An Independent Monthly Newspaper Serving the Community since 1988


FEMA floodplain re-zoning affects Bernalillo

—L. A. WILLIAMS, SIGNPOST

On July 22 and 23, at the Town of Bernalillo Council Chambers, FEMA representatives, Mayor Patricia Chávez, and local government flood management officials were in attendance to address Bernalillo residents’ concerns over the recently expanded Sandoval County FEMA floodplain maps. The public discussion focused on the new classification of many zones in the town of Bernalillo as high-risk areas that were previously considered low-risk.

The change in classification for Bernalillo residents stems from a 2.5-mile-long levee that runs through the town. Federal authorities, which are currently in their fourth year of a five-year flood zone updating effort, require that their owners must certify all levees in order to be recognized by FEMA. The problem is that the ownership of the levee running through Bernalillo is currently being contested in court between the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy and the Bureau of Reclamations. Since there is no current legal ownership, FEMA does not recognize it as a certified levee, causing flood-zone boundaries to expand into previously low-risk areas.

Property owners who were, before the map change, in flood zone B, C, or X (low- to moderate- risk areas) are now finding themselves in high-risk zones known as Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs) and designated by a zone rating of A, AE, A1-30, AH, AO, V, VE, or V1-30. The recently designated flood-zone ratings require that some property owners in those high-risk zones carry flood insurance. The requirement is mandatory for structures with mortgages from a federally-regulated lender.

At the current time, neither FEMA, nor Sandoval County or the town of Bernalillo has the ability, much less the information needed to alter the current flood zone requirements. Mayor Chávez pointed out that it will take time to identify “to what specifications the old levee was built” and “it will require the production of maintenance records,” before any basis can be established on the current state of the levee. After information is gathered and studies have been conducted, the levee’s condition will be compared to the FEMA specifications, and then the appropriate parties may make a plan of action. Until the aforementioned is accomplished, the levee will remain unrecognized by FEMA, and the property owners in the affected flood zone who have federally-regulated mortgages will be required by their lenders to carry flood insurance.

Bernalillo first joined FEMA in January 1983, designating which areas were in compliance with accepted guidelines, and thereby adopting the ordinances, which allowed for citizens to purchase lower cost flood insurance. This date of the initial assessment also signals that a Federal Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) was put into place.

Some Bernalillo property owners might be able to take advantage of various pre- and post-FIRM eligibility guidelines as they pertain to their property flood insurance zones today. With acceptable documentation, some residents who have received notices that flood insurance is required on their property may be able to obtain lower insurance rates by taking advantage of zone “Grandfather Rules.” Residents who have been given a timeframe by their mortgage lenders to obtain flood insurance coverage and need help in verifying the specifics of their property in relation to the flood-zone map may contact the Bernalillo Planning & Zoning department. The P&Z department will do what is possible by assisting property owners who need supporting information requested by insurance carriers and/or those who are able to take advantage of the “Grandfather Rule.” P&Z officials have offered to provide letters from the department to assist property owners in providing accurate information to their respective lenders.

There is no quick fix for the residents affected by the flood zoning change. The time it will take in addressing the many issues surrounding the levee and having it certified by FEMA will surely be costly, and will involve multiple parties.

For more information, contact Bernalillo Planning & Zoning at 771-7118. For more information regarding flood insurance and zoning maps, visit http://www.fema.gov.

 


Katie & Lowell Williams

Letter from the editors

Hello to all,

Thank you for picking up this month’s issue of the Signpost.

For those of you who have not yet heard the news, the owership of the Signpost has changed hands. Barb and Ty Belknap have officially handed us the reins, and we are now the owners and operators of the publication. With our backgrounds in journalism and professional writing, along with the guidance from Barb and Ty, the Signpost will continue the tradition of bringing local news and services to the residents of Sandoval County.

We extend our warmest appreciation to Barb and Ty for their years of dedication and hard work. Their efforts have not only established the Signpost as a respected source of local news, but kept our communities entertained and well informed.

Sincerely,

—KATIE AND LOWELL WILLIAMS, PUBLISHERS, Signpost

 


Moises Gonzales

County long-range planner, Moises Gonzales, shows residents the different areas of Placitas that will be affected by the new plan.

Placitas residents at planning meeting

Placitas residents voice concerns about the County’s proposed long-range planning.

Placitas residents pack community center for planning showdown

—KATIE WILLIAMS, SIGNPOST

It was standing room only on July 17, as nearly two hundred Placitas residents converged on the Placitas Community Center for what was to be step one of a proposed community plan that would govern future land-use issues, including subdivisions and the expansion of commercial zones. The gathering had vehicles parked along a half-mile of Camino de Las Huertas.

