Plan This

With apologies to those still laboring in the field, my career choice - city planning - got hijacked sometime around the mid-eighties and has been going downhill ever since. The rise of organized private property rights movement(s) and the interests of various private financial machinations and entities loosely coalesced to assist in this decline by weakening land use and planning laws and touting free market ideals ill-fitted to real estate.  So pardon my skepticism about planning reforms cooked-up like fast oats.

That there is today no connection between land use planning and capital planning will come as no surprise to most of us involved in either one.  But there is a connection, albeit loose and voluntary, between local government capital planning and the state in New Mexico. And there is still a requirement in statute that the state develop a multi-year capital projects program using those plans and the plans of other agencies. There is also a division of the Department of Finance charged with doing all that.

I point this out only because some proponents of capital outlay reform now seem to be under the impression that all this is new.  It isn't. Most improvements to the process within one bill, HB 307, could be accomplished without legislation. Representative Moe Maestas made this point in a committee hearing. "That can happen today." The provision of staff and oversight of the capital project process could happen today with adequate funding and without new law. There is no appropriation with the bill.

Hey, don’t get me wrong. I love government.  But adding two new boards to a process won’t fix a thing and it won't be transparent or streamlined. There is a phenomenon I’ll call access overload where, as in the case of Albuquerque, the number of public agencies and layers of meetings open to the public have multiplied into an impenetrable maze of calendars and agendas. Sure, they're public meetings but public input gravitates toward the interesting not the mundane.  Irregularities can hide in plain sight when oversight and watchdogs are dispersed. 

HB 307 also carves out exceptions to the capital planning process for transportation and water trust board projects that don't exist now. Some legislators sound intent on holding onto the potential to submit projects independent of the new review and ranking council.  The bill may codify - set in statutory stone - the problems proponents wanted to fix. 

Capital Outlaw Reform

House Bill 307 would put architects, engineers and construction professionals and maybe a planner* together in a committee to recommend** capital outlay priorities for New Mexico. Think New Mexico thinks this is a good idea and I'm sure a lot of architects, engineers and construction professionals do too. Why wouldn't they given their livelihoods are at stake.

It would be like locking lobbyists in a room to duke out the contents of a bill.  It just takes the legislators off the hook for having to decide the more powerful interests.

And forget it if you're not in that room. 


*  or someone who has worked in the area of  "complex financing of commercial or public capital projects" because that's just like planning right?

** Contrary to some coverage, this group would not get to decide. Thank God.

Take Down a Capital Infrastructure Christmas Tree

Step One: Don’t keep decorating it.

So the Governor sees an angle in having a capital plan. She’s put HB307 - the Capital Outlay Reform Act on her call. I posted about SB 33, another reform bill here. The bills differ in major respects but also have similarly worded sections on capital project criteria that seem too detailed for statute.

SB 33 would create a planning council made up of agency representatives with enough funding for one year and one plan. It placed planning responsibility with the legislative branch. HB 307  would keep it in the executive branch and funded. It would abolish the Local Government Division (which has coordinated planning responsibilities since the cabinet level planning department was eliminated in 1983.*) and create a new Capital Planning and Assistance Division to do ongoing work. 
But HB307 would also follow through on Think New Mexico’s problematic recommendation of establishing an expert “non-political” thirteen member council that includes architects, engineers and construction professionals. Finding anyone to serve who wouldn’t have a direct conflict of interest would be challenging. Engineers and building industry professionals are dependent on state capital dollars for their livelihoods. Injecting their contract interests and those of their associates directly into the capital planning process would make it even more political.

Sections of both bills contain similar new material about how councils should set guidelines and both go a step further by bumping  up a project’s leveraging matching funds as a priority consideration. This could anticipate insertion of a couple of huge, controversial regional projects that hold the promise of federal money.**

 In creating new councils both bills would take direct heat off of legislators for listing or not listing projects. It could serve as important cover for inclusion of some big unpopular projects. It buries those decisions behind planning rhetoric and is still top-down.


*I contend that planning has gone through so much abolishing as to have no presence in New Mexico state government anymore. Anything is a plan now. A list of capital projects is a plan.  As an example, wording in HB 307 that directs establishment of a state plan that follows best practices for capital budgeting, not planning.  

**This also stirred the tea leaves. Gila diversion and fat juicy engineering contracts will raise a big ugly head on this five-year “planning” horizon.

Railroading Paseo del Volcan

The inaptly named Paseo del Volcan project is all set to dole-out $8 million public dollars to big private landowners and that’s just the start. Rest uneasy, the total cost of the project is estimated at $70 million, not including another $8 million needed for more right of way before that starts.

