Did you know that gasoline was leaking for years from an underground tank where a Shamrock gas station once stood on Cerrillos Road in south Santa Fe? Or that there is a three-year project planned to clean up the contaminated soil? Or that the public was recently invited to comment on the plan, which runs to more than 400 pages? (The comment period is now closed.)
Or consider this: Did you know that Santa Fe Place mall has proposed to convert significant chunks of its existing parking lot into restaurants, retail shops and other buildings?
If you have not heard about these projects, blame it on an antiquated public notification process. These projects, and many others like them, are required by law to provide notice to the public of what is being planned. The laws are well-intentioned. But the way these laws are implemented leaves a lot to be desired.
Typically, projects like these must be publicized with advertisements in one or more newspapers. These ads, called “legals,” are usually printed in small print at the back of the newspaper. In an age of declining newspaper readership, legals reach fewer eyeballs than ever, though they are more important than ever to the bottom lines of newspapers. Rarely do public notification laws require any kind of online advertising.
Fortunately, public notification laws usually have additional requirements, such as signs that must be posted. Unfortunately, the size and placement of such signs is often laughable. In the case of the plan to clean up the old Shamrock site, the signs about the planned cleanup were a mere 12 inches by 17.5 inches in size. Small as these signs may seem, with their three-eighths-inch-tall lettering, they are significantly larger than what is required by law, according to rules shared with me by New Mexico’s Petroleum Storage Tank Bureau. The signs were posted on the fence of Manny’s Auto Sales, which now occupies the old Shamrock site. Unfortunately, the signs were not posted on the section of fence closest to Cerrillos. Instead, they were posted farther back from the road. One sign was placed 63 feet from the road, and the other was posted 175 feet from the road, near the entrance to the car lot.
In the case of the Santa Fe Place mall proposal, the two or three signs were 4 feet by 8 feet in size. Though the signs were larger, they were much less informative, full of cryptic acronyms and abbreviations. The sign that I saw was much closer to the road. In fact, the sign was so close to Rodeo Road that, because it was perfectly parallel to the road, it could hardly be seen by speeding motorists. The only reason I noticed this sign or the Shamrock signs is that I happened to be walking.
Another requirement of notification laws involves mailings to neighborhood residents. However, these mailing requirements are often laughable, only requiring that adjacent property owners be notified. If you own property two doors down from a project site, you might not get a notice. Or, if you are a renter and not a property owner, you probably won’t get a notice. Sometimes these mailings contain errors or omissions. Some of the Santa Fe Place mailings were apparently missing key information about the time of a related public meeting. Not surprisingly, I was one of only three people who attended the meeting.
It is high time we update our antiquated public notification laws. The public deserves to know what is going on and how to participate. As the Washington Post likes to say, “Democracy dies in darkness.”
Dan Frazier is a small business owner and former journalist who lives in Santa Fe.