When it comes to divisive central New Mexico land development issues, the planned community of Santolina gets all the attention.
But other projects to expand Albuquerque’s West Side are also quietly moving forward.
Tucked in the many provisions included in this year’s reauthorization of previous year’s capital outlay projects is an extension of a bypass road west of Albuquerque.
Currently, the Paseo del Volcan bypass extends from Unser Boulevard to Highway 550 in Rio Rancho. This year, the state Legislature approved funds to purchase right of way for the unfinished portion of Paseo del Volcan from Unser Boulevard to Interstate 40.
The extension, explains Rodey Law Firm attorney Dick Minzner, would connect the Duke City’s developing West Side much like the eastern part of the city is already connected.
“There are many, many north-south routes on the east side of the river that provide access to the freeway,” said Minzner, who lobbied during this year’s legislative session for Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, which supports the bypass. “There is basically nothing that will handle major amounts of traffic on the west side of the river.”
But Minzner also says the bypass is largely for residential and commercial development of Albuquerque’s West Side. These plans are being opposed by a coalition of activists and advocates from around the region.
His argument is that these developments are about jobs.
“We are trying to open up land on the West Side that will be available for economic development opportunities,” he said. “That access route serves a very, very useful purpose.”
Santolina, other proposed developments
Proposed developments on Albuquerque’s West Side include the controversial Santolina master plan, a 13,700-acre planned community that’s led to vocal opposition.
Indeed, many of the same lobbyists pushing for the Paseo del Volcan bypass extension this year are also pushing for the Santolina development.
On Jan. 26, just days into the session, representatives for various proposed development projects spoke at a “West Side legislator meeting.” At the meeting, legislators heard pitches about master plans for Santolina, a planned community by Del Webb as well as the Paseo del Volcan extension.
Names listed on a document from the meeting linked to Paseo del Volcan include Minzner, lobbyist Vanessa Alarid, Consensus Planning Principal Jim Strozier and Rodey Law Firm attorney John Salazar, all of whom are also supporters of the Santolina project.
Western Albuquerque Land Holdings also serves as Santolina’s ownership company.
But the meeting wasn’t limited to discussion of Santolina and Paseo del Volcan.
One of the maps provided during the meeting also projects future planned communities named Estrella and Del Rio, both of which would be located across the freeway from Santolina.
“I think there’s a link,” state Rep. Andres Romero, D-Albuquerque, said of the Paseo del Volcan expansion and development plans like Santolina in an interview with New Mexico Political Report.
Alarid, a consultant for Garrett Development Corporation, maintains that linking both projects together is tantamount to “misinformation.” She notes that plans for the complete Paseo del Volcan bypass date back more than 20 years. The environmental impact statement for the bypass came years later in the early 2000s, still “way before Santolina had been discussed,” Alarid said.
“A lot of people don’t know that this all started in 1991,” she said.
Population growth, water concerns
The fact that developers would target Albuquerque’s West Side should come as no surprise. Land north of the city is controlled by pueblos while the Sandia Mountains block any potential for development to the east.
But many farmers and residents entitled to acequias and holding senior water rights in the city’s South Valley are worried about how such development could impact their future water use.
Others criticize the development plans as unsustainable urban sprawl.
During this year’s legislative session, Romero, whose district includes parts of the South Valley, was one of more than two dozen state representatives who opposed a memorial expressing the importance of completing construction of the bypass.
Romero said he opposed the memorial, which is symbolic and isn’t required to be enforced, over his concern with the Santolina project. Many of his constituents, he said, don’t buy the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority’s assertion that there is enough water for the planned community, which developers project could house up to nearly 93,000 people.
“That’s largely the concern with something like this in a city and state where water is scarce,” Romero said.
Romero added that he’s skeptical of projected population growth in the area.
The estimated number of 93,000 residents for Santolina comes from a 2014 fiscal analysis by David Taussig & Associates on behalf of Western Albuquerque Land Holdings. Alternative projections prepared by New Mexico economist Kelly O’Donnell, who served as a deputy cabinet secretary of the Economic Development Department in Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration, came to a different conclusion.
“In reality, New Mexico is experiencing net out-migration of working age adults,” O’Donnell wrote in her report last fall, “due, in large part, to an economy that cannot sustain enough good jobs to keep them here.”
Specifically, she cites statistics from University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research that predict that half of the state’s population will be either over 65 or under 18 by 2030.
Regardless, projected population growth is a major talking point that Alarid stresses shows the need for the highway expansion.
“I am personally a Westsider,” Alarid said. “We have a jobs-to-housing discrepancy. People are having to travel across the river to go to work.”
