If you will imagine for a moment that a bureaucracy is an entity with hopes and dreams, it is clear the County wants to wear big boy development pants. This is reflected in actions over the past decade or so that have put Bernalillo County on more or less equal footing with the City of Albuquerque. Significantly, the legislature eliminated the planning and platting jurisdiction of the City about the time the Water Authority was created.
The separate Water Authority truncated water policy from planning by creating a new bureaucratic animal. Patterned on a Southern Nevada regional utility, the Water Authority, unlike municipalities, has no statutory basis for land use planning considerations. Water service is now a technical question of whether an area can be served, not whether it should be.
Eliminating Albuquerque's planning authority over the unincorporated area and creating a purely technical water utility was specifically intended to facilitate unfettered development of the unincorporated area.
The proposed Santolina Master Plan and massive rezoning (hello!) is the County's unincorporated land development responsibility. It is now solely within County jurisdiction. If approved, the County will serve this urban county population growth, as if it is a city.
But, if it isn't obvious already, the City is part of the County. Not separate. The County budget is made up, in large part, of Albuquerque's property tax base. The County may approve anything and the City gets no say. But the City, as the County's tax base purse, will pay for it.
This is true no matter what schemes and structures are used to finance anything initially. If the County approves Santolina, we all own it - Albuquerque residents will pay for the mistake for years.
If Commissioner Art de la Cruz, and the newspaper, and the real estate boosters and speculators want the County to play city, they should support the County's incorporation as a municipality, without the city and its tax base.
The market decides. The government shouldn't direct development. This was basically what the Albuquerque Journal editorial board said in favor of approving the pending huge Santolina master plan.
This ignores reality. The market may follow but players arguing for water transfers and new roads determine where land development is profitable. Not the market. The Journal knows this, having successfully manipulated public funding and opinion to benefit their own development interests for years.
Priorities for public works without capital planning, which isn't done effectively in New Mexico, depend on who's asking. The adage about real estate location, location, location, might more accurately refer to location of public roads, water lines and storm drains. Location of these services determine value and profitable land sales. The only "invisible hand" is the one pulling utility strings at any given moment.
Sprawl profiteering is exactly why Rio Rancho wants another road to nowhere paid for by taxpayers. It is not a chicken and egg dilemma. There are no land sales without road easements.* There is no land valuation that wouldn't include the inherent value of various public services available.
The market does not decide. But apparently developers do.
* Except illegal subdivisions like those on Pajarito mesa.
There is a strong disconnection between the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority and the County Commission's decision regarding the proposed "Santolina" development and it will prove costly in the future.
The county planning commission has recommended approval with little or no information about the consequences of that decision on water supply. As surprising as that seems, it is also not at all unlikely the Commission will approve Santolina without that data. Because they can. No state or county law says anyone must prove water availability until subdivision - until the land is further chopped-up for resale. But it'll be too late to say no then.
This is by design and it is contrary to what proponents for Santolina have argued. They stated in testimony before the legislature that water and land use decisions are connected now and everything is working well. For them, maybe. The argument is that having some of the same members on both bodies some of the time magically coordinates decisions. No examples were presented, as I'm certain none exist.
Because, as I've stated before, the statutorily defined responsibilities of the boards are completely separate. The utility, the city, and the county have no coordinating, or even overlapping, planning functions. And planning isn't even required of those entities. To say that planning happens and that it is coordinated is a jaw-dropping gross misstatement.*
The water utility will make a technical decision of how to serve whatever development gets approved by the County. The consequences will rest on all of us. Sort of like:
Give us the water. Sorry about your farms. Maybe you should have thought of that before you said we could have 34,000 houses out here.
* Or a lying liar's lie.
Everything is just ducky with water and water planning in New Mexico. Land developers and business interests especially like the way things are working with the state's largest water utility. SB 609* would change the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority to an elected board.** There was more testimony Monday from the big guns.
The legislature created the ABCWUA in 2003. Present membership is a musical chair arrangement of city councillors, county commissioners and the mayor. Busy elected officials with competing responsibilities and assertive staff mean oversight is lax. Most residents and legislators are unaware of problems. Most information is characterized by the congratulatory back-patting about lower water consumption.
