Santolina proposals get a thumbs down from BernCo planning commission

Developer talks trucking in water during construction, while South Valley farmers raise larger drought concerns

By: - March 3, 2022 5:00 am

The proposed location for the Santolina project. (Photo courtesy Bernalillo County)

Developers of the Santolina subdivision failed to find support for their new plans at the Bernalillo County Planning Commission meeting Wednesday.

The subdivision is designed to bring in 90,000 residents to Albuquerque’s far west mesa in the coming decades, as water shortages resulting from climate change dominate conversations about growth and population in the region.

Developers wanted to make two changes to the master plan for the development: Speeding up the timeline from 50 to 30 years, and adding a recycling plant to the area.

The planning panel opted not to recommend those changes to the full County Commission, siding with the overwhelming majority of people who made public comment at the meeting. Only one member, Joe Chavez, sided with Santolina.

Jim Strozier works with Consensus Planning, one of the companies working on the Santolina project. Strozier was the Santolina representative defending the proposals at the meeting.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for this commission to take a stance that development within Santolina is in general not appropriate,” because the master plan has already been approved and upheld in court, he said after the vote on the resolutions. “It is in place.”

The decision by the Planning Commission doesn’t end the Santolina project, and the changes to the master plan could still be weighed by the full County Commission. It’s unclear when these alterations could be presented to the entire commission.

Strozier mentioned plans to haul water into the area and create reservoirs while they’re building out some of the industrial development, like the recycling plant. He pointed out that the new proposal did not include any request to tap into water reserves, or for water and sewer services from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority (ABCWA).
Strozier insisted developers would haul water to the area from “somewhere.”

When pressed by Commissioner Angelica Solares about whether the water would still be coming from a local source, Strozier didn’t share anything specific. “I’m sure there are a number of services that provide water for all of the major construction projects, for instance, that you see in the city and in the county. There are services that provide water for dust control, there are water trucks for that.”

Santolina is expected to envelop 13,851 acres. It’s still unclear how water services will be sustained as drought diminishes resources — especially if growth in the area accelerates.

The matter of water is the key argument against the Santolina project. How can a place that is planned to house the third-largest population in the state function in an already water-strapped state?

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Dozens of South Valley residents, including those who operate farms, brought those concerns.

Mia Montoya, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, stated her opposition succinctly.

“The proposed Santolina development is a proposal to build a planned community larger than Santa Fe on Albuquerque’s West Mesa, using billions of gallons of water and millions of taxpayer dollars,” she said. This development is being proposed during a time when the Southwest is experiencing the driest conditions of the past 1,200 years due to climate change.”

Linda Starr said she lived in the South Valley for 25 years and thinks the development would add to more traffic problems and pollution. She also has concerns about water going to the Santolina community.

“It’s not a sustainable development,” she said. “Farmers are being asked to reduce their water in order to plant their fields, and farmers are important. They are an important resource to our communities. And without them we don’t have food on the table.”

Marcia Fernandez is a farmer in the area who echoed the concerns about water and how the development could impact the environment for the community.

“I think all of us know that eventually Santolina is going to require a lot of water,” she said, adding that she sat in the public planning meetings back in 2013. “We didn’t have the water then, and we don’t have the water now,” she said. “In fact, we have even less.”

Farmers and other growers in the South Valley have been operating off shorter irrigation seasons for many years now, Hernandez said.

Her family farm is generational, she added, and her grandkids are now learning to irrigate and work with the water resources they have available. The development, Hernandez said, is a threat to her very way of life.

“Really, in my heart, I’m still worried that this is something that may die with me. Maybe there will not be an agricultural tradition in the South Valley beyond my generation. God forbid.”


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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.