June 24, 2015

Commissioners pass Santolina development agreement

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

Bernalillo County commissioners approved the next big step for the Santolina planned community on yet another narrow vote Wednesday afternoon.

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

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

The 3-2 vote came after several heated exchanges between commissioners and accusations that some lawmakers’ actions were stifling debate on the controversial planned development.

The vote continued the familiar allegiances over the issue, with commissioners Wayne Johnson, Lonnie Talbert and Art De La Cruz voting in favor of the Santolina Development Agreement and commissioners Maggie Hart Stebbins and Debbie O’Malley voting against.

Last week, the commission approved both the Santolina Level A master plan and zoning changes for the property. Santolina is proposed to be built on 22 square miles west of Albuquerque over the next 40 to 50 years. At its peak levels, developers project Santolina will house more than 90,000 people. This would put it at population levels comparable to modern day Rio Rancho, the third-largest city in the state by population.

The development agreement, which stipulates how the first phase of Santolina will be built out, totals 20 pages, split into 11 detailed sections. Commissioners spent the hearing voting on proposed amendments to each section, many of which failed on the same 3-2 vote.

One of Hart Stebbins’ amendments that failed on a 3-2 vote, for example, sought to make a certain amount of the jobs Santolina developers have promised “permanent.”

“We’d be very concerned about inserting the word ‘permanent,’” John Salazar, an attorney for Western Albuquerque Land Holdings (WALH), which is behind the project, told commissioners. “We can’t guarantee that we’d keep people there forever.”

In total, WALH has promised that Santolina will bring 75,000 new jobs, or two jobs for every new household.

De La Cruz, who opposed the amendment, said that businesses sometimes have to lay people off, making it difficult to force developers to provide permanent jobs.

“I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a permanent job,” he said. “No one, not even a government employee, has a permanent job.”

A similar amendment by O’Malley that would have required retail jobs to makeup no more than half of the promised total failed on a 2-3 vote.

Yet not all efforts were in vain.

One amendment by Hart Stebbins that required all promised jobs to be located within the boundaries of Santolina passed unanimously.

Other discussions centered around potential future public subsidies for Santolina. Though previous draft developments mentioned that Santolina would seek public money in the build-out phase, the plan approved Wednesday afternoon doesn’t. Developers behind Santolina have been adamant that they won’t seek out public money—at least for now.

The discussion came up when commissioners argued over how the word “job” should be defined in the development agreement.

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

“All we’re saying is going in, we’re not asking for TIDDs,” Salazar told commissioners, referring to Tax Increment Development Districts, a tax mechanism to support economic development projects. “If and when we do, then you get to ask us what are ‘economic base jobs.’”

Later in the hearing, Hart Stebbins unsuccessfully attempted to rid the development agreement of language that said Santolina’s infrastructure could be paid for “from any and all available funding mechanisms.”

“I thought this was code for future TIDDs,” O’Malley said at the hearing.

Salazar, however, argued that this language was “innocuous” to county taxpayers.

At another point in the meeting, De La Cruz attempted to get commissioners to follow rules that would have limited commissioners to speaking on one topic twice for no longer than 10 minutes each. The limits are based on Robert’s Rules of Order, which dictate practices for parliamentary procedure.

“My frustration with the dialogue is that it’s micro-dialogue,” De La Cruz said. “To appear here and micro-dialogue each individual item is unnecessary and burdensome.”

De La Cruz later said that he was concerned some commissioners were “using this as a forum to bolster a point of view.”

Hart Stebbins and O’Malley both took exception, arguing that a proposal of Santolina’s magnitude deserved public scrutiny.

“I’m surprised anyone would object to a discussion,” Hart Stebbins said. “We have to do our due diligence.”

O’Malley said that if she were forced to limit herself to 10 minutes, “I’ll go home and we won’t have a discussion about this.”

While commissioners debated, a handful of community advocates opposed to Santolina sat in the audience with duct tape over their mouths to symbolize what they say has been a lack of community involvement in the approval process.

Commissioners still have to consider two more plans before construction starts on the planned community. These are village plans and building permits, which will both go in front of the same commissioners.

Correction:An earlier version of this story attributed a quote about tax increment development districts made by Maggie Hart Stebbins to Debbie O’Malley. We regret the error. 

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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.