An Independent Monthly Newsmagazine Serving the Community since 1989

Rio Rancho City Hall Construction

Construction is ongoing for the new Rio Rancho City Hall building, planned to be the heart of a bustling economic city center that is now home only to sparse population and blowing tumbleweeds.

Santa Ana Star Center

The new Santa Ana Star Center is home to the New Mexico Scorpions hockey team and offers a new event arena space to the Albuquerque area.

Santa Ana Star Arena

Inside the Santa Ana Star Center, the hockey rinks ice is covered with insulating boards to prepare the arena for a concert.

New city center is focus of Rio Rancho’s vision

The second-level windows of the New Santa Ana Star Center provide a panoramic view of the future of Rio Rancho. To see it, one needs to share some of the City of Vision’s vision, because right now there is a lot of empty space. Rio Rancho Communications and Civic Outreach Division manager Peter Wells took the Signpost staff on a tour that shared some of the vision.

The center is so named because Santa Ana Star Casino was top bidder for naming rights. It is seen as the economic engine behind the city’s push to develop not only as a population center, but to become an entertainment and sports destination. It is home to the New Mexico Scorpions hockey team and perhaps soon will house an arena football team. A concert last month grossed $500,000.

To the north, the city hall is under construction—scheduled for completion in July of 2007. West of city hall, the main street leads to fifty acres designated for Lion’s Gate Studios. East of city hall is 436 acres for a new University of New Mexico campus that would be the third largest in the state. Wells said that since the downtown area is starting from scratch, conscious decisions can be made about how it will develop. “It will be pedestrian friendly with shops, restaurants, and movie theaters,” he explained.

Southeast of the Santa Ana Star Center will be the new $45 million high school, surrounded by residential areas. Looking out toward Sandia Mountain, the entire desert bordered by NM 528 and US 550, from the river to the top of the escarpmentand beyond, is envisioned to be totally developed by multiple uses.

Rio Rancho has come a long way since Amrep bought ranchland from Bruce King in 1962. Propelled initially by international land-speculation schemes, Amrep stock prices have skyrocketed. The concept of providing affordable housing to a growing and westward-moving population, supported and promoted by local and state government seems to have produced limitless possibilities for developers and consumers alike.

The remarkable development of Rio Rancho has not come without some growth pains. Traffic to New Mexico Scorpions games at the center is backed up at a road construction bottleneck at Unser and Northern boulevards. City officials assure the public that traffic access will improve as the demand increases. They suggested that fans use back roads past the county landfill.

That demand is only part of the pressure developing in city hall. New Mayor Kevin Jackson expressed doubts about city manager Jim Palenick’s vision for the city—particularly about the size and importance of a deal he worked out with Las Vegas-based LWP, Inc., to develop eighty acres of downtown. Last month the city council voted unanimously to fire Palenick, considered by many to be the man behind the city’s vision. Could they be getting cold feet?

Peter Wells said, “The city is reviewing the deal with LWP and may look at other options, but city staff and elected officials are proceeding with plans and progressing toward the vision of downtown development.”

Former mayor Jim Owen said that things in city government are not as they seem. On the subject of Mayor Jackson, he was quoted in the Albuquerque Journal, "Every time Jackson's lips move, he lies. He does not know how not to lie." According to the article, Jackson said he would not stoop to Owen’s level and that, “In order to go forward we need a more collaborative approach in city hall.”

Bob Johnson, Foundation for Open Government executive director, said if the mayor had told councilors about his plans to get rid of Palenick before they voted to fire him, his collaborative approach would be a violation of the open meetings act.

Last month the city council also approved a resolution asking for something to be done promptly to relieve the rush-hour gridlock on US 550. The town of Bernalillo has suffered the brunt of the traffic assault. Initially the town expected to profit from gross-receipts taxes garnered by businesses on US 550, but now drivers risk further delays if they dare move out of the flow. The Sandoval County Commission voted last month to look into temporarily fixing the problem by eliminating the median and/or increasing the number of lanes in the direction of the morning or evening rush. Speeding the flow of traffic in this manner would further detract from businesses in the corridor.

