June 16, 2015

ABQ City Council rejects city input on Santolina

Albuquerque city council chambers during a city council hearing in May 2015. Photo Credit: Andy Lyman

The Albuquerque city council narrowly rejected a measure that would have called on the city to weigh in on a controversial planned development on the city’s West Side.

City council chambers during a city council hearing in May 2015. Photo Credit: Andy Lyman

City council chambers during a city council hearing in May 2015.
Photo Credit: Andy Lyman

Councilor Isaac Benton carried the bill Monday night, two weeks after the council rejected his introduction of similar legislation that would have also given the city a say on the Santolina master plan.

Benton said the city had a right to influence the master plan based on the city and county adopted Planned Communities Criteria and the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Comprehensive Plan. But councilors rejected the bill on a 4-3 vote, with two members abstaining because their employers own some land where Santolina is planned to be built.

During the debate on the legislation, Benton stressed that he wasn’t asking for anything drastic.

“We’re not asking for signoff approval,” he said. “We’re not asking for anything other than consultation and input.”

Santolina is proposed to be built out on 22 square miles west of Albuquerque and house up to 90,000 people in the next 40 to 50 years. The master plan currently sits before the Bernalillo County commission for approval, where it is expected to be voted on Tuesday afternoon.

Backers of the master plan disagreed with Benton’s logic behind his bill, arguing that the city had ample time and actually already weighed in on Santolina during the past two years. They also criticized the bill for coming up at the last minute.

“To hear commentary that the city was left in the dark and not involved in this issue is not accurate,” Tom Garrity, a spokesman for Western Albuquerque Land Holdings (WALH), the company behind Santolina, told councilors.

Jim Strozier, president of Consensus Planning and an agent for Santolina, said that the city’s Planning Department, Open Space Division and Transit Department had all submitted feedback on the master plan over the past two years.

He also added that the county has heard nearly 50 hours of public debate on Santolina.

“This is not being fast-tracked,” he said. “It is happening very thoughtfully and deliberately.”

At one point, city Councilor Rey Garduño, a vocal opponent of Santolina, asked Strozier whether he could be impartial about Santolina given his employment by WALH.

“Obviously they are my client,” he said, “and with that I have an obligation to work on their behalf.”

A portion of the proposed sight of the Santolina Master Plan  Photo: Andy Lyman

A portion of the proposed sight of the Santolina Master Plan
Photo: Andy Lyman

But he maintained that his active role in the American Planning Commission—Strozier previously served as chapter president of the urban planning association—meant that he was “ethically obligated” to push forward responsible development plans.

“This is not just a matter of whatever our client wants is going to be the right thing to do,” he said.

Others came to the meeting to show support for Benton’s bill. Southwest Organizing Project Executive Director Javier Benavidez evoked a Martin Luther King quote that “there is never a wrong time to do the right thing.”

“I would argue that it’s not too late in this process since this is a 50-year commitment,” Benavidez said.

Toward the end of debate, Councilor Ken Sanchez asked City Attorney Jessica Hernandez whether she thought the city had any jurisdiction over Santolina.

“I don’t believe the city has any standing to weigh in,” she replied.

Sanchez talked about how the state Legislature recently took away extrajudicial land authority from city governments, which he said prevented the city council from deciding an issue like Santolina.

“I believe there is a process in place and that this is an issue of jurisdiction,” Sanchez said. “I don’t feel this is the right place to be discussing this here at the 11th hour.”

Councilor Dan Lewis, who represents the West Side, added that “we need to put infrastructure and jobs on the West Side that we’re going to need to grow.”

All of this didn’t stop Benton, Garduño and Councilor Diane Gibson from making final pleas to support the legislation. Benton talked about how the master plan would lead to “cannibalization of businesses and people” that would leave older neighborhoods closer to the central part of the city “to go into this new development.”

Garduño was more harsh in his criticism.

“Santolina is sprawl development,” he said. “We should be completely against sprawl development.”

Councilors Sanchez, Lewis, Trudy Jones and Don Harris voted against the bill. Benton, Garduño and Gibson cast the three votes in favor of the bill. Councilors Brad Winter and Klarissa Peña recused themselves because their employers, Albuquerque Public Schools and Youth Development Inc, respectively, own small portions of land that Santolina would be built on.

The Bernalillo County commission will hear and maybe give a final vote on the Santolina master at its Tuesday, June 16 zoning meeting.

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  • Joey Peters

    Joey Peters has been a journalist for nearly a decade. Most recently, his reporting in New Mexico on closed government policies earned several accolades. Peters has also worked as a reporter in Washington DC and the Twin Cities. Contact him by phone at (505) 226-3197.