South Valley Showdown
Residents square off against manufacturers near their homes
For decades, homeowners in the South Valley's Mountain View neighborhood have put up with pollution in their backyards.
The area near Second Street and Rio Bravo has been zoned for manufacturing since the ’70s. That means polluting businesses and residents share air.
Several members of the residential and business communities are meeting regularly to hammer out a sector plan that could limit new industry in the area. Mountain View Neighborhood Association President Patty Grice says she hopes the plan can curtail the negative image of her neighborhood. "Everybody says it's the place where all the junkyards, concrete plants and the petroleum tanks are," she says. "We don't want to be viewed as a dumping ground."
“Industry is concentrated in the communities of low income and people of color.”
Lauro Silva, principal investigator for South Valley Partners for Environmental Justice
Rich Luna, chairman of the Mountain View Commercial Property Association, says he wants to make sure the sector plan provides a healthy breeding ground for industry.
He co-owns Champion Truss, which has been engineering wood and steel products in the South Valley for 20 years. "We have to have a sector plan that's going to promote business and create jobs and tax revenue," he says. "At the same time, if we can enhance the environment, great."
“We have to have a sector plan that's going to promote business and create jobs and tax revenue.”
Rich Luna, chairman of the Mountain View Commercial Property Association
A battle like this wouldn't happen in a mostly white, more affluent neighborhood, says Lauro Silva, principal investigator for South Valley Partners for Environmental Justice. His organization looks into how land-use policies affect the environmental health of South Valley dwellers. Pollution, he adds, tends to find poor neighborhoods. "Industry is concentrated in the communities of low income and people of color. This happens in most of the urban centers around the country. It's not a new phenomenon to Albuquerque."
One of the key points of contention between the two camps is whether there should be a buffer zone between new manufacturing businesses and homes. The original sector plan (see "History of the Sector Plan") called for a distance of 1,000 feet between polluters and homes. Luna insists a buffer zone is unnecessary. "That's gotta go,” he says
As an alternative, he proposes new industry next to homes must be required to build a wall around its property. Certain types of manufacturing facilities should only be allowed to build near residences if they get a conditional-use permit, he says. That would mean businesses like asphalt and concrete-batching plants would need special permission from Bernalillo County to move in. "Those permits would be very difficult to obtain," Luna says.
On Ric Watson’s trip home through his South Valley neighborhood, he passes several auto salvage yards and a wood manufacturing facility. He’s constantly reminded he lives in an industrial part of town. From his windows at home, he can see a sewer treatment plant, and sometimes he catches a whiff of the sewage. "When the north winds are blowing, we definitely smell it," he says. "I hear their equipment running at night."
As a Mountain View Neighborhood Association member, he says he's uncomfortable with the idea of throwing out the buffer zone. "I would be a little flexible on it, but I don't know if I would even cut it in half to 500 feet," Watson says. "That's not much room if you're talking about a plant that's kicking up a lot of dust."
Hurry Up and Wait
While the two sides argue over the details of the sector plan, there are no legal protections keeping a business from buying land and putting a manufacturing plant on the properties. "That's the scariest thing," Watson says. "Things are kind of wide open right now until we get a sector plan in place." Silva says with the economy in crisis, it's highly unlikely any new development will take place. "The timing is absolutely perfect," Silva says. "This is an opportunity to take our time and do this right."
District 2 County Commissioner Art De La Cruz says he will do everything in his power to prevent a polluting business from rolling in while the proposal is in the works. De La Cruz says he'd like to see a sector plan put together by the end of the summer, but Silva contends a year from now is a more realistic time frame.
The History of the Sector Plan
In 2005, pollution-conscious neighbors started working on a sector plan for Mountain View that would set up limitations on what kinds of businesses could move onto undeveloped land. They wanted to limit the amount of new industry coming in, but the proposal would have no effect on companies that had already set up shop. After three years of ironing out details, the sector plan was submitted to the Bernalillo County Planning Commission.
Mountain View business owners complained their input wasn't included in the proposal. The planning commission deferred a decision on the plan until both sides could reach a compromise.
After several meetings, Bernalillo County Commission staff pulled the sector plan proposal from consideration in April. County Commissioner Art De La Cruz says it was withdrawn because the sector plan put land values in limbo.
A piece of land zoned for heavy manufacturing is worth more than something that's zoned for commercial business. Under the sector plan, new manufacturing businesses could not operate within 1,000 feet of a residential area. That means land zoned for manufacturing near a residence would have to be rezoned, making the industrial property less valuable.
From January of 2008 until the sector plan was pulled more than a year later, prospective buyers eyed the industrial real estate nervously. De La Cruz says people looking to buy land were hesitant to shell out the big bucks for property zoned for manufacturing, knowing that the designation could change.
Lauro Silva of South Valley Partners for Environmental Justice says pulling the sector plan was an insult to the people who worked for years on the proposal. "After many thousands of man hours by many residents, this plan has been pulled away in a very offensive and rude manner.”
See Eric Williams’ photo essay on the Mountain View neighborhood here.