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Lawsuit aims to invalidate approval of Santolina

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Opponents of the Santolina Master Plan – the largest ever considered by Bernalillo County – have filed a lawsuit accusing two county commissioners of bias that led to the plan’s approval.

The commissioners, Art De La Cruz and Wayne Johnson, each wrote opinion pieces that were published in the Albuquerque Journal expressing support for the plan before it was adopted.

The opponents argue in their lawsuit that the opinion pieces prove bias by the commissioners that deprived Santolina opponents “of their right to an impartial tribunal and therefore of their right to due process.”

The suit asks a judge to vacate Bernalillo County’s approval of the master plan and new zoning for the land, which covers 22 square miles west of Albuquerque.

De La Cruz and Johnson say they did nothing improper – a contention shared by the county’s Legal Department.

County attorneys advised commissioners repeatedly that consideration of the Santolina Master Plan was a legislative matter, meaning they were free to discuss it publicly. That’s because the plan covered so much land, making it a policy decision to adopt rules for its development.

Santolina was not, county attorneys said, a quasi-judicial proceeding in which commissioners are supposed to act as judges and limit their public comments. The quasi-judicial procedure is more appropriate for smaller decisions focused on, say, one particular piece of property, county attorneys said.

In an interview Monday, Johnson said he had a duty to talk to his constituents about the policy debates in Santolina, just as he would with legislation he sponsors on other topics.

“I am not prohibited as a policymaker or legislator from stating a position on any particular subject,” he said.

The lawsuit focuses on Bernalillo County’s approval last month of a master plan that covers an enormous chunk of land near 118th Street and Interstate 40. The development team envisions it as a place that could, decades from now, be home to 90,000 people, or roughly the size of Rio Rancho today.

Supporters see it as a way to ensure well-coordinated development and attract jobs to the West Side. Opponents say it would strain the local water supply and shift resources away from the rest of the Albuquerque area.

Filing suit to contest the Santolina approval are Javier Benavidez, James Santiago Maestas, Roberto Roibal, the SouthWest Organizing Project, the New Mexico Health Equity Working Group and the Pajarito Village Association.

They say the Santolina approval should have been a quasi-judicial process, based on evidence in the record. Furthermore, they argue, the county failed to cite evidence or analysis that supported some of its conclusions.

They filed the suit about 10 days ago.

Support from De La Cruz and Johnson was critical to Santolina’s passage. The commission approved the master plan 3-2, with Lonnie Talbert joining them in support. Opposed were Maggie Hart Stebbins and Debbie O’Malley.

The commission spent months considering the master plan and new zoning for Santolina during a series of hearings that began in March.

Johnson’s newspaper column was published near the end of the process, in mid-June, a few days before the commission voted to approve the plan.

De La Cruz, meanwhile, wrote his piece just before the hearings started.

The commissioners submitted their columns for possible publication. The Journal didn’t solicit them.

De La Cruz said Monday that his opinion column focused on the importance of planning in general – and planning for the Santolina area, in particular – and didn’t cover the kind of details and conditions that dominated the commission meetings.

Johnson’s column also focused on the importance of planning.

De La Cruz said he didn’t agree “carte blanch” with everything the developer requested.

“I don’t agree with their premise,” he said of the opponents’ bias accusation.

A second lawsuit filed by opponents also is pending. It was filed in late May and centered on one of the county’s early decisions related to Santolina.