Residents were upset that the Placitas area was not being considered as a whole. They questioned how dividing Placitas could possibly contribute to a productive and logical development and zoning plan, which essentially affects the area as a whole. [See Gauntlet, this Signpost.] The plan focused on Placitas areas east of the S-curves at mile marker three on NM 165 and extended to all private property north to BLM lands and south and east to the National Forest, excluding land grants and the master-planned Diamond Tail subdivision.

Heading the meeting was county long-range planner Moises Gonzales. Gonzales laid out different maps of the Placitas area and possible long-range goals for community planning that included issues of population growth, commercial growth, the preservation of the Placitas village center, acequia and other water issues, as well as infrastructure and transportation improvements. It has been previously acknowledged that water availability is an issue that would ultimately govern density and build-out of sites.

The meeting quickly turned into a heated debate, as Gonzales pointed out areas of Placitas that would not be included in the long-range planning of the community. Frustrated residents could not hold their questions until the end of the meeting. Many in attendance questioned Gonzales’s presentation and why it lacked details regarding the inclusion of such a large percentage of residents who feel that their properties are physically and economically affected by the impact of future planning strategies, but who could not participate in the plan. As temperamental as the meeting was, Gonzales says, “A lot of planning processes start like that…people bring a lot of issues that don’t involve planning.”

Residents voiced concerns about how the County planned to finish this entire process in three months, as well as the alleged affiliation of Gonzales to future developers. “The process starts tonight,” said Gonzales. He went on to say that it is not fiscally responsible to develop an area without a plan.

Placitas area subdivisions all the way up Highway 165 through Ranchos de Placitas are within the boundaries of the Extra Territorial Zone of the Town of Bernalillo. Since the town has expressed interest in participating in the new planning process, this area was not included in the first phase. Some residents of the ETZ are concerned that the town will make unwelcome changes. There are even rumors that Bernalillo is looking into annexing the whole area.

Most of the public comment came from residents who lived inside the ETZ. Since the meeting was so contentious, the County has abandoned its original planning process and has decided to hire an independent contractor to serve as facilitator at the next meeting scheduled on August 14, at 6:00 p.m. at El Zócalo in Bernalillo. Gonzales said, “We will focus on the community as one large group. We cannot ignore the ETZ.” He said that Bernalillo Planning and Zoning Director Kelley Moe and town Manager Stephen Jerge would represent the ETZ at the August meeting.

The public process will then be scheduled. The County still hopes to complete the planning process by the end of the year.

Questions and concerns can be addressed to Moises Gonzales at 867-7656 or mgonzales@sandovalcounty.

 


Commission watch

—L. A. WILLIAMS, SIGNPOST

On July 17, 2008 the Sandoval County Commission held its regular bi-monthly meeting at the Commission Chambers.

• Dr. Richard Kozoll and Jeanette Linville presented “Step into Cuba,” a physical activity program, which includes development of walkways and trails in the Cuba, New Mexico area. The program proposes linking walkways, roads, and hiking trails, including the Continental Divide trail, in and around Cuba. Their request for a letter of support from the Sandoval County Commission and for material and fiscal support was unanimously approved.

• Bernie Sullivan reported on the activities of Rebuilding Together Sandoval County, which saw approximately 630 volunteer hours (excluding professional services). Bernie estimated the retail value of those volunteer hours at $42,250.

• Las Acequias de Placitas appealed the past approval by the Planning and Zoning Commission of a Summary Subdivision known as Lots 1-5, Wild Cherry Farms. The property in question is located on Paseo de San Antonio within Section 30, Township 13 North, Range 5 East, NMPM, Placitas, Sandoval County, NM. Las Acequias de Placitas expressed their concerns regarding the wells, water rights, and roads affected by the possibility of future development in the area. There was plenty of tension between the various parties in the room, but the hearing was kept well-moderated by the Commissioners.

Those representing Las Acequias de Placitas reminded the county that new residents in the future development would be tapping into an existing well to handle their needs for both domestic and irrigation water. The speakers restated their fears: there is no back-up source for water available for current or future residents, and at the very least there should be a request from the county for additional state engineer testing to be done on the water supply. Past studies have shown the water age in the well is roughly six months old, indicating that the levels are more prone to fluctuation as it relates to precipitation, snowpack, and runoff.

