Within this clifftop community once shrouded from public view, it’s no secret the Los Alamos area needs more housing for future growth.
Los Alamos County wants the U.S. Energy Department to turn over 3,074 acres in White Rock at no cost so the land can be used for housing, stores, offices, light industry and schools.
To sweeten the deal, Los Alamos National Laboratory would be able to use part of the land to build support facilities and enhance its operations.
Less than 10 percent of the land would be developed — 275 acres — and most of that would be for housing, which county officials say is needed for the lab’s growing workforce and to create a larger pool of workers living in town to help attract other businesses.
“Our focus was primarily on the housing to meet that need,” County Manager Harry Burgess said, adding that Los Alamos has had a longtime housing crunch.
In the late 1990s, then-U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici drafted legislation that enabled the federal government to transfer properties — including lab sites — at no cost to the county, which required more land on the mesa to grow.
The county now hopes to obtain the defunct technical areas 36, 70 and 71 in White Rock.
About 230 acres would be for housing, and 35 acres would be for various commercial developments, including LANL support services. Roughly 10 acres would be used to add amenities to the lab’s existing facilities, such as warehouses, a cafeteria and wellness center.
The Energy Department is evaluating what to do with its excess property that no longer supports the lab’s mission requirements, said Toni Chiri, spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, an Energy Department branch.
“There are no current commitments to transfer DOE property in and around Los Alamos to outside entities,” Chiri said.
County leaders sent a 14-page proposal to an Energy Department manager in December, requesting the land transfer and describing why it was vital for the area’s economic future.
The federal government owns 86 percent of land in the community, they said. The county controls the remaining 14 percent, but only about a third of that can be developed because of canyons, rocky hillsides and other rugged terrain.
Los Alamos’ severe housing shortage impedes business growth, they said.
It’s tough to attract new retailers because too few people live in town, they said. People who reside outside the area don’t feel it’s worth commuting up and down the mesa for service jobs; that’s in contrast to higher-paid LANL employees, half of whom live in other counties.
The lack of stores also results in residents going outside the county to shop, siphoning dollars away from the local economy, they said.
LANL’s production of pits — the explosive cores in nuclear warheads — would generate an estimated 3,000 jobs if it ramps up as planned by 2026. Those workers will need a place to live, they said.
The proposal also describes how fledgling businesses and LANL spinoffs have left the area because there weren’t enough workers or available land to expand. Developing a larger, more skilled workforce in the area begins with building the schools to train them and the housing to accommodate them — all of which require land, it says.
Some of the property would be used for roads, utilities and other infrastructure. And some would be set aside for schools.
The bulk of the land would be open space.
Acquiring the additional acreage was necessary so the county’s land isn’t intermingled with the Energy Department’s land, Burgess said, explaining that the two are not compatible.
For instance, access to the county’s land would be greatly hindered if it abutted the lab’s property because of all the security measures, Burgess said.
But the open space wouldn’t be a dead zone, he said. Trails and recreational sites could be built that would draw visitors and boost tourism.
Burgess said he has monthly talks with officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration about the potential land transfer.
LANL’s operator, Triad National Security LLC, has been tasked with compiling a list of sites that could be conveyed to the county, Burgess said. He’s waiting — and hoping — to hear that the three technical areas make the list, he added.
If the agency agrees to convey the land to the county, public hearings would be held to allow residents to share their concerns about potential impacts, along with ideas on how best to develop the land.
“Los Alamos loves to make master plans, and this would be one of the most important ever made by our citizens,” County Councilor James Robinson said. “My vision would be: Generate ideas we can put out for a developer, and transfer what might not be buildable or already used to our county open space.”
It will be years before ground is broken, and it may not even happen, Robinson cautioned.
“It is still in DOE’s court to approve or disapprove,” Robinson said.
The main concerns residents have expressed so far are not hearing about the county’s plans earlier and potentially losing their favorite hiking trails, Burgess said.
Previous transfers of LANL sites have been much smaller, such as a 70-acre tract on which an Ohio-based developer aims to build 72 units of low-income housing and 60 units of senior housing.
As with other transfers, the deed would require the Energy Department to thoroughly probe the land for leftover hazardous waste and clean up any contaminants.
In February, utility crews found three containers of old waste buried in the land where the affordable housing was to be built. The state chided the Energy Department for conveying contaminated land and demanded that the agency explain the oversight.
A regional watchdog group said the development plans raise some questions.
Technical Area 36, where commercial, industrial and mixed-use complexes would be built, was formerly a firing site where uranium and beryllium were detonated in the open air, so some toxic residue probably lingers there, said Scott Kovac, research and operations director for Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
However, the county appears to be looking mainly at the property’s eastern end, away from the firing site, at least for now, Kovac said.
The site is also across the road from Area G, where massive legacy waste produced during the Cold War is buried, Kovac said. Contaminants might be released into the air if that old disposal area is excavated, he said.
Also, the land is downstream from a heavily contaminated site, Kovac said.
Kovac agreed that it could be a long time before the sites are conveyed, let alone developed, given the history of previous federal land transfers.
“TA-21, TA-73 and the rest have been in the works for decades,” Kovac said.