.”

The skirmish over rules centered on a move by De La Cruz to impose a 10- or 20-minute time limit on each commissioner’s comments and questions on a particular item.

The time limit never actually came into play, but the idea of limiting debate incensed Hart Stebbins and O’Malley.

“It’s just not reasonable,” O’Malley said. “We’ve never done it before.”

De La Cruz, meanwhile, said opponents were engaging in “micro-dialogue” focusing on each section of the contract, holding things up to make a point instead of asking concrete questions.

Johnson suggested the meeting would have moved more quickly if Hart Stebbins and O’Malley had packaged their concerns into a few big amendments for consideration, rather than proposing a series of smaller amendments.

In any case, much of what Hart Stebbins and O’Malley proposed failed by a 3-2 margin. They generally tried to make the contract more stringent for the developer and more flexible for the county.

One proposal, for example, focused on how to define a job. That’s a critical component of the agreement because the developer is required to create a certain number of jobs – by bringing employers to the West Side – in exchange for permission to build more homes.

The goal is to provide a self-sustaining community where people can live and work in Santolina without adding to the traffic congestion caused by West Side residents commuting to jobs east of the river.

Hart Stebbins and O’Malley favored a more narrow definition of “jobs” – essentially aiming to have them defined as permanent, full-time jobs or as manufacturing jobs that draw new income into the community.

But they failed. The other three commissioners stuck with the broader definition in the agreement, which matches how the Mid-Region Council of Government defines the term. That definition means temporary, construction jobs can count toward the developer’s required targets.

“Any job on the West Side helps keep people on the West Side, not needing to take the bridge to get to the East Side,” said John P. Salazar, an attorney for the landowner, Western Albuquerque Land Holdings. “Every job is important in this community.”

Hart Stebbins said she feared creating a “loophole” in which the jobs might be there on Jan. 1, but not six months later.

Another vigorous debate focused on a clause in the development agreement that says the county won’t support any legislation or policy that interferes with Santolina’s use of water provided by the water authority, unless the use harms the county’s own water service.

Hart Stebbins and O’Malley tried and failed to remove that sentence.

“This clearly ties our hands,” Hart Stebbins said. It’s “a pretty significant restriction on the county as a whole.”

A county attorney, meanwhile, said he saw no harm in the clause. And Salazar said the Santolina owners simply wanted to ensure that they can deal with the water authority on water questions, not both the county and authority.

Moving slowly

No development is expected right away. The Santolina team is now expected to seek water service from the water authority – a utility governed by a panel of county commissioners, city councilors and the mayor.

More approvals will be required by Bernalillo County, too, before construction can begin.

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