In last month’s County line, commission chairman Jack Thomas called for a highway through Santa Ana Pueblo, prompting letters to the editor in this month’s Gauntlet by outraged tribal members. The tribal council has not taken a position publically, but they are in the difficult position of being heavily invested in the area’s development. They paid top dollar to have the name of their casino added to the events center. Will Rio Rancho’s eminent domain move on to a manifest destiny created by market demand?

The answer to this question may depend on requested legislative funding for traffic solutions. A northwest loop would shift traffic toward I-40 west of Albuquerque. Ideally, following the vision, this loop would also connect to I-25. Having learned from past experience, the developers know that if they build it, somebody will pay for it.

Signpost cartoon c. Rudi Klimpert
Tijeras preserves wildlife crossing

The Tijeras Village Council approved an expansion plan for A-1 Self-storage that preserves an important Interstate 40 wildlife crossing.

Neighboring landowner Charlie Thomas, who brought the issue to the villages’s attention, said he was satisfied the agreement would safeguard the crossing.

Thomas said he got involved because Santa Fe businessman Murray Brott’s initial plan would have closed off a ravine and large culvert used by coyotes, bears, and other wildlife to travel under the freeway.

The state’s Department of Transportation plans to install wildlife fencing along the entire length of the interstate trough tijeras Canyon as part of its reconstruction of the heavily traveled corridor Thomas and other advocates say preserving the few places where wildlife can safely cross from one side of the canyon to the other is important.

The council on Monday approved Brott’s expansion plan for the facility with several conditions, including that he obtain agreements from Thomas for emergency access and for a land swap that would preserve the wildlife crossing.

“With the fence up, animals are going to be forced to use the tunnel,” Thomas said, adding that in one five-mile stretch from Tijeras to Zuzax,”All the animals are going to come through this culvert.”

Tijeras canyon safe Passage Coalition co-chair Kurt Menke said further study was needed to determine where existing crossings and hot spots for animal-vehicle collisions are.

Reconstruction of the interstate between Carnuel and Tijeras began last summer and is scheduled to resume in the spring. Reconstruction of the segment from Tijeras to Zuzax come next.

Reprinted from the December 20 issue of The Independent.

proposed Flying Star’s Plaza de Las Huertas, in Bernalillo

Artist’s rendering of the proposed Flying Star’s Plaza de Las Huertas, in Bernalillo

Flying Star lands in Bernalillo

At the December 11 meeting, by a vote of three to one, the Bernalillo Town Council approved an appeal by the developers of the Flying Star restaurant, Mark and Jeanne Bernstein, for a zone change from retail commercial to special use. The zone change had previously been denied by the Bernalillo Planning and Zoning Commission. The main contention with the development seemed to be the height of some of the planned buildings.

The Bernsteins may now move forward with the construction of Plaza de Las Huertas, which includes a 169-seat Flying Star restaurant, twelve one-thousand-square-foot retail spaces and twelve eighteen-hundred-square-foot residential “lofts,” six of which will be three stories and exceed the town height limitations of thirty feet by five feet. Plaza de Las Huertas will be situated between Calle Evangeline and Calle de Escuela, on Camino Del Pueblo, just one block south of its intersection with US 550.

Albuquerque architect Edward Fitzgerald began the presentation of his design for the complex with photographs of Taos Pueblo, the portal of the Governor's Mansion, on the Plaza in Santa Fe, the T&T-TaGrMo building, and an adobe barn in the Zócalo Complex, adjacent to the future building site. He used some of these vernacular elements in creating the design for the development, “especially,” he said, “the reticulation of the skyline of the loft units.”

Some members of the Planning and Zoning Commission who were in attendance whispered among themselves throughout the presentation and pointed out that they had recommended that the developers come back with a redesign consisting of only two-story dwellings.

