New Mexico is riding high on the blue tidal wave it experienced across the state. Most New Mexicans are exhibiting renewed hope in their elected officials. For the first time in eight long years, the possibility of great social, economic and educational change is on the horizon.
But after the most recent approval of the Santolina development that took place at the Bernalillo County Commission hearing Tuesday, Nov. 13, just one week after the numerous victories witnessed on election night, we were sorely reminded that we still have major challenges to address.
For over four years, thousands of concerned individuals, organizations, neighborhood associations, students, researchers, legislators and former elected officials have voiced their major opposition to the Santolina Master Plan — a massive housing development that will sprawl across 13,700 acres on the west side of Albuquerque and at buildout will consume millions of gallons of water each day. Given the sense of renewed environmental responsibility across New Mexico, a quick refresher listing major concerns is in order:
Water: Although members of the Bernalillo County Commission and many of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority board and staff will say contrary, water continues to be a major issue impacting New Mexico. Drought is the new normal, and those whose livelihoods depend on water flows, such as small farmers, fully realize the major impacts limited water resources entail. What better wake-up call than to know that Elephant Butte is at 3.7 percent of its capacity.
Corporate welfare: At the beginning of this Santolina nightmare, developers stated there would be “no net expense” to the county or city. This was a major selling point that convinced Bernalillo County officials to give Santolina the green light. But you can throw that ”no net expense” promise out the window. As of now, public improvement districts have been approved and tax increment development districts are pending legislative approval that would gift Santolina with almost $2 billion in tax dollars.
Geologic concerns: Not many realize that in order to build Santolina, the topsoil of acres of ancient sand dunes will be removed and leveled for the 37,000-plus homes it promises. What happens when the topsoil is removed? Picture the current problem of blowing sand and multiply that image by at least a hundred. Maybe a more appropriate name for the development is “Sandolina.”
Ongoing conflicts of interest: During the hearing, Bernalillo County Board of Commissioners Chairman Steven Michael Quezada was asked to recuse himself from any vote related to Santolina because of his extensive work with Youth Development Inc., but he refused.
The public might be asking, what does YDI have to do with Santolina? Well, YDI is a primary applicant listed on the Santolina application. The ethical question remains: Is it appropriate (or even legal) for an elected official who has major ties to an applicant to cast important votes on the issue?
Albuquerque City Councilor Klarissa Peña felt it was not and set the stage by recusing herself from any votes related to Santolina.
The Santolina scene gets a bit uglier when it is brought forth that both Peña and Quezada sit on the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority board. Given their close connections and work with YDI, should these officials be making important water-based decisions on the Santolina Master Plan?
There are many other issues concerning Santolina — from unbuilt schools that will cost taxpayers over $600 million, increased traffic and transportation problems, projections based on skewed population growth, and the fact that this new city is being geared toward millennials who have shown little to no interest in living in outdated sprawl-type developments that are far removed from the vibrant core of present communities.
Despite the numerous blows dusty Santolina has given us, we continue to remain hopeful that with such statewide change and the rising tide of elected officials who promote environmental responsibility and stewardship, flawed projects like Santolina will be stopped in their dusty tracks.
Virginia Necochea, Ph.D., is a longtime educator and community advocate whose work focuses on the protection and preservation of land and water resources. She is also executive director of the Center for Social Sustainable Systems.