Just two jobs exist on the West Side for every seven area residents, according to Garrett Development.
Previous build-out of Paseo del Volcan helped provide $490 million in economic development over a seven-mile stretch in Rio Rancho, according to Alarid, that included branches of Central New Mexico Community College and the University of New Mexico Medical Center.
Others are skeptical of these types of promises.
Land grant hurdle
Jerome Padilla, president of the board of trustees of the Town of Atrisco Land Grant-Merced, claims that the bypass expansion would illegally run through Atrisco’s land grant because his board needs to approve it first.
“The problem is that they have not communicated it to the Town of Atrisco Land Grant,” Padilla said of the bypass extension right of way purchases approved by state legislators.
Padilla also questions the necessity of spending of $91.2 million on the highway, which the state’s fiscal analysis report says full construction of the expansion will cost.
“Why they are diverting $91 million way out in the boonies for a road where nobody lives only to purpose a selfish investor who has taken illegal control from the land grant?” Padilla asked.
Instead, Padilla said he’d rather see the money diverted to fixing existing infrastructure within the city.
Padilla’s claim that Atrisco owns land that the Paseo del Volcan bypass is proposed to expand into “is just wrong,” according to Minzner.
“They have a theory that land grants can’t sell land other than through a process that no one in the state has followed,” Minzner said.
Minzner cited a 1969 New Mexico Supreme Court case that affirmed the transfer of the land grant to Westland Development Company.
Two years earlier, more than 1,000 heirs and owners of the Atrisco land grant met to change the legal status of the land grant to a domestic stock corporation, which would give the land grant more leeway to sell land to commercial interests.
The land then became the property of Westland Development Company, which subsequently sold off the land that Atrisco had owned to development interests.
The heirs and owners approved the change of the land grant to this new status by a narrow 583 to 528 vote. Yet the board of trustees of Atrisco challenged this vote in court, arguing that it violated the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution and Article II of the New Mexico Constitution.
The high court ruling struck down the Trustees’ arguments.
Minzner argues that the precedent of this ruling makes Padilla’s arguments obsolete. Padilla, however, maintains that Atrisco’s trustees believe they still hold entitlement to the land, asserting that the Atrisco Land Grant boundaries “can’t be changed.”
The possibility of a lawsuit remains open.
“We will look to our legal team and decide what we have to do,” Padilla said.
But it could be a while before that happens.
Population growth ‘40 to 50 years out’
Although 34 state representatives and senators asked for $3 million to be spent on the Paseo del Volcan expansion in this year’s capital outlay, the bill to fund new infrastructure projects failed to pass before the end of the session.
Still, a separate capital outlay reauthorization bill was approved by the Legislature and signed into law earlier this month by Gov. Susana Martinez. It diverts $1 million to the bypass expansion.
That’s a mere fraction of the project’s total $91 million estimated cost, a price tag that will be split between federal and local governments as well as private interests like Garrett Development and Quail Ranch, according to Alarid.
But whether there’s currently enough money in the bank to make the highway expansion shovel-ready is another question.
“Plan and design of a major highway usually takes 10 percent of the cost to move forward,” said Linda Kehoe, an analysis for the state Legislative Finance Committee. “There’s certainly a lot of work to be done.”
Regardless, proponents are anxious to get started.
“It’s time to get moving on this after 15 years of inaction,” Minzner said.
Indeed, even if the project moves forward quickly, the likelihood of immediate development springing up in the area is close to nil. In an interview conducted earlier this month, Western Albuquerque Land Holdings attorney John Salazar told New Mexico Political Report that development of the Santolina project is very much looking to accommodate population growth “40 to 50 years out.”
“For the development to be successful, we do need a mix of uses,” Salazar said. “So the developer is going to be very actively engaged in trying to get employment-generating uses on that land. Because if you think about it, one, then they can sell the land on which those jobs are located, but secondly, if there’s jobs there then there will be a demand for the housing nearby.”
The idea of private interests commercializing the land and selling it off for more than they purchased it for is something that makes Juan Reynosa, a field organizer for Southwest Organizing Project, cringe.
“They want to use taxpayer dollars to develop that land and sell it,” Reynosa said.
A draft development plan for Santolina from last year states that “it is contemplated that Tax Increment Development Districts (‘TIDDs’) and Property Improvement Districts (‘PIDs’) will be formed within the boundaries of the Project.”
In other words, that means additional taxes “will be required to complete the construction” of Santolina.
The Bernalillo County Commission, which still needs to approve Santolina, is set to discuss the topic at its May 11 meeting.
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