Town Planning and Zoning director Kelly Moe, explained to the council that a developer may or may not consider the commission's recommendations in their appeal to the council. He further added that this development was “the best that the town could wish for” and “the best I have seen in my career.”

Several citizens spoke against the development, citing concerns about the height of the buildings, as well as traffic and parking issues.

Mayor Patricia Chávez and the council questioned the developers and Moe for more than twenty minutes, when councilor Ronnie Sisneros stated that he backed the plan as presented. Councilor Santiago Montoya agreed and made a motion to approve the zone change. Councilor Sisneros seconded the motion. In a roll-call vote, Councilor Eddie Torres voted no, councilors Montoya and Sisneros, yes, and Councilor Marian Jaramillo went back and forth, saying she wanted to vote “yes for the project, no for the height.” Town attorney George Perez advised her that she could only vote one way, at which point she closed her eyes and voted yes.

Two other public hearings took place at the meeting on December 11. The first involved a conditional-use permit to allow a landscape-materials business to display their products on a residential property. The property is across an irrigation ditch from the former site of AAA Gas and the Bernalillo branch of First Community Bank.

Neighbor Alex Chavez complained loudly about the conduct of the gravel business and the proceedings of the council meetings. He was eventually escorted from the meeting by a Bernalillo town police officer. The council passed the conditional-use permit unanimously.

The other hearing concerned the review of another conditional-use permit for a larger gravel business on the west side of the river. Neighbors complained that JPR Decorative Gravel, Inc., conducted business for longer hours, and with trucks and machines that were bigger, than allowed by the permit. They also stated that this summer's flooding was exacerbated by a retaining wall built by JPR, damaging their road and property. The council reapproved the permit by unanimous vote, but advised the owners of JPR Gravel to curtail their business hours.

County approves traffic fix

The Sandoval County Commission meeting on December 14 yielded a new twist to the traffic problems for NM 550 through Bernalillo. Proposal 8-C is a motion to allow the town of Bernalillo to promptly design and construct capacity improvements for NM 550 from the I-25 turn off to SR 528.

Resolution No. 12-7-06.8C gives Bernalillo approval to immediately improve the I-25-to-SR-528 corridor to alleviate traffic during specific peak hours. According to the county, the only proposal that they had received from any source is to re-stripe the roads to add lanes during high-volume traffic times. This will include adding a carpool lane during these peak times in the morning and again in the afternoon. The multi-passenger commuter lane will operate from 7:00 to 9:00 in the morning, giving a full three lanes to eastbound traffic with the afternoon traffic reaping the same benefits from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Opposing traffic will be allowed only one lane during these peak times, which should not pose a problem with traffic flow. The motion to approve this was originally tabled during the first session, to further study the effects of the proposal and to get feedback from the town on this matter.

Commissioner Jack Thomas said, “if we don't do something now, we never will.” Bernalillo has always been in favor of the motion; however, Commissioner William Sapien was again opposed, pending further study. The motion to approve passed four-to-one with Commissioner Sapien being the only no vote.

Comments from the public were mostly positive, yet expressed concerns about traffic flowing into the residential areas to avoid the congestion if something was not done soon. Commissioner Thomas stated that this improvement will fix the traffic problem for the next five years.

During the meeting on December 21, Elizabeth McDermott, from Sandoval Education Services, requested funding approval in the amount of $191,060 for the implementation of a living laboratory in all Sandoval County school districts utilizing the county's new broadband project. The project is designed to improve the reading skills of second-to-twelfth-grade students by implementing a computerized model provided by a company called Achieve 3000, Inc. The model utilizes current events as the primary reading materials, accessing Reuters, the AP wire, and other on-line sources in a fully interactive environment where the student has to participate as well as implement certain tasks to complete assignments. Commissioner Bency spoke very highly of the project; however, he had some concerns about the broadband reaching everyone throughout the county. McDermott assured the commissioners that as it is a pilot project, initiating it would provide the opportunity to find any discrepancies or problems and make arrangements to correct them as needed. The commissioners voted five to zero to approve.

