SANTA FE, N.M. — First, a proposal to build the 399-unit El Rio apartment complex on Agua Fria Street near Frenchy’s Field was shot down by the City Council amid an uproar generated by what one affordable housing advocate labeled “an angry mob.”
Then, a proposal to build an 84-unit assisted care facility for seniors along Old Pecos Trail turned into what one city councilor described as a “dog and pony show” and another called a “circus,” with the council first approving the MorningStar project, then backtracking and rejecting it while taking a half dozen votes at one meeting alone in a failed effort to have the proposal sent back to the Planning Commission.
The year ended with the City Council turning down a proposed 240-unit apartment complex on South Meadows Road, off Airport Road not far from the N.M. 599 interchange on the south side of town, where opponents say all the city’s growth is being pushed.
The three proposals each turned emotionally charged and divisive, and went down even while city leaders recognize that Santa Fe has an affordable housing problem and an apartment shortage.
A new idea now going through the council’s committee process aims to change the way the city handles proposals for new developments, adopting a model used in Albuquerque. The resolution introduced by City Councilor Patti Bushee requests staff “to develop a Land Use Facilitation Program based on the highly successful Albuquerque model.”
Her proposal passed through the council Public Works Committee without discussion on Monday. It’s scheduled to be heard by the Planning Commission and the council Finance Committee next month, and could come before the City Council as soon as its Feb. 24 meeting.
Had it been in place in Santa Fe when the El Rio, MorningStar and South Meadows projects where first brought forward, would it have made a difference?
“I think so,” says Philip Crump, a professional mediator and facilitator who has plied his trade under the Albuquerque model and seen good results. Under the system, he says 80 percent of proposed projects go to the Duke City’s Planning Commission unopposed.
The model integrates neighborhood associations into the process early on. After an application is made, it goes through a screening process by the Land Use Department to determine whether the proposal should be referred to a facilitator. About 30 percent of them are, Crump said.
Many times, a developer – recognizing that a proposal is potentially controversial – will ask that it be referred to a facilitator. Once it is, all neighborhood associations deemed to be affected by the proposal, sometimes a half dozen or so, are contacted and a meeting is organized between the neighborhood groups and the developer.
Crump said the sides come to an early understanding of what both the developer wants to do and what the neighborhoods would like to see the developer do with the parcel in question.
After that meeting, the facilitator submits a report outlining what was discussed and the concerns raised that is included in the packet for the planning commission meeting. “This process gives citizens a strong voice,” Crump said. “For developers, it lets them know what’s going on with neighborhoods early in the game before they spend a lot of money on design. And, for the City Council, it saves them time and money.”
Creating win-win-win situations?
Former City Councilor Karen Heldmeyer has advocated for a facilitation program while watching Santa Fe’s recent development proposals, particularly El Rio and MorningStar, turn ugly.
“If you have a piece of land that is potentially developable, but haven’t done anything with it, a developer can come in and have meetings with the neighborhood and talk about what would be good for the developer and what would be good for the neighborhood,” she said, adding that the process works well in historic districts and in-fill areas. “Rather than (developers) coming in with a full-blown plan, what you do is try to work out something that sounds feasible.”
Currently, the process in Santa Fe starts with an Early Neighborhood Notification (ENN) meeting. Often, the meeting is run by the developer or its agent, which presents the plan for the parcel and gets feedback from whoever might show up for the meeting.
In the case of El Rio and MorningStar, the developers already had their plan – and spent a significant amount of money creating it – before neighboring residents had an opportunity to provide input. In Albuquerque, the input comes earlier.
“It’s really helpful to everybody,” Heldmeyer said. “It’s helpful to the city, because they get that development and the economic benefit, and it comes without the huge uproar and legal issues that might arise.”
Tyson Hummell is an assistant city attorney in Albuquerque and serves as the Alternative Dispute Resolution coordinator. “Litigation is oftentimes the result of these kinds of conflicts, and they become expensive and time consuming,” he said.
Typically, a land use case will be locked up in the courts for between 18 and 24 months, costing the city money and delaying any progress, he said. “Our turn-around time is about 21 days,” Hummell said.
The system in Albuquerque saves the developer time and money, too.
