Santolina Foes Get Partial Court Victory

Santolina Foes Get Partial Court Victory

County Commissioner's Op-Ed Piece Torpedoes Santolina Zoning Change

Commission’s Approval Of Master Plan OK’d

An opinion-editorial piece by a Bernalillo County commissioner just two days before the commission began debating the 14,000-acre Santolina development on the West Side in 2015 has torpedoed a massive zoning change the commission gave to the developer.

A state court judge has ruled that the Op-Ed piece in which then-commissioner Art De La Cruz defended the Santolina project raised questions of his partiality, or prejudgment, and denied opponents of the zoning change due process of law. The commission voted 3-2 in the summer of 2015 to change the zoning on the 13,800 acres in Santolina from rural-agricultural to a master planned designation, which allows for the development of the master planned community.

But in a May 31 ruling in a lawsuit brought by Santolina opponents, District Court Judge Nancy Franchini, tossed out that zoning change because of De La Cruz’s March 23, 2015, Op-Ed piece in the Albuquerque Journal in which he said he supported Santolina even before the commission began debating the project.

Franchini also ruled that the commission acted properly in approving the Level A master plan for Santolina, giving opponents only a partial victory in their legal attempt to derail the project.

At issue in the case was whether the commission was acting in a quasi-judicial, or legislative role in approving the master plan and the zoning change. Franchini ruled that in the master plan debate, the commission was acting as a legislative body, and that in the zoning change it was acting in a quasi-judicial role.

The quasi-judicial role meant that the commissioners were supposed to be impartial judges when hearing testimony and that they had to come to the zoning hearing free of pre-conceived notions or opinions about the proposed zoning change.

De La Cruz’s Op-Ed piece read, in part, “It is important for the public to know why I and others support thoughtful, well-planned developments in Bernalillo County, such as the proposed Santolina Development.”

De La Cruz’s Op-Ed piece showed that he might have made up his mind before he had heard the evidence and testimony, Franchini said, adding that the commission never considered a motion to ask De La Cruz to recuse himself from the zoning debate.

“The Op-Ed in the court’s opinion raises questions of partiality and prejudgment, or the appearance thereof, sufficient to warrant at the very least the Board’s [Commission’s] consideration of the recusal disqualification of Commissioner De La Cruz,” Franchini’s opinion said.

“Procedural due process requires a fair and impartial hearing before a trier of fact who is disinterested and free from any form of bias or predisposition regarding the outcome of the case.”

De La Cruz is no longer a commissioner. He couldn’t run in the November 2016 election because of term limits. He was replaced by Steven Michael Quezada.

Franchini’s ruling means that the commission will have to reconsider the zoning change. Exactly when that could happen wasn’t immediately clear.

County attorney Ken Martinez was not immediately available for comment.

Attorney Douglas Meiklejohn, who represented Santolina opponents in the case, said he disagreed with Franchini’s decision regarding the master plan, but was happy that she struck down the zoning change.

“We respectfully disagree with the judge’s analysis as to the master plan, but we believe that the determination that our clients were denied fairness in the proceedings regarding the zoning is a major victory for fairness in these kinds of proceedings and for members of the public who want to participate in these kinds of proceedings,” Meiklejohn said.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

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