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A ‘Win/Win’ Alternative To The Santolina Dilemma

A ‘Win/Win’ Alternative To The Santolina Dilemma

Optimizing Public And Private Interests

By Paul Lusk, David E. Vogel and Julia A. Stephens

The negative impact of the proposed Santolina development on Bernalillo County, Albuquerque and adjacent jurisdictions, including the middle Rio Grande region and the rest of the state, demands a better alternative.

On Aug. 7 a carefully researched and thought-out “land swap” alternative was presented to the Bernalillo County Commission. It represents the prospect for a positive outcome for all parties, including the Santolina owners.

The proposed alternative is based on a land swap among Bernalillo County, Albuquerque and the Santolina owners that would preserve the current Santolina site as permanent open space, and swap the current Santolina site for a package of vacant infill parcels of land within the county and the city, a portion of which would be designated for affordable housing.

It would also create opportunity for a large solar array at the current Santolina site that would provide 
electric power for Bernalillo County and Albuquerque, possibly via a citizen-owned electric utility, and feature our community’s key physical and cultural assets by developing them within the context of a contemporary high desert urban design stimulated by the proposed land swap.

The land swap approach is a substantially better idea because it would create a truly win/win opportunity for all parties by:

  • Reducing land and infrastructure development costs,
Using existing or committed infrastructure,
Increasing economic development within the county and the city,
  • Enhancing long-term community viability and resilience,
Reducing disinvestment in economically depressed areas of the county,
Stimulating distribution of affordable housing,
Creating significant transit oriented development opportunities,
Reducing wind and water erosion on the fragile West Mesa,
  • Producing low cost, clean energy for county and city residents,
Helping create a more attractive urban design for millennials and others who 
are currently migrating to other cities,
  • Aligning current county and city urban planning objectives with contemporary 21st Century urban planning principles,
  • Precluding extended, expensive litigation,
  • Giving Santolina investors an opportunity to more quickly liquidate a large, currently non-performing financial asset, and
  • Creating substantial “good will” toward the Santolina owners and developers as a result of their substantial contribution to the economic development and long-term viability and resilience of our community.

The land swap and related planning and design ideas presented in the Aug. 7 proposal offer a realistic, practical and exciting once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that could make a significant long-term contribution to the economy and the quality of life in Bernalillo County and the surrounding region, while simultaneously properly balancing and prioritizing public and private interests.

The land swap idea has been presented to both the Bernalillo County Commission and the County Planning Commission on several occasions over the last two years. Since the Santolina Master Plan stipulates and requires full exploration of other options prior to any additional approvals, this would be a perfect opportunity to do just that by exploring the land swap option.

The land swap proposal submitted to the County Commission on Aug. 7 recommends to delay further approvals of the proposed Santolina development in order to fully evaluate the financial costs to the public that would result from the benefits given to the land holder. These include TIDDs (tax incentives), externalities (direct and hidden costs to the state, county and municipalities), Agricultural Greenbelt tax status after entitlement, and the pros and cons of the proposed land swap alternative.

It is further recommended that if Santolina becomes entitled, the land be taxed as undeveloped land entitled for development, and the county be granted first option rights to buy back portions or all of the undeveloped land assets at a pre-entitled asset valuation.

Supporting the above recommendation would be an excellent place to start exploration of the land swap idea. Continued lateral sprawl is not the answer.

Paul Lusk is a former principle planner for Bernalillo County and Albuquerque. David E. Vogel is an economic and community development specialist. Julia A. Stephens is a community development and planning consultant.

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

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