Bernalillo County Commissioner Wayne Johnson writes of his support for Santolina Master Plan in the Albuquerque Journal dismissing opposition, throwing around rotten red herrings and concluding:
Passion and an intense desire to stop new development in Bernalillo County simply aren’t enough for the commission to deny a property owner his or her property rights.
Aside from hyperbole, this indicates he misses the public benefit part of planning. Changing or denying Santolina wouldn't constitute infringement on property rights. But approving a plan without apparent public benefit and protections has big consequences for County residents. It also makes the Commissioners look like tools.
Use the County, Mislead the Taxpayers
Santolina is a plan for County co-optation. It will establish entitlements and zoning for 14,000 acres, tripling allowed development density and retaining property tax values at agricultural levels.* The public gets little assurance of anything in return. The plan contains little detail but abundant platitudes and "next steps." It reads like a promotional brochure with a lot of attachments.**
There are no dedications or commitments for how road and utility rights-of-way and public land will be acquired.*** Contrary to Commissioner Johnson's assertion, the plan does not define where commercial, retail, residential, open space, schools, roads and other infrastructure would be placed. The plan doesn't even locate the first large tracks. In fact, it contains no phasing at all - generally the main purpose of a master plan.
It contains nothing on how infrastructure will be financed or maintained. References to problematic tax increment tools were removed - as if that would make concerns go away. On this point, Commissioner Johnson insults and misleads, saying:
The specter of a TIDD is primarily a distraction used to whip up opposition to the project and is not a meaningful part of what is a land use discussion.
This belies the agricultural value property taxes Santolina will continue to pay, regardless of sales. The purpose of this is to capture any subsequent value increases within a financing district.**** The County will be asked to approve such tax districts as a means of financing the development "at no net expense" (to the County.) This isn't a secret. It's a necessary component of the plan and a huge concession to the developer. And like the scale of rezoning, it is unprecedented in scope for the County and for New Mexico. The consequences are very very meaningful. To state otherwise is just weird and wrong.
Commissioner Johnson and proponents have repeatedly made broad assertions that the lack of jobs on the West side has something to do with needing land for large scale businesses. No data supports this claim. On its face, it's ridiculous. But the absence of estimates of served vacant land in the County has given Santolina proponents free license to claim demand for theirs exists.
Although public infrastructure capacity and system efficiencies are generally considered in planning documents, that's not part of this plan either. The only costs considered relevant to Santolina are capital costs. (Although Commissioner Johnson might argue that those too are "not meaningful to a land use discussion.") Maintaining the miles of required delivery and collection pipes, roads and storm drains isn't addressed.
Like public infrastructure costs, water issues are similarly separated from the Santolina master plan "land use" decision - relegated to another forum in a dance of incrementalism that benefits the developer. Johnson says, "the question will be where water is consumed not if it will be consumed." Consequences and issues associated with water and delivery infrastructure are absent.
Water, it is suggested, is now a purely technical issue of delivery - how the development will be served in terms of where the lines will go and when. But even those questions aren't addressed. All of that is up to the developer and the water utility administrator and will involve no public review. The water component of Santolina is boiled down to a sentence from the water utility saying they can serve the development.
Commissioner Johnson says all the other little details will be worked out in subsequent plans through the same process. But that's not true. Critical details are slated for negotiated contracts been developers and the County Manager - whoever that will be. Development agreements are not subject to any planning process.
Plan to Pay
Issues of public financing, public service and public maintenance are sidestepped in the Santolina master plan. Nothing indicates how infrastructure will be financed. Nothing indicates how infrastructure will be maintained. And nothing indicates who will pay for any of it. But you can bet the County taxpayers will be on the hook.
So Santolina is not an issue of property rights. It's an issue of taxpayer rights. It is a massive entitlement balanced on Bernalillo County residents' shoulders - 80% of whom live inside the Albuquerque city limits. The information vacuum is indicative of a plan written by the developer, for the developer. The County's upcoming blithe approval of the massive additional public infrastructure that will be required is a tried and true recipe for spreading public maintenance responsibilities too thin.
This is the defining nature of "sprawl" and I predict it will be the defining feature of Santolina.
* I'm not going to pretend. They'll approve it and the State District Court will think it's just fine. After all, there is precious little law regarding planning in New Mexico or what a master plan should contain. And not only that, as Commissioner de la Cruz noted, case law in New Mexico supports the idea that adopting "resolutions" are non-binding. So, pfft. The County can do anything. Plans (adopted by resolution) don't matter. Policy, including the Comprehensive Plan and those pesky Planned Community Criteria, be damned! (But of course Santolina rezoning will be adopted by binding ordinance.)
**Each hearing results in the packet growing fatter, this weight gain constituting for proponents comforting evidence of an extensive public process. Thirteen meetings, oh my!
***It is conceivable that land for public parks, open space, schools, fire stations, etc. will be purchased from the developer at "fair market value" and this will reflect the higher, rezoned, value, not the agricultural value. Think about that for a minute.
****Within these tax districts, property value increases are used to pay off bonds - for that district. The County sees no benefit from rising property values but assumes some highly cumbersome technical responsibilities for administering districts.