Dozens of residents opposed to a planned assisted living home for seniors on Old Pecos Trail railed against the project Wednesday, telling city officials it isn’t suitable for the site and calling it a “monster of a building,” “excessively large” and “blatantly inappropriate.”
But just before midnight, following an hours-long public hearing at the Santa Fe High School gymnasium, city councilors rejected an appeal of the Santa Fe Planning Commission’s approval of the home on a 5-4 vote, clearing the way for the MorningStar Senior Living project to move forward.
The 84-unit MorningStar project is the latest example of a private development in Santa Fe that has pitted homeowners against developers. City Councilor Carmichael Dominguez made a motion to dismiss the appeal, saying, “It bothers me when people try to use fear in these types of deliberations.” The motion was seconded by Councilor Ron Trujillo.
Mayor Javier Gonzales broke the tie, siding with Dominguez, Trujillo and Councilors Bill Dimas and Chris Rivera in voting to dismiss the appeal filed by the Southeast Neighborhood Association. Councilors Patti Bushee, Signe Lindell, Peter Ives and Joe Maestas cast the no votes.
The Southeast Neighborhood Association had said the project’s plan fails to meet zoning requirements and would be “improperly located” within the Old Pecos Trail Scenic Corridor. The association contended the building would be out of character with the nearby neighborhood. The home would sit on 3.85 acres near the Elks Lodge on Old Pecos Trail at Calle de Sebastian, part of a major traffic corridor that is next to the entrance of a residential area.
“This large commercial facility, with its continuous lights, noise, smells and increased traffic, will likely lower property values and adversely affect the quality of life in the surrounding residential neighborhoods,” Jan Brooks, vice president of the association’s board, wrote in a letter to homeowners.
Joanne Birdwhistell told the mayor and city councilors Wednesday that she lives “not much more than 100 feet from the underbelly of this enormous commercial facility.”
“I’m a longtime teacher of Chinese history,” Birdwhistell said. “When I heard about the size and length of this facility, I could not help but think of the Great Wall of China.”
About 150 people turned out for the hearing at Santa Fe High, and nearly 90 testified. While most spoke in opposition, the proposal had some supporters, including Ron Olexsak, an Elks Club member who encouraged the mayor and council to consider the “multiplier effect” from “highly paid” work for landscapers, plumbers and electricians, among others.
“The economic impact of this is going to be very important,” Olexsak said.
Other supporters included Santa Fe County Commission Chairman Robert Anaya, Patricio M. Serna, a former justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court, and former mayor Larry Delgado.
“It’s totally in compliance,” Delgado said.
Not everybody was convinced.
The Rev. Duncan Jay Lanum, a rector at St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church, accused the city of violating one of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not steal.”
“Because you would be stealing from the neighborhood the peace and quiet that they have been given when they built their homes,” Lanum said. “You would be stealing from the people from Santa Fe and from people such as myself who have lived close to it for all of these years. And people coming into Santa Fe, you would be stealing from them the beauty of the only remaining heritage gateway into this city.”
The site of the proposed 73,550-square-foot assisted living center is zoned for one residence per acre, but the zoning allows “continuing care” facilities under a special-use permit. Whether the proposed building meets the definition of a “continuing care” facility under the city code was a major point of dispute.
Frank Herdman, a local attorney who represented the appellants, said the facility proposed by Colorado-based MorningStar isn’t a continuing care community “by any stretch of the imagination.”
The City Attorney’s Office, which recommended that the council uphold the Planning Commission’s decision, disagreed.
Zachary Shandler, an assistant city attorney, said the neighborhood association interpreted the definition to mean that some seniors must live in rooms in one part of the facility while others live with full nursing care in a separate part of the facility.
The city code “does not necessarily create a requirement for a bifurcated facility where some seniors must live in one part of the facility while other seniors with full nursing care must live in another,” Shandler said.
Another opponent, John Bemis, former Cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, said he was amazed that the city’s Land Use Department had allowed the project to get as far as it did.
Bemis, who lives in the area, told the council he didn’t want to quote O.J. Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran.
But “if the definition don’t fit, you can’t permit,” Bemis said, referring to the famous “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” phrase from the courtroom drama.
Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 986-3089 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.