“Oftentimes, when it’s early in the process, it’s still economically feasible to make changes,” he said. “But if it gets to the hearing stage, a lot of time and money has already gone into it. To make substantial adjustments at that point, you end up at an impasse.”
Hummell said the Albuquerque model is really a proactive approach the parties are more willing to accept.
“The solutions feel better to the participants, because they craft them themselves. They are creating their own acceptable outcomes,” he said.
While Albuquerque has had its program in place for more than 20 years, Hummell said more cities across the country are beginning to adopt their own facilitation programs. In recent months, cities like Aurora, Colo., Cleveland and Pittsburgh have contacted them about their program. “I’m happy for Santa Fe that they are looking into this and might be able to realize the same kind of cost savings and efficiency,” he said.
Santa Fe has tried something similar before.
A 2001 resolution led to the development of a Facilitator In-fill Pilot Project and Crump won the bid to serve as facilitator. He says that, in 2003, he facilitated a mixed-use development proposal he declined to name. It worked well. The developer met with neighborhood groups.
They agreed to the developer’s proposal under one condition. That condition was met. The proposal was approved by the City Council. But the project never got built, he said, because, in the end, the developer couldn’t put together the financing.
After that, “it went into a black hole,” says Councilor Bushee, who is attempting to revive the program.
“After what took place with El Rio, we realized the process wasn’t working,” she said. “We discussed the ENN and what they were doing in Albuquerque, and borrowed from them.”
If at first you don’t succeed …
Bushee said that, after the El Rio development was turned down, she had lunch with the owners of Tierra Concepts, whose subsidiary, Blue Buffalo LLC, brought the proposal forward. One of the things that went wrong, they decided, was that, once the plan was in the pipeline, it got stuck.
“They didn’t even have the opportunity to take it back to the Planning Commission once they realized the neighbors’ concerns. They had nowhere to go other than the council,” she said.
According to her resolution, land use applications can generally provoke concerns in four categories: as in-fill projects, with issues of population density, size and height of the development, and traffic flow; projects offering certain services, such as businesses seeking liquor licenses or offering adult services and assisted living programs; projects that affect infrastructure systems, such as transportation, water, sewer and drainage; and overall compatibility with the surrounding area.
The El Rio and MorningStar projects were rejected in part over concerns of population density, traffic and compatibility with the neighborhood. South Meadows was turned down for those same reasons and because some councilors said it wasn’t fair that all the new high-density housing developments were occurring on the south side.
Bushee countered concerns that the program would add another layer of bureaucracy to a development application process that has been criticized as being bound by too much red tape. “This shouldn’t be a big burden,” she said, adding that utilizing a facilitator would still be voluntary. “It’s an inexpensive option that provides a lot of opportunity for folks to sit down for a greater meeting of the minds to discuss how to work things out with neighbors.”
It’s unclear at this point who would pay for the facilitator. In Albuquerque, a small fee is added to every land use application, whether a facilitator is required or not. When a facilitator is used, the fee is paid out of that fund.
Some have suggested that the facilitation could be handled out of the land use office. Crump says that’s not a good idea. It should be a neutral party with no stake in the game, he said. “Let professionals handle it,” said Crump, who has been mediating since 1998. “Let the planners plan and the facilitators facilitate.”
Santa Fe Land Use Director Lisa Martinez on Thursday did not respond to phone calls and an email message seeking her thoughts on the proposal.
No one can say for sure if Santa Fe’s City Council would have rejected the three proposals last year had Albuquerque’s model been in place, but the debate surrounding them would likely have been a lot less divisive. In the middle of the MorningStar debate, Mayor Javier Gonzales grieved over how the decisions seemed to divide the town and led to disturbing rhetoric about “rich east siders” and “corrupt Hispanic cronies.”
Crump said the facilitation program is designed to be a cooperative effort between parties.
“The purpose is to bring people together, not push them apart,” he said.
Crump says the program used in Albuquerque is not perfect, but it works well enough that there’s not a “panicked reaction” from the public to development proposals, and the proposals ultimately come forward in a more organized fashion.
“When people engage in a neutral and respectful forum, they can solve a lot of their problems,” he said.