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Anticipating a long winter, a chubby rock squirrel chows down on juniper berries shortly before December snows hit Placitas.
Photo credit: Bill Diven


Gravel miner makes another run at annexation

—Signpost Staff

Fisher Sand and Gravel is making another run at annexation into Bernalillo with a better shot at success than its previous tries.

This time, the 43-acre property comes with multiple requirements and restrictions enshrined in the proposed annexation ordinance. And it still stands to help protect Bernalillo from storm flooding in a separate deal with the Eastern Sandoval County Flood Control Authority.

At the Bernalillo Town Council meeting early in December, Mayor Jack Torres checked to see if all the councilors could attend the December 22 meeting when the annexation was scheduled for a public hearing and vote.

“I know they want an answer one way or the other,” Torres said. “It’s been a long dragged-out process.”

At the December 22 meeting, the council tabled the hearing until January 12, so that a discussion of a required zoning change could be added to the agenda.

The site east of Interstate 25 and north of the South Bernalillo exit has been largely idle since early 2012, after Fisher ran afoul of Sandoval County over permitted uses on property.

Fisher made three previous attempts at annexation into the town, the last in February. All ended with the request being tabled for further study and more details.

Wrangling at the February meeting centered on the timeline for turning the quarry into the final development. The company wanted 15 years, winnowed down to five, but really seven, in case something went wrong.

Trust also was an issue with some speakers, citing Fisher’s problems with past agreements. Now, however, community advocates see some of their major concerns addressed in the annexation ordinance.

“There’s probably a better deal to be made, but the town is in charge here,” said Bob Gorrell of Placitas, president of the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association (ES-CA). “For the most part, people are sensitive to that this is going to help the town.”

The main benefit to Bernalillo, although it’s not mentioned in the ordinance, is Fisher’s offer to donate 7.5 acres for a ponding area in the arroyo that runs through the property and under I-25 into a residential neighborhood. ESCAFCA estimates a four hundred thousand dollar construction savings if Fisher mines the arroyo and leaves holes for the ponding project.

The ordinance also contains several items ES-CA requested including a performance bond and reclamation requirements. Its urging of a five-year limit for the quarrying was rejected in favor of seven years to complete mining and begin reclamation.

“Our position is that at least now we know there’s a start and an end,” Gorrell said. That and environmental controls give downwind property owners in Placitas more certainty than the neighbors of the seemingly open-ended Vulcan Materials mine a few miles farther north and currently in court over zoning with the county and under environmental violation notices from the state.

ES-CA tried to block both rock crushing and an asphalt plant on the property, but the ordinance as written only prohibits the asphalt plant.


BLM Buffalo Tract draws new suitors

—Signpost Staff

Any decisions on what to do with thousands of acres of federal land in Placitas remain months away, but that hasn’t stopped competing interests from rallying public support.

In December, the Bernalillo Town Council endorsed one plan, and the area flood-control district approached the Sandoval County Commission with another. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency deciding the extent, purpose, and restrictions on any land made available, is counting down to what likely will be a raucous public process.

At their December 8 meeting, Bernalillo town councilors voted support for a plan by the San Antonio de las Huertas Land Grant trustees to use not quite half of the 3,144-acre area in northwestern Placitas known as the Buffalo Tract. The association previously unveiled its vision for a living-history museum and public spaces on the tract supported financially by a commercial solar-power array.

The newest entrant in the field—the Eastern Sandoval Arroyo Flood Control Authority (ESCAFCA)—is suggesting a joint effort with Sandoval County to acquire part of the Buffalo Tract to protect the community of Algodones. Runoff from two storms last summer damaged homes, property, and the main acequia.

“This is an ongoing situation, and it’s gotten worse,” Benny Lovato of the Algodones Citizen’s Action Group told county commissioners at their December 11 meeting.

ESCAFCA Executive Engineer Larry Blair wrote to commissioners offering to work with them on a joint proposal to the BLM.

“It appears there may be some sites on this tract on which flood-control dams could be built, which could substantially reduce the flood threat to Algodones,” Blair wrote. The property also has the potential for uses from outdoor recreation to environmental purposes that are beyond ESCAFCA’s scope, he added.

ESCAFCA is currently involved in flood control protecting Bernalillo and, despite passage of a $2.2 million dollar bond issue in the November election, has said it currently lacks the funds to buy property upstream from Algodones.

Santa Ana and San Felipe pueblos also have presented plans for taking over the entire Buffalo Tract. Santa Ana envisions a wildlife corridor as part of its preservation plan while San Felipe has said it would include a sanctuary for free-roaming horses. An advocacy group in Placitas has proposed the Buffalo Tract as a state park and horse sanctuary.

So far, business interests—presumably land developers and gravel miners—have yet to speak up, although few doubt there is profit potential in some of the land. Concerns also have been raised about an Albuquerque bypass connecting Interstates 25 and 40 being built through Placitas.

For now, though, it’s all noise and jockeying for position. The BLM says it will be at least mid-February before its new Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the sprawling Rio Puerco Field Office will be released for public comment. Add to that months for the formal record of decision and more months to settle on who gets what land for which purpose.

