Alibi V.13 No.48 • Nov 25-Dec 1, 2004 

Council Watch

Phoenix Envy

Council President Michael Cadigan (l) and Councilor Martin Heinrich (r) listen to testimony before joining the 6-3 majority in passing impact fee legislation.
Council President Michael Cadigan (l) and Councilor Martin Heinrich (r) listen to testimony before joining the 6-3 majority in passing impact fee legislation.
Stacey Adams

Various groups crowded council chambers on Nov. 15. Stop the War Machine people supported a bill encouraging the city to work with Kirtland Air Force Base on an emergency plan in case things go wrong with the 2,500-plus nuclear weapons stored there. ("Hold it under the cold tap, Love.") Vietnamese-Americans supported a bill recognizing the flag of the former Republic of Vietnam as the official symbol of Albuquerque's Vietnamese-American community. Supporters and opponents of development impact fees faced off.

Nukes, problematic wars, home building statistics—was it all related? (Move to Marvelicious Multi-Cultural Duke City—A Nuke for Every 200 Citizens!) This week's Still Believing in Responsibility Award goes to city staffer Carla Prando. Explaining an amendment that corrected a minor landscaping regulation, Prando said, "I made a mistake and this bill fixes it." Savor those words for a moment. When was the last time you heard them from a public servant? While many bills were passed, impact fees drove the meeting far past midnight.

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Over a year ago the Council approved the Planned Growth Strategy Ordinance by a 7-2 margin. The strategy calls for impact fees that foster or discourage development depending on its category and location. For instance, higher infrastructure and service costs would trigger higher impact fees on a housing development way out toward Rio Puerco than on townhouses on a vacant lot in the Northeast Heights. An impact fee committee has been working with highly credentialed, out-of-town consultants to create schedules of fees. The five resulting bills came to a vote at the Nov. 15 council meeting. Four bills set fees for different development categories: parks and open space, roads, public safety facilities and drainage. The fifth bill specified how fees will be reduced or waived to encourage desired development.

Land use attorney David Campbell, representing the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, said the proposed system was unfair because it assumed that development in already built-up parts of Albuquerque had no impact. Campbell also criticized the complexity of the system of giving credit to developers who built infrastructure that the city would have to build anyway. Campbell said fee levels would make Albuquerque uncompetitive with municipalities from Los Lunas to Phoenix.

Attorney John Salazar, representing the Home Builders Association of Central New Mexico, said impact fees disproportionately affected young people buying a first home.

Claude Morelli, representing supporters of the Planned Growth Strategy, said that the poor condition of Albuquerque infrastructure was already driving people away from the city, and that taxpayers should not have to subsidize developers.

Councilors debated the relationship between credits going to developers for building infrastructure and bond money budgeted for the same projects. Also unclear was whether developers would still pay negotiated exactions, the current system deemed chaotic by most people involved.

No one could really say whether the proposed impact fees would bring in more or less revenue than the current system, a point hammered repeatedly by Councilor Sally Mayer. Councilor Debbie O'Malley said that the current system didn't cover the full cost of development.

Institutions will receive 60 percent fee reductions, but representatives of Hoffmantown Baptist Church's Westside branch wanted the church to receive total exemptions. Consultant Dr. Chris Nelson said he was not aware of any other jurisdiction waiving impact fees for churches. Industrial projects will receive 70 percent reductions, and all corporations lured to Albuquerque with industrial revenue bonds will also receive complete impact fee waivers.

City economic development director Fred Mondragon said the mayor strongly supported the PGS, but impact fees were too high to create the jobs and wealth necessary to grow like Phoenix. Nelson said impact fees actually helped development, citing various Georgia cities where fees had increased growth. He said the city planned to waive fees for affordable housing.

The four bills setting fees passed 6-3, Mayer, Loy and Cummins opposed. The bill creating waivers failed 4-5, Mayer, Loy, Cummins, Winter and Griego opposed. Cadigan moved to reconsider the bill, which then passed 5-4, with Griego changing his vote.

Regarding the argument that impact fees will hurt Albuquerque builders by driving home building to outlying areas, most of the builders putting up homes in Los Lunas are from Albuquerque. And when two of the PGS's most vocal opponents, planner Karen Marcotte and realtor Chuck Gara, warned that the PGS would drive development to surrounding areas like Los Lunas, Marcotte and Gara were already operating in Valencia County well before the PGS passage.

In a similar switcheroo, Councilor Tina Cummins, a Westside real estate speculator who opposed the Planned Growth Strategy from the get-go, objected to impact fees because they weren't "tied to a plan."

On the other hand, construction is a tough, risky business and has a huge economic effect in Albuquerque. There are valid arguments for moving carefully so as not to disrupt the flow of money and employment. Some people who support the PGS are guaranteed to scream when infill comes to their neighborhoods. And while the PGS may lighten burdens on Westside schools, the underlying demographics make it unlikely to have a huge impact.

It will all probably be a mess at first. Fees may have to go up to bring in the same revenue. Or go down. There'll be unexpected effects, good and bad. But the PGS impact fee system, watered down though it is, at least has a coherent structure that nudges Albuquerque toward a more livable and sustainable city.