By VIRGINIA NECOCHEA
Editor’s Note: The author is a member of the Contra Santolina Working Group, which is made up of various organizations, nonprofits, neighborhood associations, community leaders, and concerned community members. They decided to join forces against the Santolina Master Plan so they could align efforts and advocate more effectively.
I’m hoping that by now most Albuquerque residents have heard about the looming Santolina Master Plan. This is the massive 13,700-acre development that is being proposed for the city’s West Side. The plan area is bounded by I-40 to the north, 118th Street and the open space to the east, the Pajarito Mesa on the south, and the area adjacent to the Rio Puerco Valley on the west (Bernalillo County). At build-out it is expected to have 37,930 dwelling units with a population of ~ 95,000 people. This would be larger than the present City of Santa Fe. But what is most important to note is that the Santolina Master Plan is basically a re-packaged version of the former SunCal disaster back in 2009.
Here’s some quick history to refresh your memory and help you connect the Westland-SunCal-WALH-Santolina dots. In 1967 the passing of Senate Bill 151 turned the Atrisco Land Grant into Westland Development Company. The historic land grant had been turned into a corporation that was supposed to benefit the heirs. But of course this move did not benefit all land grant heirs equally. In 2006 Westland DevCo. was sold in a highly contested vote to SunCal (a California based company) for $250 million (for more details on these events see this article in the Alibi). In 2009 SunCal sought approval from the state legislature for a TIDD, or Tax Interest Development District that would allow the developer to divert a portion of property and sales taxes from within a district to reimburse the upfront costs of new infrastructure — such as roads and utilities — in the district. This request was successfully defeated. SunCal threatened to come back to the legislature in 2010 but fortunately for New Mexicans the company was sued for non payment of loans.
In September 2010 Western Albuquerque Land Holdings (WALH), agent of Barclays Bank, bought the problem ridden SunCal for $148 million. WALH, along with Consensus Planning, are the agents now pushing the looming Santolina Master Plan. Does this now help ring a bell? Santolina is proposing another developer’s capitalistic fantasyland at the expense of struggling communities.
Because there hasn’t been much media coverage on the “Zombielina” – named accordingly because of its potential likeness to what are known as “zombie developments” (major developments with many promises that end up ghost towns or unfinished communities) — we have put together the five top reasons (there are many more) why the entire city of Albuquerque should be up in arms over this massive development.
Seriously, people, we’re in a drought. In fact, according to a recent study from Cornell, the southwest will be facing a megadrought. If this is the case, how on earth can we justify the building of a 13,700-acre development that is estimated to consume 19.66 million gallons of water per day? On page 14 of the original Santolina Master Plan, it states: “Under the ultimate scenario Santolina will have a total demand of 38.7 million gallons per day.” That would be approximately 43,350-acre feet/year. It also would be an average of over 400 gallons per person per day. If this were so, this 13,780-acre area would use the equivalent of about 90 percent of the total San Juan/Chama water diversion (allocated, not guaranteed) for the entire City of Albuquerque. Bottom line, this equates to an exorbitant amount of water during a time of drought and continuous climate change. Did Albuquerque suddenly find an underground water gold mine? As Chairman Joe Chavez of the Bernalillo County Planning Commission (CPC) stated: “We want to know where this water is going to come from.”
The other alarming part of this nightmare connects to the Kirtland Air Force Base Jet Fuel Spill. Once those contaminants hit the well, that’s one less water source for us. If we haven’t cleaned up that mess, how can we support a development this size? Shouldn’t we focus on the Kirtland spill before we move on to other hazardous ventures?
- Tax Burden
Although the developers are blue in face telling the CPC board members and the public that the Santolina Master Plan comes with a “no net expense,” the facts point otherwise. Albuquerque Public Schools has already publicly stated that the burden will have to be placed on the taxpayers for the building of new schools in this area. The building and maintenance of roads is the same story. It is estimated that over $1.094 billion is needed for the building of schools and roads alone. I guess if you use faulty math this equals “no net expense.”
Here’s another no brainer: the building of this massive development on the West Side will require investment that equates to the subsequent de-investment from current communities. Doesn’t it make more sense to focus and invest in current communities that are still dealing with inadequate infrastructure or are in dire need of revitalization? Instead of investing in the shiny city on the hill, let’s invest in downtown and in the Pajarito Mesa community (located a little further southwest from the South Valley), many of whose residents continue to live in what many folks would consider sub-standard living conditions without running water or even electricity. (For more info on the Pajarito Mesa see this article in the Santa Fe Reporter.)
- Sand Dunes
Not many people stop to think about where the Santolina Master Plan will be built. It will be built upon 10,000 year-old, mostly inactive sand dunes that are covered by a layer of topsoil. Thanks to this topsoil neighboring residents do not have to worry about the amount of sand held firmly below. But what happens when this topsoil is removed? According to the USGS map (see map below) the sand will be unleashed adding to existing problems with blowing sand on the West Side. Maybe instead of Zombielina we should call it Sandolina. Aside from the sand problems, doesn’t anyone care that this low-lying shrubbery is home to at least a dozen creatures and native plants? Maybe we should also start the “Save the Prairie Dog!” campaign.
Much of our research loops back to the unfortunate lack of accountability from our decision-makers. What accountability you ask? That of ensuring the overall well being of our city and all communities, especially the communities facing greatest economic and social struggles. When you compare the pros and cons associated with the Santolina Master Plan, the costs far outweigh the benefits especially in the conditions we find ourselves in. Most rational minded beings can come to this conclusion from just a skimming of the thousand plus page plan. But what we are dealing with is a strategic blindness linking back to the dreaded dollar sign. The dollar sign unfortunately seems to always supersede the health and well being of our people and communities.
Many county commissioners and state legislators have received contributions from SunCal. The company’s former lobbyist Vanessa Alarid testified at the July CPC meeting as a community member in support of the Santolina Master Plan and read names from 50 plus letters of support that came mostly from construction businesses, realtors, and of course the Atrisco Heritage Foundation, which stands to receive $1 million a year from the SunCal deal. If you’re asking yourself why this project has passed through the CPC with relative ease, call your commissioner and demand to know why, or better yet, look up the campaign contributions for the last few years.
What is also vital for Albuquerque residents to note is that the Santolina Master Plan is only one of many other developments in the works. Giving the “green light” to the Santolina Master Plan will be giving way to the other “string of pearls” — so referred to by the developers — that will be built along Paseo del Volcan.