All wells are impacted by usage, and the county attorney was quick to point out that “impact does not equal impairment.” It was unclear whether engineers have ever performed an “impairment” analysis, or if such a request had been made during the course of the development planning.

The Commission voted 4-1 against the appeal by Las Acequias de Placitas, with Orlando Lucero as the only commissioner voting on behalf of the appeal.

• Bruce Rizzieri, from the Mid-Region Council of Governments, requested approval to Publish Title and General Summary Relating the Placement on the November 4, 2008, Ballot of an Ordinance Adopting a County Regional Transit Gross Receipts Tax/One-Eighth of One Percent half funding for Rail Runner and half for development of shuttle. This passed unanimously.

• David Mathews, County Attorney, presented a request for Approval to Purchase 7.7796 acres, known as the Crest of Montezuma, from the Pueblo of Santo Domingo, at an appraised value of $88,000. This acreage will provide public access to the new BLM open space just east of the Village of Placitas. The request was unanimously approved.

 


Mayor announces August meetings

Mayor of Rio Rancho Thomas E. Swisstack will be conducting six “Community Conversations” throughout the city in August.

“I am eager to follow up with residents who attended my April and May meetings,” said Mayor Swisstack. “My intent with this next series of meetings is to provide updates on the topics we previously discussed and continue dialogue on how we can collectively work together to enhance our community.”

One meeting will take place within the boundaries of each of the six City Council Districts. Meeting dates, times, and locations are as follows:

• Tuesday, August 5, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Maggie Cordova Elementary, 1500 Veranda Road SE
(Council District 1)

• Thursday, August 7, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Star Heights Recreation Center, 800 Polaris Boulevard
(Council District 2)

• Thursday, August 14, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Shining Stars Preschool, 4477 9th Avenue NE
(Council District 4)

• Tuesday, August 19, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Rio Rancho Elementary School, 4501 Pepe Ortiz Road SE
(Council District 5)

• Thursday, August 21, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Mountain View Middle School, 4101 Montreal Loop NE
(Council District 6)

• Tuesday, August 26, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Colinas Del Norte Elementary School, 1001 23rd Avenue NE
(Council District 3)

For more information on the city and Mayor Swisstack, please visit www.ci.rio-rancho.nm.us.

 


County Line

—JOSHUA MADALENA, CHAIRMAN, SANDOVAL COUNTY COMMISSION

Preparing a household budget while new family members are being added daily is similar to planning future costs of critical programs and services for such a rapidly growing area as Sandoval County.

The County Commission in March had just begun the months-long process of developing a new fiscal year budget when we received word from Senator Bingaman’s office that our area’s population—and demands for programs and services—is surging at a record pace.

According to the Census Bureau, Sandoval County was the twentieth-fastest growing county in the nation and the fastest growing in New Mexico. For the period between July 2006 and July 2007, the County grew at 5.2 percent to an estimated population of 117,866. By contrast, the entire Albuquerque metropolitan area, in which much of our County is included, grew at only 2.1 percent during the same period.

In the County’s budget process, the Commission and staff work hard to develop efficient solutions to manage services for our existing and mushrooming population. Then, we strive to allocate dollars at sufficient levels to meet those needs—both today and in the future.

The Commission in late July adopted the County’s budget for this fiscal year that pretty much mirrors the preliminary budget we approved in May. In terms of dollars, the budget totals $93.9 million. In terms of services and programs, the budget is extensive.

On the revenue side, about $19.6 million—or not quite twenty-one cents of each dollar—will be received from property taxes. Most of the County’s revenues, more than seventy-nine percent, come from a wide variety of sources that range from grants, legislative allocations, and bond revenues to landfill fees, gross receipts, and excise taxes.

It’s important to note that while property assessments have changed in step with escalating real estate values, the County Commission has not increased property tax rates since 1995—thirteen years ago.

On the expense side of the ledger, the bulk of the new budget is directly targeted to fund services and programs on which County residents depend. About $26 million, or almost twenty-eight percent of the total, is allocated for such community services as senior programs, health, and other initiatives that directly benefit residents throughout the County. Another $21 million is budgeted to pay for improving County roads, operating the landfill, and other public works functions.

An additional $21 million is earmarked for public safety operations so that the Sheriff, fire and emergency services, and the Detention Center can continue responding effectively to the needs of the County’s growing numbers of residents.

Less than five percent, or about $4.5 million, is budgeted for such basic aspects of government as elections, recordings and filings, and tax assessing and collections. An additional five percent is budgeted for such operational expenses as insurance, utilities, maintenance, and computer systems. The remainder of the budget is allocated for bond debt and cash reserves, as mandated by the State.

