The Bernalillo County Planning Commission has voted to move a plan for a massive development up the chain of command for consideration.
Imagine 38,000 brand new cookie-cutter homes spread out in clusters across nearly 22 square miles on Albuquerque’s West Mesa just south of Interstate 40. What is now mostly wide, open space zoned for agriculture would be filled in with houses, roads and shops—even a large industrial park or two. That is the vision of the Santolina Master Plan, which has support from the Chamber of Commerce, the Homebuilders Association and a group of developers.
But after a year of analysis at the 8th and final Planning Commission hearing Wednesday opponents showed up in throngs to voice their concerns.
Travis McKinzie farms just a few miles away from the site, and like so many others who spoke at the hearing, he said he’s concerned about water. He placed a jar of it on the podium while he addressed the commissioners.
“I’d just like to start by saying el agua es la vida [water is life],” McKinzie said, “and I brought some water from the Arenal Acequia so we can ground out and think about what we’re really talking about here. You can put together all these numbers and approvals but we work with the water every day, and we know this is not a smart development plan.”
The county’s water utility has offered to sell the water to the project, as long as it didn’t exceed 4.7 billions of gallons a year.
Others said the County should be focused on existing neighborhoods. Brandy Mitchell is a West Side native who graduated from high school this year. It’s not that she’s against development, Mitchell said, but doing it so far from the city center creates sprawl, and that’s backwards thinking.
“Why do it so far out? If you want to get bigger and better why not get better first with the buildings you already have, the land you already have?” Mitchell asked. “There are so many abandoned buildings when I drive to work everyday and I’m like, why don’t you turn that into something?”
According to the latest census data, Albuquerque’s population is not growing and many people implored the commission to consider that there simply is no demand for a development like Santolina.
The Mesa Del Sol development—37,000 new homes to be built over 40 years south of the Albuquerque Sunport—remains largely undeveloped. And SunCal, a developer who tried to develop the exact same land as Santolina a few years ago, was rejected by state lawmakers.
But Vanessa Alarid, a lobbyist who worked for SunCal, told the Planning Commission she loves the idea of Santolina because it will grow the economy.
“I’m very concerned about the economic state of New Mexico,” Alarid said. “I’m concerned about ensuring that we have jobs. Jobs for our kids, jobs for our community and I’m very concerned about the longevity of our state.”
Alarid argued that Santolina would bring a building boom. Then businesses and industry would move in and it would be a win-win.
But this 'build it and they will come' philosophy of economic development simply doesn’t work, Kelly O’donnell countered. She’s an economist who did her own independent fiscal analysis of the proposal. O'donnell said the Santolina developer’s analysis is based on unrealistic assumptions.
“It assumes that all economic activity and most of the residents of Santolina will be new to the county,” O’donnell explained to the commission. “But if you look at migration patterns that simply is inaccurate. Most of the new residents and many of the new businesses will in fact come from Albuquerque and surrounding communities. So it is a zero sum game, diverting economic activity from one area of the county to another.”
Nathan Perez, who did the fiscal analysis for Santolina developers, admitted that he didn’t have a crystal ball in determining where the jobs he projected would actually come from.
“We can’t easily find a solution,” Perez said, “but there is an opportunity for Santolina to actually create and attract new businesses and they’ve dedicated massive acreage and massive square feet to attempt to do that.”
Plus, Perez said, it’s ludicrous that anyone would be talking about job displacement with 30,000 unemployed people in the county. Under his projections, in 20 years Santolina will have created 147,000 new jobs.
The planning commission voted 4-2 to send the proposal to Bernalillo County Commissioners for consideration, along with a list of 22 conditions and findings gathered from agencies who vetted the proposal over the past several months.
“I have all of the same concerns,” Commissioner Connie Chavez, who voted for the proposal, said. “However, I have to state that I think the staff has done a good job of covering those concerns in the conditions and findings. We’ll adequately address them in the next phase of this process, so it’s not done by any means, we all know that.”
Bernalillo County Commissioners are expected to review the Santolina plan early next year.