A proposed 65-lot development on Cow Creek Ranch would be reduced by nearly half that number in a revised plan the developer has floated in an apparent response to irate downstream property owners who have called the project too big and potentially damaging to the bucolic area.
Santa Fe businessman Gerald Peters in August submitted a revamped plat — or diagram of the site — that would reduce the overall buildout to 35 homes.
His original proposal, which was to build 65 homes in four phases over 20 years, stirred fierce opposition from neighbors and conservationists, including actor, director and environmental activist Robert Redford.
In a Sept. 26 opinion piece for The New Mexican, Redford denounced the project as threatening a way of life in rural San Miguel County.
The revised plan would eliminate the 26-lot third phase on the west side of the property, which had been slated for development after 2030. It also would remove four lots from the first phase, leaving 15 homes to be built near the creek running through the eastern portion of the 1,200-acre property.
Peters’ team has yet to submit the needed backup materials for the changes, so the revised plat is purely conceptual at the moment, said Amanda Salas, the county’s planning supervisor.
“The project at this time is currently [at] a standstill until further documentation is received for the smaller proposed development,” Salas said.
Salas explained that although they received the new plat in August, they had to give Peters at least 30 days to deliver the necessary documents before discussing it publicly.
Peters couldn’t be reached to say how he aimed to move forward and whether he was shrinking the footprint in an effort to quiet the public outcry. His assistant wrote in an email that he was on an out-of-state trip this week.
The new plat shows the original Phase 3 portion would be turned into a reserve area and what was previously Phase 4 would become the third phase.
Salas said Peters could later develop the reserve area. He would have to apply for that as a separate project and go through all the required steps, including getting county commissioners’ approval, she said.
Property owners who were interviewed said Peters’ proposed reductions failed to address their main concerns, such as the impact dozens of homes would have on groundwater supply and the creek’s water quality.
Despite state Environment Department’s assurances that the septic drain fields would be built to avoid leaks and withstand flooding, some owners say they still worry about pollutants going into the creek.
J. Bustamante, an Albuquerque resident who owns 300 acres in Cow Creek, said he’s not convinced the septic systems would be safe, especially ones near the stream.
“With the flooding that occurs often … issues could come from water contamination,” Bustamante said.
He said he doubts the 26-lot third phase would be cut out permanently.
“This reduction of lots at this point with the ability to come back in the future and continue to add is simply a way to appease some people,” Bustamante said.
Even having 35 houses on that property, tucked within the Santa Fe National Forest, greatly increases the risks of sparking a wildfire, he said, especially if the dwellings are used as short-term rentals for vacationers throwing parties.
Candi DePauw a Soledad, Calif., resident who owns five acres near the creek, said she appreciates that Peters is scaling back the project but noted the lots being removed are farthest from the creek. That leaves 15 lots near the water.
“Those are the ones that I was most concerned about,” DePauw said, referring to the creekside lots. “I’m not sure that lopping off the ones on the [west] end helps the water quality issue.”
DePauw said eliminating a portion that wasn’t going to be built for at least a decade doesn’t resolve how the more immediate development could strain the aquifer and pollute the creek with septic runoff.
“I don’t think any of us are focused on anything much beyond the first 19 [homes],” DePauw said. “For me personally, I don’t feel like we’ve gained anything.”
One longtime downstream resident said the project would have to be shrunk even more for him to feel comfortable.
“I still say it’s still too many,” said Richard Valencia, who has lived year-round in Cow Creek for 50 years.
Both Valencia and Bustamante said Peters should sell the land to a conservation group that can turn it into a preserve.
Bustamante acknowledged the buyers would have to offer a hefty price, given that Peters paid $7.5 million for the ranch.
“I would be curious to know what it would take to buy him out,” Bustamante said.