One way the County has been able to keep pace with our surging growth and yet keep property taxes stable is by creating partnerships within both the public and private sectors that promote the wisest use of taxpayer dollars.

Questions or comments for Commissioner Madalena can be mailed to him in care of Sandoval County Administrative Offices, PO Box 40, Bernalillo, NM 87004 or by email to commissionermadalena@yahoo.com.

 


New Rio Rancho gross receipts tax rate

Effective July 1, 2008, the gross receipts tax in the City of Rio Rancho is 6.9375%. This tax rate reflects an increase of one-quarter of one percent.

This increase stems from the passage of a Higher Education Initiative by Rio Rancho voters last March. This initiative is expected to raise $20 million over its twenty-year life span and help the University of New Mexico with infrastructure and land improvements to bring a UNM west campus to Rio Rancho’s new Downtown City Center.

For more information about gross receipts taxes, please visit the State of New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department’s website at www.tax.state.nm.us.

 


Diversion ditch

Diversion ditch raises traditional water issues

Placitas Beanfield War

—TY BELKNAP

When Dave Harper put a culvert under Tres Amigos Road, he opened another chapter in the Placitas Beanfield War (see January 2005 Signpost). No shots have been fired, but emails are getting nasty in a dispute that reflects water issues throughout the state of New Mexico.

Harper told the Signpost that he intends to use the culvert to divert water from the Rosa Castilla Spring on Las Huertas Creek. He plans to use an old ditch (acequia) system that hasn’t been used since the seventies when hippie squatters used it to irrigate vegetables and other plants in an area known as Tawapa. The ditch will require a lot of work before it will carry any water. Harper claims that he, as owner of the property that was once irrigated, has the right to resurrect the acequia system water rights.

Susan Blumenthal, owner of seventeen acres downstream from the culvert, called Harper’s action “a blatant water grab.” She questions Harper’s right to do so and suspects that he is seeking water rights that could be sold for a lot of money. For the past several years, Blumenthal has been using federal and state grants on a riparian restoration project along Las Huertas Creek.

During most years, the runoff from snowmelt in the Sandia Mountains flows through this section of the creek and on downstream. In 2007, surface water flowed all the way to the Rio Grande until August. This year, due to less snowpack or heavier irrigation demands upstream, no runoff has reached Rosa Castilla. The spring-fed creek flows for about a mile through a lush cottonwood bosque.

Harper says that he would not deprive the bosque of instream water during years such as this. He says that he has no intention of selling his sixteen acres or the water rights. He wants to irrigate a vegetable garden, some fruit trees, and a patch of native grass to feed wild horses that drink from the creek.

Shawn Wallwork says that Harper installed the culvert into his property off Tres Amigos Road without his permission. While he too questions Harper’s motivation for doing so, he said that since he was unsure about the legality, he dug ditches through his own property to protect trees and other natural features. He also wrote a letter to the Office of the State Engineer urging the appointment of a water master to come sort things out. The letter states:

“… my research indicates that the ditch has only functioned for one season in more than forty-eight years. Your office did a field check that indicates that the ditch had not been used for a number of years prior to this 1960 report. So why after almost half a century of non-use and deterioration has Mr. Harper decided to spend the money to rehabilitate the ditch? He says it is to establish pastures for the Placitas wild horses. The more probable answer is, with water now selling for $35,000 an acre-foot, Mr. Harper could be looking at a $1 million payday.

“Meanwhile, Mr. Harper approached his downstream neighbors asking them to form an acequia association to compete with Lynn Montgomery’s acequia association. Since Mr. Montgomery is taking all the water out of the creek 24/7/365, he doesn’t want the North ditch reactivated because this would cut into his water allocation. Mr. Montgomery refuses to allow any north-side water users to join his acequia association, again so they won’t take any of his water. It is obvious from Mr. Montgomery’s latest email to Wayne Canon that someone has been damaging his ditch at night, more than twenty-five times this summer. In an earlier email, Mr. Montgomery complained about this and issued a veiled threat of violence. In order to develop a community dialog, and try to solve some of these problems, we started an email list. While many solutions were discussed, Mr. Montgomery rejected everything but maintaining the status quo—except he indicated that his acequia association is planning to extend the south ditch all the way to the Rosa Castilla Springs. Presumably this is so Mr. Harper’s north ditch won’t be able to cut off the water to his south ditch. So we have a Mayordomo taking all the water 24/7/365 and threatening violence; we have a realtor digging up private property, threatening lawsuits, and trying to establish dueling acequia associations; and the two of them are threatening to dig up all of our properties on both sides of Las Huertas Creek, and install two acequias that both divert water at the Rosa Castilla Springs! On top of this, we have a night raider “liberating” water from an over-diverting irrigation ditch. If this doesn’t qualify as a situation needing a temporary Water Master, what does?”

