SANTA FE – Mayor Javier Gonzales on Wednesday night found himself in the familiar position of casting the deciding vote on a proposal to build an assisted living facility for seniors at Old Pecos Trail and Calle Sebastian on Santa Fe’s upscale east side. This time, citing the city’s need to begin a healing process after months of debate that he said has divided the town, the mayor voted against the project.
The latest 5-4 City Council vote approves an appeal by the Southeast Neighborhood Association, overturning the Planning Commission’s acceptance of the development plan for the MorningStar Senior Living facility and a special use permit that would have allowed it in a residential neighborhood.
Opponents of the project said the huge facility – planned at two stories tall and with 73,500 square feet – was out of character with the area and would ruin Santa Fe’s most scenic entry along Old Pecos Trail. But councilors favoring the project suggested that not all new development in Santa Fe should be pushed to the less affluent south side.
“It’s time for us to heal,” Gonzales said, adding that the only way for that to happen would be to grant the appeal. He went on to ask the neighbors to keep a door open to the site owner – the Elks Lodge – should it bring forward other proposals for the site. He also cautioned members of the council to choose their words carefully when debating issues so not to create division.
Elks Lodge President Dave Fitzgerald expressed his frustration with what has transpired since the Elks Lodge decided to sell a portion of its property two years ago. “I never dreamed it would be so divisive,” he said, adding that accusations of racism and bias over the past few months have been “humiliating.”
In July – after hearing hours of public comment overwhelmingly opposed to the project – the City Council voted 5-4, with Mayor Gonzales breaking the tie, to approve the development plan, a special use permit that would allow the facility in an area zoned for one residence per acre, and a land split of property owned by the Elks Lodge, which was looking to sell 3.85 acres.
After criticism from some of his own supporters, Gonzales announced a change of heart. He wanted the matter remanded to the Planning Commission, hoping that a compromise could be reached. That didn’t happen, but the council did vote to reconsider the project, again with a 5-4 vote. Gonzales called for representatives of the neighborhood association and MorningStar to mediate, but those talks broke down.
Another point of contention was the city attorney’s office’s interpretation of what constituted a “continuing care community,” which would allow for the special use permit to be issued.
Just as it did in July, the council voted along geographical lines Wednesday. Councilors Patti Bushee, Peter Ives, Signe Lindell and Joseph Maestas, who represent the north and east sides of the city, voted against the project. Councilors Bill Dimas, Carmichael Dominguez, Chris Rivera and Ron Trujillo, who represent the west and south sides, voted against the appeal. Trujillo said he feared the council has setting itself up for a lawsuit by changing its previous vote on the project. “I’m sick and tired of the city being sued,” he said.
“We took a vote, and in my opinion it was a legal vote,” Trujillo said.
The council, while rejecting the MorningStar plan and special permit, did approve the Elks’ requested land split.