Proponents are not dissuaded and have attempted to put road corridor money on level funding ground with projects that have been on the local road plans for decades. (Here's that rabbit hole: MRCOG MTP) Normalizing the project by comparing it to other interchange projects is also highly popular but misleading.  It was compared to Rio Bravo and I-25 where new jobs are anticipated. "It works!," someone in the hearing trumpeted, for goodness sake.*
Tom Church, Secretary of Department Transportation, told a New Mexico Senate committee about the Volcan project this week. He said there’s $2.5 million in “regular” STP dollars plus an “old federal earmark” of $4 million set to expire that was obligated for Atrisco Vista.  That's the road that used to be called Paseo del Volcan. We are left to assume that Atrisco Vista is now fully built and perfect.

Remember when Marty Chavez was Mayor of Albuquerque and there was much fuss and rush over economic development at the Double Eagle Airport? It is located on this road now called Atrisco Vista. Public funding was critical now for this forward thinking project that would bring orderly development. So we paid for water and sewer and storm drains so that Eclipse Aviation could move out there. Land use policies were tossed out the window.  A certain county commissioner flipped some mattress land. 

I’d love to see the estimated public dollars that went into all that.  And how'd that work out? Might that experience inform this request?

Ho Hum. Different project. Doesn’t matter. The guys that want this don’t own that.


*Land in the vicinity of Rio Bravo has rail access, airport access, freeway access and access to an existing labor force. It has been zoned for manufacturing since the county had a code. 

Christmas Tree Capital Planning *

Planning does what it's supposed to do when it’s part of a generally trusted process that goes beyond any one politician's term. That's both why it makes sense and why it doesn’t happen. 

Planning should be required for public funding. But for a variety of reasons planning as a practical government function has become nearly invisible over about the last thirty years. As a consequence, the New Mexico Legislature's apportionment of capital money is a senseless special interest wrestling match. Think New Mexico's recommendations for creation of a capital planning board and comprehensive (capital) plan are great. But they're also complete reinvention of a wheel that should have been rolling all along. How this recommended state level planning work is integrated locally may determine it's acceptance and success.

It's got to be better than no planning at all.

Comprehensive planning should take place within a web of interconnected plans that look at different things on an ongoing basis. Plans identify issues, explore alternatives, recommend policies and set priorities at varying levels of detail - the Comp Plan for a city or region being the broadest.

I didn’t make this stuff up. (Pauses to glance angrily at trolls.) But democratic city planning ideals are relatively recent. Regional planning as it was applied in this country sort of came of age in the thirties in New York State. It was fought then by Catskill developers who saw it as the potential constraint to profiteering it was. Most cities we consider “planned” cities were designed by architects or urban designers and built by an emperor, king or single rich guy.

New Mexico's uniquely invisible and toothless planning was shaped by a long rich history of exploiting people for land. That meshed nicely with national trends favoring a go, go, go housing market. The near mythical pursuit of "highest and best use" has kneecapped all but the flawed dull duo: subdivision and zoning ordinances.** At this point in our limited civil civic discourse we don't really even know what planning is supposed to do. The planning profession largely serves to either administer those development ordinances for public entities or wiggle around them for the private ones. 

Connected reasons promote not planning or anti-planning views. One is a simple lack of data. Limited truths and half-truths are easily exploited without information. Development of land has huge attendant public costs that are seldom accurately assessed. The overarching assumption is that growth pays for itself regardless of location and characteristics. Logic says the land itself is the correct determinant of public cost share,  not who owns it and the depth of their pocket.

Planning has also been a little unpopular with the civic boosters for the usual inclusion of a "no-growth" scenario in the alternatives framework some plans use. Talking no growth what-ifs just doesn't sit well with the mainstream. So never imagine that's been thought through with any public bond financing either.

"Growth management" planning efforts in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County in the 1980s and 1990s were a threat to the real estate golden goose egg and everyone who sucked on it.  Work to quantify infrastructure needs and set priorities in plans was routinely constrained or ignored by important allies of developers in government. Sympathetic elected officials insisted that existing methods of apportioning costs were fair before the Planned Growth Strategy, including determination of those costs, even began.

Lastly and importantly, planning is constrained by the wild card of capital infrastructure project funding from the New Mexico State Legislature. Legislators are unburdened by any required connection to local plans and policies. Planning without a capital component is meaningless, enabling detractors to sideline the planning process completely.




*What I would have said at the panel thingy only I would have gotten sweaty. So read this like you're me, sweaty. 

**Even so, NM didn't even have state subdivision law until the 1980s. Governor King, not coincidentally a huge landowner, vetoed the legislation a couple of times.

Bernalillo County Wants to be a City

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.

Land Development - Let the Market Decide

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.

Carrying Water for Santolina

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.

Water Authority: Santolina Ducks in a Row

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.

Santolina - The Unbearable Lightness of Planning

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?