Commissioner Joshua Madalena requested that Resolution No. 12-21-06.9, for the purchase of seven-hundred-plus acres of land surrounding the Jemez State Monument be approved for the purpose of preservation. His concern was that land developers are buying much of the land leading up to the monument and would eventually purchase these seven hundred acres as well. No price tag was discussed, however, and the resolution passed without further comment.

County line—Easing traffic congestion

While it may be only natural to reflect on the past as we enter a new year, I'd like to look ahead at our county's future as one of the fastest growing areas in the nation.

The transportation projects we have launched across our region are among the many initiatives that we have undertaken to best position our county and communities for the coming years.

Railrunner Express, the regional light-rail train system that the commission helped fund two years ago, has quickly become a highly attractive transportation alternative for many county residents. Service from Bernalillo to Albuquerque already has proven a tremendous success and the rail just recently was extended to Los Lunas. Railrunner will reach Belen in a matter of weeks and is on schedule to begin service to Santa Fe in late 2008.

To help our residents travel within our county, one of our top priorities for the coming legislative session is to obtain $2.8 million to fully develop a county-wide mass transit system. That system will provide fixed-route access from the Jemez, Cuba, NM 528, and I-25 corridors to the Railrunner station in Bernalillo and interconnect with regional bus service.

Both the train and the county's mass transit system are vital to our future and will spur economic development and ease worsening traffic congestion—especially along NM 528, US 550, and the county's entrances to Interstate 25.

The commission also is seeking legislative funding to begin construction of the north-south loop road west of Rio Rancho and Albuquerque. The road will become a major transportation and economic development corridor connecting I-40 and I-25 via US 550 and will ultimately extend south from I-40 to connect with I-25 at Los Lunas.

To help ease traffic flow along US 550 through Bernalillo, we have brainstormed several workable solutions with Rio Rancho, Bernalillo, the Mid-Region Council of Governments and the state department of transportation. Just last month, the commission enacted a resolution urging the state to begin aggressive design and construction of improvements along the US 550 roadway.

One immediate solution would be to remove the medians along US 550 from NM 528 east to I-25 and turn the vital road into a six-lane highway. For a longer-term solution to ease heavy traffic throughout the entire metropolitan region, the county has been in discussions with the Pueblo of Santa Ana regarding access across pueblo land for a road to intersect I-25 north of Bernalillo and continue west to connect with the proposed north-south loop.

To defer needs for additional landfill space and also help municipalities and pueblos deal with the increasing costs of disposing of sewer sludge, the commission hopes to obtain legislative funding of $1.5 million to construct the $3 million second phase of our waste-conversion and -composting facility.

Once the plant's second phase is operating, the county will begin accepting sewer sludge, at considerable savings to municipalities and pueblos, and then process the waste into compost and fertilizer in a highly economical and environmental-friendly manner.

The plant uses proven technology. Its first phase already is diverting more than twenty thousand cubic yards annually from the county landfill by processing green and construction waste into soil-enhancement products.

Another critical endeavor undertaken by the commission that offers great opportunities for residents is the creation of a county-wide broadband system that we began in 2004. Broadband communications and the ability to transport large amounts of data closes the technology gap between rural and urban residents. It will open access for all county residents to quality medical care, increased educational opportunities, and new economic opportunities.

The county commission elects a new chair each January. Even though I will step down as chairman, I will continue working as a commissioner to serve my constituents and our county's surging population. I wish to extend my deep appreciation to our residents, my fellow commissioners, and all county employees for the service continue to bring year after year.

Questions or comments for Commissioner Thomas can be mailed to him in care of Sandoval County Administrative Offices, P.O. Box 40, Bernalillo, NM 87004.





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