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Community Groups Take On Santolina In Court

Victoria Edwards/KUNM
Marcia Fernandez raises money for her legal fight to stop the Santolina project.

Stories of outsiders coming to New Mexico to exploit the state's resources are nothing new – think Spanish colonization.

That’s how many critics see Santolina, a 22-square-mile development proposed for an area west of Albuquerque. But opponents of the project are fighting back in court.

Javier Benavidez, executive director of the SouthWest Organizing Project, said Santolina is yet another example of powerful moneyed outsiders coming to New Mexico to do business that doesn’t benefit locals. He added that the land for the development is owned by the British bank Barclay’s.

"The deeper issue for us here is the history of New Mexico, colonization and large out of state interests like Barclay’s Bank coming into the state and taking advantage of our local government to turn a profit," said Benavidez.

But it’s not illegal to make a profit, so how do you fight that in court? SWOP joined forces with other critics to attack the Santolina project based on the governmental approval process for development.

They say developers should have gone through a zoning process, and didn’t. They also say the process lacked legitimacy because a key member of the county commission was biasedin favor of the project. Benavidez said what will come out in court will be revealing.

"For Santolina to win this court case, the courts are going to have to make some pretty embarrassing statements about that process and how it went about and set some embarrassing precedents going forward," said Benavidez.

But John Salazar, one of the attorneys representing developers, said the first part of the Santolina master plan was a planning document and that they followed all the appropriate rules and regulations. Salazar said developers aren’t trying to exploit anyone or anything. On the contrary, he sees the project as an opportunity for outsiders to bring money and resources into the state.

"So maybe we need to believe in ourselves a little bit. We need to say, 'you know we're better than we think. People want to invest in us, let's make the most of it,'" said Salazar.

Still, it’s not altruism that is driving this endeavor: Santolina is asking for nearly$3 billion in tax benefits and almost 20 million gallons of water a day. But Salazar says Santolina will provide housing, jobs and opportunity to the impoverished South Valley.

"Why are we worried about what the other person is going to get? Is it better for our community ? Is it better for our children is it better for ourselves ? Who cares if someone makes a profit?" said Salazar. 

Half a mile south of downtown Albuquerque on a recent Friday, there was a cursive sign taped to the window of a pastel pink square of a building advertising a “Frito Pie Sale.”

Inside, it was a little dark and an old fan was trying to combat the heat. About 30 people milled around -  women in long skirts, men in cowboy boots and worn out jeans.

On a long table there were heaping bowls of beans, red chile, lettuce and cheese - all available for a small donation. 

"It’s a great turnout, lots of people are here and we make great frito pies, if I do say so," said Fernandez. 

South Valley farmer Marcia Fernandez said she depends on her frito pie Friday fundraisers to keep up her legal fight against Santolina. She worries because there’s only so much water in this desert. And she’s afraid the local government will take away their water to support Santolina’s demand. 

"The city has the power to condemn our water rights. They can condemn it and take it as long as they pay you fair market value. They can take your water," said Fernandez.

The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority has long said that there’s enough water for theSantolinaproject. An ABCWUA representative said they'd never condemn water rights.

"Our fingers are crossed that cooler heads will prevail, and see that maybe we should step back and take a second or third or whatever look at this -- at Santolina," said Fernandez.

They’re waiting to find out when the next court date is when a judge could set the precedent for the next chapter of New Mexico’s history.

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