Harper has taken no action other than to install the culvert. He has not entered into the neighborhood debate. The focus of a neighborhood email conversation has since focused on the Acequias de la Rosa Castilla which has been operated for the past thirty years by water rights activist and mayordomo Lynn Montgomery. The water rights claims of Harper and Montgomery are similar in nature, so they don’t question each others’rights.

Susan Blumenthal has for many years questioned the legality and wisdom of taking the limited instream flow for irrigation purposes. She says that irrigation and some forms of agriculture have never been environmentally sustainable in this area—not even in historical times when it was necessary for survival.

Montgomery initially refused to comment, but later submitted the following email to the Signpost:

“The reason I don’t want to make any statements over Las Huertas Creek conflicts is not only are we in litigation, but that no matter how hard I try, people around here don’t believe anything I say, or turn it against me. They just keep saying I am taking all the water and not leaving any for the Creek, which just isn’t true, and if it were, I have the perfect right and obligation as part of my duties as an elected official to deliver water to my parciantes.” He also said that lately the impasse has shown some signs of abating.

The litigation in question is Montgomery’s ongoing water rights transfer protest that is now waiting to be reheard in District Court. Montgomery has contested the transfer of water rights to the Overlook subdivision in Placitas on the grounds that groundwater pumping reduces the spring flows that feed his acequia, which will impair his water rights. The Overlook developers dispute both Montgomery’s water rights and his contention regarding a limited increase in residential groundwater pumping.

Further complicating the controversy, a lower court ruled last month that the state’s law that allows all applications for domestic wells is unconstitutional. This ruling is based on a lawsuit charging that groundwater pumping impaired the senior water rights of a southern New Mexico acequia.

Montgomery cites this case as proof of the legal authority of senior water rights such as those that he claims. He writes:

“As far as the recent ruling, it is going to take awhile for the actual ramifications of it to sink in. Nothing is going to happen immediately, but those that plan on building in Placitas should take heed that all these recent rulings over water rights have solidly backed up priority administration, where old pre-1907 rights get their full amount before any junior rights. And the court has solidly backed up that the due process civil rights of senior rights holders are violated if they are impaired by junior rights and have no legal recourse to call junior rights. I believe that the court will, in the next year, find groundwater pumping is impairing senior rights by reducing flows, and that, eventually, many wells in Placitas will have to be restricted to very low amounts or even shut down. The more straws in our aquifers, the less water allowed pumped, and the more wells that will have to cease. The County and State Engineer have been reckless over the years, claiming someone’s right to develop their property supersedes senior water rights. Just ain’t so, and the chickens will come home to roost eventually. Water rights are private property, too. Plans should be made to find sources to haul water, help senior rights holders better establish their rights as broadly as possible so that they can be leased to well owners, and stop trying to destroy our local agriculture to keep on sprawling so the few can make lots of money at the expense of the rest of us. Our local farmers and growers are put down, bought out, and vilified for trying to keep this critical resource going. Ultimately, negotiated, court-approved settlements between water users that are fair and hove to water law are the only alternative to endless conflict.”

The Office of the State Engineer (OSE) does indeed face a dilemma. The State Engineer has been trying for several years to convince the State Legislature to grant his office the right to limit domestic wells. The legislature has not acted on this political hot potato. With the recent court ruling, though, the OSE may be placed in a position to appeal that decision because it does not have the resources to study every domestic well application to determine if pumping would affect surface flows.

Shawn Wallwork also says that it is up to the courts: “Back when Placitas was a community of farmers, and New Mexico was mostly farming and ranching, the legal concept of “eminent domain” was used to force property owners to cooperate with acequia associations. Essentially, property owners had to give up the use of a little land for the greater good of the community. Now that a vast majority of New Mexico has given up farming and ranching, the same law could be used to seize the primary property of the acequia associations—senior water rights—for the greater good of the community that could be deemed instream flow or domestic use.”

Water scarcity will eventually pit the rights of landholders against water rights holders. In this escalating beanfield war, property rights could be lost unless a compromise is reached. The value of land and water are inseparable.

 

 

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