June 16, 2015

Santolina master plan approved; legal challenges ahead

The Bernalillo County Commission narrowly approved the first steps of a massive planned development early Tuesday evening, prompting promises of legal challenges from opponents.

Bernalillo County Commissioners during a hearing on Santolina Photo Credit: Andy Lyman

Bernalillo County Commissioners during a hearing on Santolina
Photo Credit: Andy Lyman

On a 3-2 vote, commissioners approved the Level A master plan for Santolina, a planned community proposed on Albuquerque’s West Side that would cover 22 square miles. The proposed community is projected to house 90,000 people within the next four to five decades. The commission also approved zoning rules for the development plan.

Commissioners Wayne Johnson, Art De La Cruz and Lonnie Talbert voted in favor of both measures. Voting against were commissioners Maggie Hart Stebbins and Debbie O’Malley.

The votes mark the largest development ever approved by the county commission. Developers behind the project released a short statement following the vote:

After nearly two years of meetings and public hearings the development team is pleased to have approval on the Santolina Level A Master Plan. Two independent government entities are forecasting growth in excess of 300,000 new residents over the next 30-40 years. Santolina is only accommodating that growth, not generating it. Santolina will complement existing master plan communities and in-fill. Today’s approval is just one step of the detailed planned communities criteria. We are pleased to be taking next steps.

Yet a coalition of advocacy groups opposing the Santolina development promise to challenge the county’s actions. Javier Benavidez, executive director of the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP), told reporters that the county commission’s shaky process of approving the project opens up many legal challenges.

“It’s definitely not the end of the road,” Benavidez said.

Legal challenges ahead

In fact, one lawsuit has already been filed. The suit, filed late in May on behalf of SWOP, the New Mexico Health Equity Working Group and the Pajarito Village Association, centers around the county commission’s earlier rejection of a legal appeal filed by the same coalition of advocacy groups.

That lawsuit argues that the commission denied the appeal without a stated reason and without giving it a proper debate. Other challenges are bound to come up.

During public hearing Tuesday, attorney Douglas Meiklejohn, who represents SWOP, asked for Johnson to recuse himself from the vote for writing an op-ed in favor of Santolina in the Albuquerque Journal.

DSC_0263Previously, Meiklejohn had asked De La Cruz to recuse himself for writing a similar op-ed.

These moves were based on an argument that the Santolina decision was being made quasi-judicially, which would require decisionmakers to remain as impartial as possible on a subject on which they would vote. Yet county attorneys opined that the Santolina votes were legislative, and therefore commissioners could make public statements supporting or opposing the project.

In both instances, both commissioners refused to recuse themselves. At Tuesday’s hearing, Meiklejohn hinted that this would be challenged legally.

“We believe it is quasi-judicial,” Meiklejohn said, “and ultimately that will be determined by a court.”

Tuesday’s votes came after roughly five hours of debate. At the beginning of the meeting, a crowd of community advocates opposing the development plan made up roughly half of the people in the meeting. Each wore yellow T-Shirts with phrases like “Santolina WTF = What’s the Future?” and the words “Zombie Zone Santolina” circling a cartoon zombie.

But by the lengthy meeting’s end, many had left.

Early in the hearing, Hart Stebbins made a motion to move public comment to the beginning to accommodate the members of the public who showed up, which failed on a 2-3 vote (with Hart Stebbins and O’Malley casting the votes in favor).

Questions of what’s a job

Throughout the hearing, Hart Stebbins and O’Malley attempted to get Santolina developers’ job promises written as part of the master plan. Developers have promised that Santolina will bring 75,000 jobs with it.

Hart Stebbins made a motion to make all of those jobs be full-time or full-time equivalent adding up to at least 35 hours a week, all within the boundaries of Santolina. At one point, a debate ensued over whether these promised jobs should include construction jobs. Hart Stebbins argued these jobs shouldn’t count because they’re temporary.

O’Malley argued that Santolina’s original 75,000 job analysis didn’t include construction jobs.

“I don’t believe that that was quite frankly the intent and the way this was marketed,” she said.

John Salazar, an attorney for Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, which is behind Santolina, argued that construction jobs are “good jobs, high-paying jobs.”

DSC_0267“This is a 50-year project,” he said. “It’s conceivable that somebody could work their whole life building Santolina.”

In the end, Hart Stebbins’ amendment failed on a 1-4 vote. The failure wasn’t lost on Juan Reynosa, an organizer with SWOP.

“Some of these job claims they make they’re backing out on right now, because they know they’ll never meet their 2:1 jobs ratio,” Reynosa said, referring to the promise of one job for every two Santolina residents.

Public money?

The commission did, however approve an amendment to the master plan that blocks the county from committing subsidies for paying for Santolina’s build-out. An early draft development of Santolina requested subsidies for this purpose.

Santolina developers have since said they do not plan on using any public funding.

Commissioners still have yet to approve Santolina’s development agreement, a much more detailed contractual agreement between the county and developers to build out the planned community’s first phase.

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