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Neighborhood still waiting for city water – 16 years later

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

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Phil Montoya has lived in the far North Edith Boulevard neighborhood nearly 60 years. Residents want city sewer and water access, but can’t get it because of an easement battle. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

When it rains, even moderately hard, the yards in a little enclave off Far North Edith next to Sandia Pueblo swell with water, which wouldn’t be a major problem except the residents’ aging septic tanks are at risk of filling and overflowing into the ground around their drinking wells.a00_jd_10sept_neighborhood-services

For the last 16 years, residents in this Bernalillo County neighborhood have been fighting to hook up to the city’s sewer and water system, and money was even allotted for the $3.5 million project in 2002.

But a small part of the project crosses a 2,000-foot stretch of Edith Boulevard that is owned by Sandia Pueblo, which has so far refused to grant an easement.

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Ultimately, the Bureau of Indian Affairs must approve the easement for the sewer project. It denies ever hearing of the project – despite county staff reporting that they’ve personally handed documents to BIA staff regarding the easement.

Still, the county is attempting – again – to work with the agencies, including a conversation to possibly provide a new fire station and staff for the pueblo.

Longtime enclave resident Phil Montoya says he doesn’t care how it gets done, but it is time for the more than 60 residents in the neighborhood abutting the pueblo, many of whom are members of the pueblo, to finally get hooked up to sewer and water lines.

“It’s been 15, 20 years working on this. They (county officials) basically gave us their word that by May of 2015, we would have city water and city sewer,” Montoya said.

Project resurrected

The county started working on the project in 2002, but the pueblo leadership at the time (it changes after January elections each year) would not grant an easement, according to county documents and Deputy County Manager Roger Paul.

So the county used about $500,000 from the initial funding to build some drainage in the area instead and spent the rest on other projects in the county.

North Edith Corridor Neighborhood Association President Bob Warritz said that after that first failure, the project would resurface every once in a while, but the county was never able to secure the easement – or the funding.

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But in 2014, new county leadership and attention from Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, resurrected the project with a promise of funding.

With new hope, Paul said the county restarted negotiations with Sandia for the easement. “Knowing that the reason the 2002 effort died was because of the road (easement), we started immediately discussing with the pueblo and BIA,” he said.

The pueblo has declined several requests for comment.

“Per the Pueblo’s directive, we cannot give a comment. We appreciate you reaching out and bringing this to our attention,” Shannon Parkinson, tribal administration manager, said in an email.

County Commissioner Lonnie Talbert said he feels that the pueblo supports the easement and that permission is stalled with the BIA.

The BIA says it has never worked on the project. “Currently this is a matter between the county and the pueblo. Our BIA Southwest Regional office confirmed they have not been presented with any documents regarding this matter,” said Nedra Darling in an email from her office in Washington, D.C.

But officials involved in negotiations told the Journal that the BIA has physically received documents related to the project.

It isn’t clear why the agencies disagree about their communication regarding the project, and local BIA officials were not permitted to answer questions for this story.

But the miscommunication doesn’t stop there.

“Since I was first elected in 2014, I have received numerous inquiries regarding this project from concerned and frustrated residents because the project had been delayed for years, and they had received confusing and inconsistent reasons for the delay from the County and Pueblo,” Maestas Barnes said in an email. “I have organized several meetings to bring the key stakeholders together and to try to find a pathway to completion; however, I have also received inconsistent responses.”

Montoya, who has lived in the enclave for nearly 60 years, is also confused, but he’s not quick to lay blame on the pueblo.

“They (the county) promise, then they say they don’t have the money. Then they say the Indians won’t give them the easement,” Montoya said.

In 2014, the county approved a $3.5 million sewer and water project for the area, but it has only secured about $1 million so far. It has its eye on another $1.5 million from bonds on the November ballot. Maestas Barnes said there are also some grants available possibly along with capital outlay funds.

New negotiations

Ken Martinez, former House speaker and county attorney since December 2015, is in negotiation with Sandia about the easement and about a new arrangement for how the county provides fire and EMS service to portions of the pueblo.

Martinez and Deputy County Manager for Public Safety Greg Perez said the negotiations are separate, but one county official told the Journal that draft easement documents show that fire and EMS services are an element of the sewer negotiations.

The county already provides EMS and fire service to the pueblo’s casino, to a portion of the reservation just north of the county line and to Roy Road, which runs through pueblo land, Perez said.

But unlike the county’s similar arrangement with the village of Los Ranchos, which reimburses the county for fire and police service, Sandia does not reimburse the county.

Martinez said details of new fire and EMS arrangement aren’t clear yet, but he said there are several options for cost splitting on staffing and possibly a new fire station on pueblo land.

“We don’t want to overtax anybody, but we always want to work together. It would be a joint operation, so we’d have to work all that out,” Martinez said. “It would have to be a win-win for both sides.”

Perez said the county has been in negotiation with the pueblo for about five years over the fire and EMS arrangement.

“There is some interest in building a public safety center and having the county run the fire department, kind of like we do in Los Ranchos,” he said. “We have a solid relationship with Sandia, and we are in no way looking for anything adversarial.”

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