PECOS — Cow Creek's gurgling waters flow past the front of scattered dwellings in a lush, half-hidden hinterland before merging with the Pecos River — and now, some longtime landowners fear that a proposed development upstream could ruin their idyllic slice of paradise.
Santa Fe businessman Gerald Peters wants to build 65 homes on the 1,200-acre Cow Creek Ranch that he recently bought for $7.5 million.
The subdivision would be built in four phases over a 20-year period on the sprawling property, which sits below the creek's headwaters and is cradled in federal forestland.
The first phase calls for 19 homes to be built by 2025 on parcels ranging from 2 acres to 7 acres, mostly near the creek. Subsequent phases would have lots as large as 12 acres. The houses would be equipped with wells and septic systems.
Although referred to as "cabins," Peters' team has described the homes as having two to three bedrooms.
Few people live full time in the Cow Creek area, though many own properties that have been in their families for decades and serve as a pastoral getaway.
Owners there worry the project, which they consider way too large, will strain groundwater supply, generate too much traffic, pollute the creek with septic runoff and bring in careless outsiders who don't respect nature and increase wildfire risks.
Aside from degrading the area's rural character, said Edmundo Lucero, 83, the outsized project will destroy yet another piece of the old New Mexico that enchanted him when he moved here in 1957 and is gradually vanishing.
"All the small Northern New Mexico towns are being taken over by this kind of development," said Lucero, a Santa Fe resident who bought property a few miles downstream from the ranch when he retired. "I can see nothing but a big old mess up there."
But in emailed statements, Peters insisted he planned to build a fishing resort that would be zoned agriculture with large parcels, making it less dense than the nearby village. And it will be imperative to protect the creek's water quality because the subdivision will be centered on fishing, he wrote.
"Simply put, my intentions at Cow Creek Ranch are very focused on land and water stewardship," Peters wrote. "The development does not threaten the quality of lifestyle or the environment that currently exists. Fishing is not the threat it is being worked up to be."
An application for the project first appeared in early 2020, but like many other projects, it was delayed during the pandemic, said Amanda Salas, San Miguel County's planning supervisor.
The county is consulting with various state agencies such as the Environment Department, the Forestry Division and Transportation Department about impacts and required actions, Salas said, estimating that the analyses will take several months.
The county's zoning commission then will hold public hearings to give people a chance to weigh in on the project, she said.
"It's a long process," Salas said. "This is a very big project. There are a lot of things that are going to be considered along the way. That's my ultimate priority: If this were to move forward, it's done correctly."
Full impacts unknown
A visitor driving to Cow Creek Ranch needs firm commitment, careful concentration and good tires while bouncing and shimmying for miles on rutted, hilly roads.
After going up and over a summit and navigating countless rocky bumps, you come to a clearing that, if not for hills denuded by modern logging and a few newer-styled homes, would be a land frozen in time, with rustic barns and a horse grazing in a field.
Two miles later, you roll into Santa Fe National Forest and the rushing waters of Cow Creek emerge, fully visible, from the trees shrouding its banks. Drive another 15 minutes, and you arrive at the ranch's log-hewn gate, a sweeping vista of green, wooded hills on the horizon.
Having dozens of people staying for unknown lengths of time on land that extends into the forest raises questions among some neighbors. They wonder whether the rough forest roads would be paved to accommodate increased traffic, encouraging drivers to speed and drawing joy riders from outside the area.
"I do think if that road was paved, there could be a bad accident," said Bernice Martinez Gentry, 55, an Albuquerque resident whose family owns about 50 acres along the creek. "Especially at the top where there's that big cliff area. That would be definitely a danger zone."
Gentry and her husband built a cabin on their property a year ago, several miles downstream from the ranch. Her father was the same age — 54 — when he built his cabin by Cow Creek.
Gentry said she was anxious about newcomers who aren't used to living on forestland, especially in dry conditions, boosting wildfire dangers.
"As dry as it gets in Cow Creek, any spark can start a wildfire out there that can go out of control," Gentry said. "That would be a shame — like if it went down the canyon where all the houses are."
She also is concerned about how a subdivision of this magnitude could disturb wildlife.
"Just the whole disruption to the ecosystem when you're putting that many houses out there," Gentry said. "You're disrupting wildlife."
Several landowners and a local environmental advocate echoed Gentry's concerns.
Frank "Pancho" Adelo, who lives in Pecos and owns a local gas station and food service, said the development plan doesn't address wildlife impacts, nor does it prohibit short-term rentals that would create a constant stream of patrons coming and going.
It's good that Peters has worked to restore the creek for fishing, but the subdivision will displace bears, elk, deer, owls and other animals, said Adelo, who's also president of the Upper Pecos Watershed Association.
"It's super disappointing to see that ranch end up in the hands of a developer," Adelo said. "If the development goes through, it's going to change the character of that valley forever."
In his email, Peters wrote he doesn't plan to pave the roads because he likes them rough.
This development will be no different from other area ranches that were subdivided, such as Mountain View Guest Ranch that is now Pecos Canyon Estates, Peters argued.
Peters didn't specifically address wildlife impacts but wrote that local residents have taught him about the ranch and the best way to maintain it. The ranch has operated as a business since the 1890s, including as a resort, and he will carry on the legacy, he wrote.
"I am very respectful of the long history in this region and have greatly appreciated the support and input from people who have been involved with the property for decades," Peters wrote.
Candi DePauw, 73, a Soledad, Calif., resident who owns 5 acres along Cow Creek, said she doesn't begrudge Peters for wanting to develop land he owns, but she questions the scale of it in that area.
"We just want to make sure it just doesn't turn the whole place upside down, when the obvious pleasure of it is it's so pristine," DePauw said.
Water and waste
Most who were interviewed said their biggest concern is the potential effect on water, whether septic waste that could seep into the stream or heightened groundwater use draining the aquifer.
Richard Valencia, 73, who has lived year-round at his Cow Creek home for 50 years, said he worries septic pollution in the creek would be funneled into his acequia.
Valencia pulls water from the ditch to water hay feed for his eight cattle and doesn't want it to be contaminated. The creek feeds other acequias in the area that people depend on, he said.
"I don't care how good their sewage system is — eventually, it will get down to the creek," Valencia said.
He said he's not opposed to a development of a reasonable size, but this would be too big with too much sewage.
DePauw said the first phase will have 19 lots near the stream.
"If it's an open septic system with leach fields … it's hard for me to imagine if you're that close to the creek that you're not going to have an impact on the water," DePauw said.
Gentry said a severe flood could upend leach fields and contaminate the creek.
Also, the increased consumption that would occur at the ranch, even from the first phase, could drain the groundwater, Gentry said.
"I think 15 or 20 [homes] would completely affect the aquifer," she said. "Even though we've gotten a lot of rain and it's been monsoon season, it's actually been in drought for quite a while."
Peters wrote in his email the state Environment Department will approve every septic system. He also thinks the project will surpass every requirement because "our focus is preserving the environment."
He also played down concerns about groundwater use.
"The water consumption is very minor," Peters wrote. "This aquifer is different from that of the Pecos River; the consumption will be insignificant."
But Adelo said he's not convinced.
"Their assertion that it's going to have no hydrological impact on Cow Creek — with 60 homes — is questionable at best," Adelo said.
J. Bustamante, an Albuquerque resident who owns 300 acres in Cow Creek, said this project offers no benefit to the environment or to anyone downstream.
"Let's be honest, it's insane," Bustamante said. "Building a community up there is absolutely ridiculous."