Meanwhile debt has ballooned from $260 million to $920 million since the authority's creation. And that isn't for fixing what's breaking. Expenditures have exceeded revenues for the past six years. Goals and objectives presented to the authority board are moving targets. There have been OSHA and civil rights complaints and multiple EPA discharge violations. Executive decision making has little oversight and the chief executive sits on the only state board that might otherwise rein in the city's voracious water appetite through control of transfers - the Interstate Stream Commission.
Yet one lobbyist used the word "wonderful" over four times to describe how well the water authority is working, especially at coordination between water and land use. The authority's own lobbyist stated that it was created because residents of Bernalillo County's north and south valley were not getting served.
At this point truth took a meander, in other words.
When the water authority was dreamed-up, policy makers were concerned about water and sewer extension, but not to valley areas. Albuquerque's policy of requiring annexation for service hook-up was long-changed and valley service extensions to existing residents, funded by the legislature, had proceeded at a brisk pace for years before that. It was service to undeveloped western Bernalillo County that was contested.
It was also the threat of coordinated land use and water policy that led to creation in the first place. The city's Planned Growth Strategy that began in 1997 provided the impetus. PGS would have used water and sewer fees to manage growth just as it would eventually use impact fees to a much reduced, and now largely defunct, effect.
Unlike cities and counties, the authority's statutorily defined functions don't include land use planning or following land use plans.*** And commissioners and planning hearing attendees are regularly reminded they don't get to decide water service areas or availability.
The water authority doesn't have land use review responsibility and the city and county don't make decisions about water anymore. It is difficult not to conclude that this separation wasn't deliberate, especially given the timing with the city's large-scale planning effort.
Without a trace of irony, the representative for Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, owner of the proposed "Santolina" plan, said changing the water authority board to elected representatives might mean control by "interest groups with an agenda different from the general public."
I think he really means different interest groups.
*Senate Rules Committee passed the bill Monday and it will be heard in Senate Conservation Thursday. It mirrored a House bill I wrote about here, killed by Representative Ezzell's House Ag and water committee earlier in the session.
**My fervent hope is that a new board would also change the name.
***Not that municipalities or counties do, because NM has incredibly weak laws and bad precedents in this regard, which only sharpens my point.
The Albuquerque Journal editorial board says the Santolina Master Plan is "smart planning." But then they also got the date of the hearing wrong.
Plans are often faulted for being too utopian or too detailed. Too dreamy and impractical or too constraining. Leading to nothing at all or limiting future options too much. Santolina is a little of the worst of both. There's no vision but a lot of wishful assumptions. It constrains options for agencies, but not development.
The plan envisions continuation of the existing pattern of suburban housing. This is presented with an air of inevitability - a casual throw-it-to-the-wind feel about the future that assumes of course they'll sell houses and of course there'll be enough revenue to serve them. Economic projections are rosy. It's as if this is all a new and shiny untested story. What could possibly go wrong?
The master plan would limit tax assessments for all the land to grazing value, even after the land is rezoned. Impact fees wouldn't apply anywhere. Critical issues for agencies, like how public land in the area (open space, parks, schools and easements) will be acquired and who will pay for them, are punted - relegated to next steps. There is no phasing, such that an agency might hope to anticipate where growth within the huge area will happen first. There is no tie between employment requirements and slapping up new houses.
And there's that rezoning. Re-zoning says the developer will be entitled to triple the number of houses. Unlike master planning, zoning law sticks. It is well worn and court-tested. The developer must show how several ambiguous and freely-interpreted criteria are met. What is disconcerting is the application of those procedures for blanket rezoning of 13,700* acres. The guy that wanted a wine tasting room in the valley on a couple acres got the same level of scrutiny as will rezoning the former Atrisco land grant. The only difference is the guy didn't get the winery.
The Journal board said whether or not Santolina becomes a reality "should be up to market-driven vagaries and population shifts." That's assured, but it isn't planning and it isn't very smart. A major purpose of planning is to protect the tax base from "market-driven vagaries." The developer isn't in this alone. County approval means the county and county tax-payers are on the hook, along with all the other public agencies whose services are assumed and expected.
The editorial board's statement that it is, "better to have a say now than never," frames the plan as if inaction now means something awful next. It doesn't. Just the opposite. Hasty action, especially rezoning 13,700* acres, assures less say in the future. It assures incremental, uncoordinated approvals from multiple agencies.
There is something worse than no plan. It is magical thinking based on hope and public money.
