Since the ’70s, people have been homesteading on the mesa near Albuquerque, just south of the proposed Santolina development. Bernalillo County says without official roads and permits, these Pajarito Mesa structures are illegal, but families are fighting to keep their homes.
Scattered across Pajarito Mesa’s 18 thousand acres are gutted trailers, piles of tires battered by the sun and sandy dirt trails. Somewhere around 800 people are making a go of it here, despite the lack of modern conveniences like running water or an electrical grid. But there’s another side to the mesa.
Mireya Cervantes’ dwelling is no makeshift shelter. She’s been living on Pajarito Mesa with her family since 2003. "Those first months were hard, but now we’re very happy," she said in Spanish. It took a while, but their dusty parcel began to seem like possibility, hope. "We quickly started to buy little trees, and I suddenly saw my property differently."
Today, her large, two-story home is beautiful, with wood floors and plush leather furniture. The house is powered by solar panels, and a massive water tank provides running water. They built it all themselves.
"This is what we have," she said. "It would be very sad for us to lose what the whole family has been working for so many years."
But their home is not a legal structure, according to a lawsuit filed in 2012 by Bernalillo County in District Court. There’s no road to their property that’s recognized by the county capable of supporting a fire truck. That’s the real sticking point.
Lawyer Craig Acorn, who represents mesa residents, said without that legal road, the family can’t get the permits for their buildings. "So we’re talking about, for some of the poorest people in New Mexico, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a road just so they can stay on their property, which of course they can’t do," he said. "And the county knows that. This is an absurd requirement."
And according to the county’s lawsuit, if the Cervantes family doesn’t come into compliance with the zoning code, their home could be removed.
This is the last remaining land around Albuquerque that could be turned into suburbs, Acorn said. Pajarito Mesa is just south of the proposed Santolina development. And if Bernalillo County commissioners approve those 40,000 new homes, "Pajarito would suddenly become far more valuable as land," he said. "If the people who have been living there for decades were permitted now to really establish themselves, it could gum up the works."
Acorn said legal roads, permits, recognition of property ownership—all of that might stand in the way of future development on Pajarito. Regardless, he and Cervantes—and other people on the mesa—are hoping to find a way to cooperate with the county so people living out there can keep their property. It’s the county’s responsibility to help make that happen, Acorn added, since it’s no secret that people have been building on Pajarito Mesa for decades.
Enrico Gradi is the community development manager for Bernalillo County. "Our goal is really compliance. There’s really very little to be gained by being punitive," he said.
It all comes down to legal access roads, Gradi explained. And those roads are hugely expensive to build from scratch, especially since most residents are scattered far and wide across the mesa. "The challenge is to establish some kind of access for those folks that are already there," he said. "But then it also opens up the door for additional people to come in and develop."
Bernalillo County has 19 zoning violation cases pending in District Court against property owners on Pajarito Mesa. Many are about trash, junk and vacant mobile homes, which, Gradi pointed out, can become drug-manufacturing sites or crime magnets.
He added that the county is open to walking established residents through the process of meeting zoning requirements: "There’s probably someone that lives on the mesa that lives here every week, no question about that."
But Mireya Cervantes said her neighbors come to her worried about the future. "It’s not about whether we have a trailer, a little house or a mansion," she said. "We’ve all earned what’s ours, and it belongs to us, so we have to fight for what we’ve earned for our kids."
Check out a map of the mesa at publichealthnm.org. KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.