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Los Alamos County has requested 3,074 acres in White Rock from the U.S. Energy Department to use for building housing, stores, offices, light industry and schools.

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.

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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.

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(10) comments

Jay Coghlan

Shouldn't the land revert back to the Hispanic homesteaders and Native Americans whose lands were seized without compensation by the federal government? Why should the land be transferred at no cost to the mostly white nuclear bomb makers in the richest county in the western USA? Where is the justice in that?

Jay Coghlan

Nuclear Watch New Mexico

www.nukewatch.org

Khal Spencer

I agree with Tom that the houses built near the welcome center in White Rock surprised me in being massive structures built cheek to jowl. Reminded me of why we left Honolulu in 2001. But if you want affordable housing for production jobs, maybe that was the plan.

As far as the future of Los Alamos? We moved there from Honolulu in 2001 when LANL made us an offer we could not refuse, to quote my Sicilian ancestors. Los Alamos had not one but two supermarkets, numerous bookstores and small shops, and although it didn't yet have the fat check courtesy of the later privatization of LANL resulting in more gross receipts taxes, was a pretty nice place to live compared to our cramped quarters in Honolulu. We loved it.

Over the years, I saw more and more monoculture. The County Council and Schools had to practically beg Smiths to move into the old LA Schools land on the east side of town. As others said, it made no sense for stores to put brick and mortar in Bombtown when there were far bigger markets in Santa Fe and elsewhere and the NMDoT was cooperating in building a fantastic four lane highway to help Bombtown residents get outa Dodge. So Smith's got a nice parcel to build a new mall. Somewhat strangely, Mari-Mac remains a partially empty eyesore due to negotiations with the county that left more than a few of us scratching our heads.

We moved a couple years ago. It got to the point where I referred to Los Alamos as the Twin Towers: LANL at one end and the Smith's behemoth at the other. Heck, even CB Fox recently flicked it in, resulting in a magnitude 9.2 shock on the sociological Richter scale. Whether things will improve with more land transfers is anyone's guess but as Greg Mello carefully offers, land transfers may be complicated. Especially if more "buried treasure" is dug up from old sites. And whether the culture of the town changes as LANL moves into production rather than R and D is another question.

I wish them luck up there. Beautiful place to live, and personally, I would trade the open spaces, cliffs and canyons for urban amenities any day (my significant other strongly differs) but we did our food shopping in Fanta Se even in the best of times.

Khal Spencer

Duh, what I meant to say was I would trade the urban amenities for the open spaces, cliffs and canyons any day (my significant other strongly differs) but we did our food shopping in Fanta Se even in the best of times.

Devin Bent

It is not immediately obvious to me why the wealthiest (by far) county in New Mexico should get a free gift of 3,000 acres from the feds. Los Alamos already exists as something of a world apart from its neighbors -- this would only accentuate this trend.

Why not give 3,000 acres to Rio Arriba and have this development occur there?

Khal Spencer

Because the land is in Los Alamos, that's why. You know, where the laboratory sits?

Erich Kuerschner

Hey, George Washington (the wealthiest US President of all time) started this process of taking property from others to enrich the already wealthy (him). Why are we surprised it continues?

Tom Ribe

The housing that was just built near the visitor center in White Rock is extremely ugly. It is a permanent eyesore. I suppose there will be more of this corporate, Arizona style quick and dirty housing built. Also this area is close to one of the most important archaeological sites on the Pajarito Plateau. I'm certain that the new housing near White Rock destroyed multiple protected arch sites. Will they destroy more sites with this new development? Will they comply with federal law or is LANL too important in the Donny Trump era to comply with such laws?

Greg Mello

Thank you Scott for this important story (and also Scott K ovac for comments), which was first reported by the Los Alamos Reporter (LAR) on May 27. LAR also published the underlying documentation. A couple of comments -- the small eastern portion of TA-36 being sought -- it is a very large technical area, extending miles to the west -- does not, according to DOE's master contamination maps (at https://www.lasg.org/maps/pages/contents/36contents.htm), appear to have ever had contamination present, although that would need to be checked. Second, the article implies that the transfer would somehow enable LANL's operations -- DOE would give the land to the County and the County would lease the use of it back, LOL. Such a deal! But DOE completely controls that land now and can do whatever it wishes with it, as it does elsewhere within LANL. Third and most important, there are a lot more serious issues involved in this proposed land transfer than just recreational values, and some of those issues have already been brought up by thoughtful Los Alamos residents -- including a former reporter for the New Mexican. There are serious tribal issues, wildlife issues, local business and urban planning issues, traffic issues, and others. While it is really great to see this article -- thank you -- the big picture, the main story line, is only implied: the missions being forced on the Los Alamos community are pressing against inherent limits to growth, and LANL's inherent limits to growth, in all sorts of ways. And why, exactly, is this being done? To read the New Mexican, you would think that it is all coming from some all-powerful entity, against which resistance is futile and all questions misplaced. The New Mexican is largely embracing bringing a new Rocky Flats Plant to the greater Santa Fe area. Many of us don't know why.

Khal Spencer

Here is the link to the 27 May LAR article.

https://losalamosreporter.com/2020/05/27/los-alamos-county-seeks-to-acquire-3500-acres-of-land-in-white-rock-from-doe-nnsa/

Kathy Fish

Hm....giving away something for free should always raise red flags. And who really benefits from a "sweetened deal" that prioritizes the activities of Los Alamos Labs? Doesn't sound like affordable housing or equity in general is really part of the discussion here.

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