Almost a year has passed since the outpouring of community sentiment against a 50-acre basalt mine on La Bajada. Last September, Santa Fe County declared a moratorium on new mining operations and set about writing a tougher and more coherent ordinance regulating mines, junyards and landfills. Commissioners punted a decision on the gravel mine until the new regulations could be written.
The solid foundation of the proposed regulations is that so-called Developments of Countywide Impact should bear stronger scrutiny. That way, residents would have some protection from whatever mine, junkyard or landfill might be placed on an empty bit of Santa Fe County. The county was right to develop such regulations, and after a hearing in July, a vote should take place today on the proposal, likely after 5 p.m.
Ironically, delaying the decision on the La Bajada mine a year didn’t do much to protect Santa Fe County from lawsuits. Albuquerque-based Buena Vista Estates sued the county and the Santa Fe Solid Waste Management Agency in U.S. District Court last April, charging Santa Fe County with what amounts to violation of anti-trust laws by preventing competition. There’s also a lawsuit in state district court about the imposition of the zoning moratorium itself.
Commissioners should have had the fortitude to turn down the mine application in the first place. La Bajada Mesa, with its signature views and religious significance to nearby Indian pueblos, is not the place for a strip gravel mine. Because the application needed a significant zoning change, refusing the mine was not a complicated decision. The county chose, instead, to delay a decision until after its new regulations were put in place. We won’t know, until the lawsuits play out, how well that choice has worked out.
That doesn’t mean the county does not need more comprehensive rules, especially when it comes to projects that impact a broader areas. Gravel mines, for example, use water. Their lights can destroy night skies. Big, gravel-carrying trucks will be moving up and down county roads. They cause dust and noise, issues both for neighbors and other folks in the county who have to see and hear the trucks passing through. Santa Fe County needed the moratorium and the new regulations for all developments. These changes are not about one strip mine.
Commissioners should adopt these sensible regulations — and perhaps make a few improvements. Commissioner Liz Stefanics has expressed concerns about whether 10 acres is the right size to trigger a project’s classification as a development with countywide impact. We agree that 5 acres is a better trigger point. With the rules adopted, the county not only can give tougher scrutiny to certain applications, but also keep a closer eye on their operations. Reports and inspections would become part of the package.
Developing regulations that protect Santa Fe County’s residents and environment has been a worthy endeavor. Now, they need to be passed and put to work so that the county can continue to preserve what is unique about our corner of the world.