While the Bernalillo County Commission recently approved three large measures advancing the Santolina planned development, opponents aren’t giving up.
Currently two lawsuits sit before the Second Judicial District Court seeking to reverse the decisions made by the commission on May and June.
The most recent suit—filed at the end of June on behalf of three individuals, the SouthWest Organizing Project, the New Mexico Health Equity Working Group and the Pajarito Village Association—challenges the process in which commissioners approved zoning changes for Santolina.
Santolina is proposed to be built on 22 square miles of land on Albuquerque’s West Side and house up to 90,000 within the next four to five decades. Specifically, the suit cites two pro-Santolina op-eds written in the Albuquerque Journal by commissioners Art De La Cruz and Wayne Johnson before they took several votes in favor of the development.
De La Cruz’ op-ed, which sought to counter arguments that Santolina will suck dry the county’s scarce water resources and significantly add to the area’s problems of urban sprawl, published back in March, before he casted votes in favor of Santolina’s master plan, zoning changes and development plan.
“Because growth is inevitable, I consider Santolina to be appropriate progress for our county because we will determine what the development will ultimately become,” he wrote.
Johnson’s op-ed, published on June 14, also came just before he voted in favor of the three key measures.
“If you’re concerned about water and sprawl, the Santolina Master Plan provides a more attractive alternative to piecemeal development,” Johnson wrote.
Both commissioners also voted against legal appeals by the same coalition of nonprofits behind the lawsuit. Because these were legal challenges, the lawsuit argues that the commissioners’ decisions were quasi-judicial, which would bar them from showing public bias toward or against a proposal they’re deciding.
In De La Cruz’ case, the lawsuit argues that he “made up his mind before he heard any evidence” presented in public hearings over Santolina. Likewise, Johnson also “clearly prejudged the proposed Santolina development before the conclusion of public hearings.”
During hearings before the votes, attorney Douglas Meiklejohn asked De La Cruz and Johnson to recuse themselves for these reasons. Yet both refused to do so, arguing that they were voting in a legislative matter which allowed them to express opinions about it. County attorneys also made similar arguments.
The lawsuit makes several other arguments, including that the county doesn’t have enough water to sustain Santolina, that construction would bring harmful environmental damage to the area and that the new zoning map violates the city’s Planned Communities Criteria.
The first lawsuit, filed in May, argues that the commission denied an earlier legal appeal without a stated reason and proper debate.
Nearly all commissioner votes on Santolina-related measures have followed a familiar pattern, with De La Cruz, Johnson and Lonnie Talbert voting for the project and Maggie Hart Stebbins and Debbie O’Malley voting against.
De La Cruz, the only Democrat voting in favor of Santolina, is widely considered the swing vote.
Read both lawsuits in full below: