The Santolina project gained some significant ground after the Bernalillo County Commission narrowly approved the next phase for the planned mega-development on the county’s far southwest mesa. Commissioners met Aug. 30 for a special zoning meeting to tackle the controversial development plans for the southwest mesa. The second phase, or Level B plan, was approved on a 3-2 vote with Republican Commissioners Wayne Johnson and Lonnie Talbert along with swing vote Democrat Steven Michael Quezada giving the okay and Commissioners Debbie O’Malley and Maggie Hart Stebbins giving further development a thumbs down.
It is the largest master development plan ever approved by the Bernalillo County Commission. It covers 13,851 acres on the edge of the city’s West Mesa near 118th Street and south of I-40, the escarpment to the east and Pajarito Mesa to the south. If you have ever been out to the westside raceway or the county jail, you have driven on the north and west edges of the development. As per the developer’s vision, the area could grow to be a self-sustaining community of 90,000. Think another Rio Rancho or Las Cruces. All these future people are projected to be working in 75,000 local jobs that will appear within the self-contained community with parks, offices, schools and multiple village centers grouped around a central urban center.
In 2015 the commission approved the overall Level A master plan that provided for a general plan for all of the 21-square miles. This Level B plan is the second phase master plan that covers a 493-acre town center, a 176-acre business center, 671-acre industrial area and a 1,276 acre residential section. There is about 842 acres of parks and open space throughout. But before they can build anything, the Santolina developers will have to negotiate complex issues and finances with the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. After water is secured then the Level C development plans can be considered. These plans are the actual shovel in the ground plans for the infrastructure and further development.
From here, the project gets complicated. Barclays Capital Real Estate of the United Kingdom is the main money machine behind Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, LLC which own the 21-quare miles of sand dunes. The international bank scooped up our westside land for $148 million in 2010 when it foreclosed on another large out-of-state developer SunCal, formerly Westland. Westland bought the land in 2007 for $250 million from the Atrisco Land Grant heirs. SunCal tried a couple of times to get a tax increment development district set up through the state legislature but never succeeded. In the original sale contract SunCal agreed to pay the Atrisco Heritiage Foundation $1 million a year for 100 years. The foundation got at least one payment and used the money for educational scholarships and other programs preserving the Atrisco Land Grant heritage. The payments stopped in 2009 when Barclays, one of SunCal’s big creditors, became involved and filed for foreclosure; SunCal had used the entire development project as collateral for huge loans, it was revealed. Ultimately Barclay’s and its subsidiary, Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, picked up the project after an auction was held on the steps of the Bernalillo County Courthouse in 2010.
In 2015, the commission again narrowly approved, on the similar 3–2 vote, the creation of a tax increment development district to support Santolina. This sweet deal gives the developers 45 percent of future gross receipts taxes and 45 percent of future property taxes collected within the TIDD area over the next 50 years. The amount of tax money to be returned to the development is capped at $500 million but adjusted for inflation it amounts to about $1 billion dollars. Developers say Santolina could generate up to $4.5 billion in tax revenue over the next 5 decades with a full build out with 90,000 people working at 75,000 jobs.
Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, sprinkled some light on the issue when she said, “There is an elephant in the room—water. We have to be more careful than we have in the past.” Opponents that include area farmers, residents and acequia users say the development will suck our precious water right out from under their feet. Santolina is projected to use at least 12 million gallons a day at full build out. For comparison, Albuquerque and Bernalillo County use 148 gallons per person per day—almost 100 million gallons per day, all told. The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority says it has the capacity to supply Santolina if the residents are responsible stewards of the water and follow strict conservation and water reuse procedures. But this doesn’t sit well with opponents who have cited worsening megadrought conditions predicted for our fragile desert home in the next 50 plus years.
Many opponents questioned the need for the development when it has been estimated that there are more than 100,000 undeveloped lots in the greater Albuquerque area. This includes Mesa Del Sol to the south of Albuquerque, along with undeveloped land on the West Side all the way to the north and west ends of Rio Rancho. According a recent University of New Mexico study there has been a 1.9 percent growth in the county. Several commenters said if someone wanted to live in this type of place, Mesa del Sol is just across town and waiting for inhabitants to join its desert party.