With the help of a city official, Western Albuquerque Land Holdings LLC has pushed the city to buy thousands of acres of its land - some of it undevelopable - near the Rio Puerco as open space
BY DENNIS DOMRZALSKI
Western Albuquerque Land Holdings LLC, the company that wants to build the 14,000-acre Santolina development on the far West Mesa, has been working behind the scenes with Albuquerque officials since at least 2011 to get the city to spend millions of dollars to buy thousands of acres of its land – some of it undevelopable – for open space.
The company, which is owned by Barclays Capital Real Estate, has even suggested tax increases and public relations campaigns to push its agenda. And in December 2014, WALH sent city officials a spreadsheet suggesting the city spend $33.1 million through 2033 to buy 13,644 acres of its land, most of it near the Rio Puerco, miles beyond the city’s borders.
Two open space activists said the situation smacks of a much-too-cozy relationship between WALH and the main city official it has been dealing with, Open Space Superintendent Matt Schmader.
WALH’s effort to get the city to buy its land has come despite the city’s dwindling resources to buy open space. For instance, in 2007, city voters approved $5.5 million in general obligation bonds to buy open space. But then the recession hit, and in 2011, open space general obligation bonds totaled $700,000. Last year, just $200,000 was set aside for open space acquisition.
WALH, through its asset manager, Garrett Development Corp., has worked closely with Schmader on its agenda, according to emails and other records obtained by activist Ike Eastvold. Schmader and Garrett principals, Jeff and Ted Garrett, have exchanged scores of emails over the years regarding WALH’s agenda.
Eastvold and former city councilor Alan Reed, who helped start the open space program in the 1970s, said the effort to steer city money to WALH culminated in early 2015 when three city councilors introduced a bill to dissolve the city’s $10 million Open Space Trust Fund and use it to buy property. Interest on the trust funds principal is currently used to help maintain city open spaces.
That legislation was introduced just four months after WALH sent Schmader its spreadsheet suggesting the city spend $33 million on its properties. The City Council eventually junked the idea of dissolving the trust fund after Reed, Eastvold and others objected.
Schmader expressed his support to Ted Garrett last year for the trust fund dissolution bill. “This is the introduction for the bill to re-purpose the permanent fund for land acquisition,” Schmader’s April 6, 2015, email said. “So this is the first step in what I hope to be a couple months-long process to allow for more purchases soon.”
Schmader’s relationship with WALH officials has troubled Eastvold and Reed. Both said it appeared that WALH had gotten special treatment, and that the lack of public involvement in the process was concerning.
Schmader did not return ABQ Free Press phone calls for comment on this story. Nor did Ted or Jeff Garrett.
“It smells. It shows a continuing effort and cooperation between the representatives of WALH and the superintendent of Open Space, Matt Schmader, to earmark open space money to purchase undevelopable lands from WALH,” said Reed, who was a councilor from 1975 to 1979. “It’s improper because there was no public input on this.”
Eastvold, who pushed for the creation of the Petroglyph National Monument in the late 1980s, said, “It definitely seems to me that this particular land owner was given almost exclusive treatment, and plans were hatched that would not be tolerated by the City Council and that would drain city resources for the next 18 years.”
Both Eastvold and Reed said the city should be looking to buy open space land closer to the city and in greater danger of being developed, not land near the Rio Puerco.
Both men said they became even more convinced that WALH and Schmader were cooperating too closely last August when they said Schmader tried to ram through the city’s purchase of 640 acres of WALH property called the Northern Sand Dunes near the Rio Puerco for $1.5 million. Schmader appeared before the city Open Space Advisory Board on Aug. 25, 2015, and told board members he wanted them to recommend approval of the purchase. The problem, though, was that the issue wasn’t on the board’s agenda as an action item, and thus the board was barred from voting on it under the rules of the New Mexico Open Meetings Act.
The board did approve the buy, and Eastvold filed an Open Meetings Act violation complaint against the board. The board held a second vote on the recommended purchase in September and approved it again.
Open Space board member Janet Saiers said she was uncomfortable with the way Schmader tried to push through the sand dunes purchase. “The agenda said it was a property report involving the sand dunes. Then all of a sudden it goes from a property report to Matt Schmader recommending acquisition,” Saiers said. “I thought we were only going to have a report.”
“The questions I have,” Saiers continued, “is who had directed Matt to ask for that parcel to be purchased, what is the relationship between the city and WALH, and were any intentions made [between the city and WALH] that were not part of the public discussion? Some of those emails [between WALH and Schmader] lead someone to ask if there was a commitment made.”
A Feb. 6, 2012, memo from Ted Garrett suggested various ways the city could fund its purchase of four WALH properties, including the sand dunes. They included sales and property taxes, as well as federal funds. The memo even suggested a public relations campaign to help with the effort.
A Sept. 24, 2015, hand-written memo by Schmader about a meeting he had with Ted Garrett might suggest the real reason for WALH’s continuing campaign to get the city to buy its land. “TG-[WALH] Are looking to pay down debt. Large OS [open space] through the rest of the city has not been donated,” Schmader’s memo said. “WALH would not be able to donate any land or take a price redux.”
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