*Corrected 3/12/15. What's ten thousand acres give or take anyway, huh?
Big machine sounds in all directions, all at once. The huge arroyo drainage channel north of here is being dredged. The bridge over the tracks is being widened. A tree-chopper gnawed-up vegetation along the riverside channel last summer. Chipping machines and chainsaws still work the miles-long brush piles. Graders ply the parallel levee roads. A bulldozer cleared "invasive species" yesterday, making a long wide rip in the narrow bosque.
Hard time to be a plant or animal. Waves of Canadian geese flew up and out of that drainage channel the day they started construction. Pheasant and flickers on edges of the bulldozed swath looked dazed. Me too.
Fresh stakes in the ground seem to identify ill-fated trees within the 15 foot levee set-back. Bemoaning loss of the valley's giant cottonwoods expect to be told, they aren't that old, this forest wasn't here, man created this space. And we have bigger things to worry about. Like flooding. Like preserving the integrity of the levees.
I think, its a good thing we're trying to preserve that somewhere.
This justification - that the habitat is man-made - would seem to say we'll respect most what's untouched - with a long list of qualifications. (Not private. Not non-natives. Not subsurface rights.) But really, haven't some places already paid their dues? Isn't the inventory of "untouched" growing a little short? Never mind, not quiet.
On top of this: Leaf-blower and a garbage truck.
Father Ferdinand Troy arrived in New Mexico Territory the same year as the railroad. During his tenure here as a Jesuit priest he traveled on the back of a burro and in an airplane. Had he lived a few more years he might have flown to Rome again in a jet. But he left Old Albuquerque's San Felipe de Neri the last time in his life one morning by motorbus and was killed that night by a car in front of the Alameda church - the church he and parishioners had built over twenty years before.
It was the eve of Christmas Eve and he had worked for hours with the women of the altar guild on decorations in the sacristy and parish hall. The sun had turned the Sandias bright pink and the white spires of the massive church glowed against this mountain backdrop. He scanned the scene with deep satisfaction and crossed the street to the bus stop.*
Fourth Street was busy Route 66 and the road curved there then just as it does today. A car suddenly appeared around that curve going very fast. Accounts differ about who killed Father Troy. One said it was a hit and run and another that it was a drunk driver. Accounts do agree that his long tenure spanned an era of great controversy and change in New Mexico and the church.
One of the most important skills of Santa Fe Ring members was concealing involvement in various deals through use of agents, employees and opaque subsidiaries. Alonzo B. McMillen, the lawyer responsible for legal destruction of the Alameda land grant in the first decades of the last century, took pains to hide his ownership interests through formation of the San Mateo Land Company.*
McMillen's quiet acquisitions during a twelve year period of court proceedings resulted in San Mateo Land Company owning nearly half the grant before the case was over and the court-ordered sale began. San Mateo then bought the remainder of the grant for $15,000. After deduction of McMillen's legal fees and costs, a mere $8000 was left to be divided between shareholders, including San Mateo Land Company that got $3500. The audaciously shady deal meant McMillen got the vast majority of the land and paid himself handsomely to do so. A pitiful remainder was left to be divided between actual grant residents and other shareholders.**
Today there are undoubtedly many legal, political and personal reasons to obscure asset ownership. Most are probably far less grandiose than McMillen's. Legitimate and scam "asset protection" schemes identify New Mexico as a great place to form LLCs (Limited Liability Corporations) in order to "be invisible" and "keep people from finding out where you live." This site notes you don't even have to come to New Mexico to file.
This likely explains the great number of incorporation filings listed in the Albuquerque Journal business section that might lead one to think small businesses are booming. Obscured land deal ownership might also explain New Mexico's continued land use, water and environmental policy void where responsible governing should be.
*This juicy history is set forth by Kristopher N. Houghton in, "The Blighted History of the Alameda Land Grant" Fall 2008 Volume 48 Number 4 - Natural Resources Journal. UNM School of Law.
**McMillen filed the partition case in 1906 and formed the San Mateo Land Company in 1907. Bernalillo County filed against the Alameda grant for non-payment of 1908 property taxes. Author Houghton wonders if payment was made especially difficult in those years by the internal disputes the partition case caused between community members. One can also wonder about McMillen's choice of saints. San Mateo, AKA Saint Matthew, is the patron saint of tax collectors and accountants.