Santa Fe County officials skeptical of land swap proposal from Los Alamos County

Los Alamos County seeks to acquire land from Santa Fe County, outlined in orange in Rendija and Bayo canyons, for more than 1,000 acres of Santa Fe National Forest land, outlined in blue. Courtesy image

Los Alamos County is requesting a land swap with Santa Fe County, a deal intended in part to enable development on a vacant mesa-top property along the border the counties share.

In exchange for the mesa land east of the community of Los Alamos and a tract farther north that contains a Los Alamos County well field — properties totaling about 1,000 acres — Santa Fe County would get just over 1,000 acres of Santa Fe National Forest land. If Santa Fe County agrees to the trade, it would collect some $2,800 per year in federal compensation for nontaxable forest land.

Los Alamos County officials pitched the proposal to the Santa Fe County Commission on Tuesday, initiating talks. Some commissioners expressed doubts about the trade, however, and most asked for more information before they would commit to any path forward.

Both parcels eyed by Los Alamos abut the Santa Fe County line: 395 acres of Rendija Canyon, where Los Alamos has water-production facilities, and 635 acres of Bayo Canyon, uninhabited property formerly owned by Los Alamos National Laboratory that is adjacent to a commercial development called Eastgate just across the county line.

One business within Eastgate already has expressed an interest in placing a new building on top of a 12-acre mesa on the Bayo Canyon land in Santa Fe County, Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess said.

Burgess told Los Alamos councilors last month that the county now has no incentive to develop parcels it owns within the tracts it hopes to obtain, which are subject to Santa Fe County planning and zoning rules and other regulations.

During their discussion of the proposed negotiation in July, Los Alamos councilors expressed general support for the land swap.

“The one-for-one acreage is a reasonable thing,” said Los Alamos Councilor Pete Sheehey. “If they want to push to get a little more acreage and attendant PILT [payment-in-lieu-of-taxes] out of it, I think we can negotiate that as well.”

They also saw the quality of the land as a bargaining chip.

Within the Bayo Canyon tract, there are “all sorts of former laboratory cleanup operations,” Burgess said, while the forest land is pristine.

Councilor Susan O’Leary was the lone vote against initiating negotiations. “I think it’s premature for us to be specifying what land we would want to do as a swap,” she said. “I also think we should consider trying to swap less land. It sounds like our economic development interests are on a very small portion of the land we’re talking about transferring — perhaps a smaller approach would get a faster response.”

The Los Alamos County parcel proposed for the swap covers a swath of Guaje Canyon in the Jemez Mountains. Under the trade, Los Alamos would forfeit some $2,800 in annual federal funds, known as payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILT, to Santa Fe County.

But Santa Fe County Manager Katherine Miller on Tuesday noted the addition would make an “awkward chip” of the county’s far northwest border.

Some commissioners questioned whether there were other possible forms of compensation rather than the Guaje Canyon tract.

Commissioner Anna Hansen, who said she was “not really in favor” of the swap, called for officials from San Ildefonso Pueblo to be included in whatever trade talks evolve. The pueblo, along with the lab, retains some land in the Bayo Canyon tract proposed to be traded to Los Alamos.

“We’ll see where we go,” Hansen said.

County border alterations may only become effective in January of odd-numbered years, according to state statute.


Tripp Stelnicki covers City Hall and Santa Fe County for The New Mexican.