“There’s going to be multiples of people wanting the Buffalo Tract for mining, parks, flood control, just to name a few,” said John Brenna Jr., acting field manager of the BLM Rio Puerco Field Office. “One of the factors will be highest and best use. There has been no decision made.”

Not only no decision, but the BLM is not even accepting the proposals already announced. Everything is on hold until the years-in-the-making update of the Resource Management Plan for the entire roughly 210-mile-wide Rio Puerco District is in place.

Brenna said it now appears that it will be mid-February when the document is released for thirty days of public comment limited to people and groups that commented on the draft plan released in 2012. Then, another two or three months likely will pass while the BLM staff considers the comments before issuing the formal record of decision opens the door to anyone with an idea for what to do with lands made available for disposal or other uses.

Beyond the competing proposals for the Buffalo Tract already made public, an immediate lightning rod is expected to be about eight hundred acres of it identified as having high-yield minerals, in this case sand and gravel valued at a billion dollars or more. The four quarries bordering Placitas along Interstate 25 from Bernalillo to Algodones already are a source of controversy and aggravation—and, in one case, legal action—so anyone proposing new mining can expect community resistance.

“There will be a balancing act between all of the activities this area could take on,” Brenna said. “We’re going to make the decision based on what’s best for the land and for the people of the United States.”

That means if land is made available for gravel mining, it would be after an environmental analysis, and any lease would go to the highest bidder in a competitive process and come with environmental controls attached. What it would not come with is water rights.

“Water rights are a state issue,” Brenna said.

For the BLM, however, the law makes it a multiple-use agency administering grazing, mining, oil-and-gas and recreation leases, historic sites, wilderness areas, and national monuments. It already has gotten crossways with some Placitas residents over authorizing the capture of free-roaming horses on its lands and allowing expansion of a natural-gas-liquids pipeline running through the area.

It also has made friends by engaging in land swaps and sales benefitting pueblos in the county and supporting the transfer to the U.S. Forest Service the Crest of Montezuma, the 917-acre extension of the Sandia Mountains that forms the eastern backdrop of Placitas.


Rep. James Smith
Representative
James Smith
Senator John Sapien
Senator John Sapien
Representative Roger Madalena
Representative Roger Madalena

Historic shifts set stage for 2015 New Mexico Legislature

—Bill Diven

Even before Christmas arrived, the Grinch of crashing oil prices swiped a fat goody bag from the New Mexico Legislature.

With supply way up and international demand weakening, the regional benchmark price for a barrel of oil cratered from $105 dollars in June to around $56 dollars in December. And while consumers may celebrate gas at two dollars a gallon, the state Department of Finance and Administration reports every one dollar drop in the price of oil means more than six million dollars less in state revenue.

That will give legislators a lot to ponder when the sixty-day legislative session begins on January 2 with a new budget in the neighborhood of six billion dollars on the agenda.

“We were looking at a budget based on $88 dollar oil,” said Rep. James Smith, R-Sandia Park, whose three-county district includes Placitas. “We have good reserves. We’re not in a crunch where we have to do a lot of cutting, but there won’t be as much new money.”

The term “new money” is legislative shorthand for the increase in state revenue forecast for the next budget year beginning on July 1. As recently as August, projections placed new money at $285 million dollars; in December it was half that.

“From the Republican side, that means not growing government as much as we might do,” Smith added. Still, he expects legislators to have about the same money from bond sales as the current years—seven hundred thousand dollars for House members and $1.1 million dollars for senators—to spend on capital projects in their districts.

However, it’s money for capital outlay, big projects across the state and related costs, which will be in short supply. Pricey policy initiatives like funding track repairs to maintain Amtrak service and expanding a closing fund used to entice new businesses into the state to fifty million dollars also don’t look as promising as before.

The budget for the current fiscal year is $6.2 billion dollars with roughly forty percent of revenue coming from taxes and royalties related to oil and gas production. More than half of the spending goes to public and higher education with another quarter directed at human services.

State Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, sees little energy for major new projects and expects budget debates to be more about “moving furniture around the room.” His focus as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, however, will be on changes imposed on public education by Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration.

One dispute involves a new computer-based test of student achievement replacing a written test used in recent years. While critics challenge the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test on several fronts, Sapien questions how results will be used in teacher evaluations.

Since the mathematical model used in evaluations factors three years of test results, combining numbers from the two different tests is a problem he plans to address, Sapien said.

“Experts say it’s like asking your doctor to examine your eyes and your ears and get a common number,” he continued. “The bill I plan to carry holds off using any assessment data in teacher evaluations and school grades for two more years.”

He also said he expects the Martinez administration to propose shifting more money out of the formula that funds schools and into programs controlled by the Public Education Department.

Both Smith and Sapien will be working with local governments and school districts on their legislative priorities, which range from policy issues to funding specific projects like roads and rural broadband. And both said they would work to stiffen penalties for sand and gravel mines that violate local ordinances.

Among Sandoval County’s policy issues is raising those penalties to one thousand dollars a day with potential jail sentences up to 364 days. The county is currently embroiled in a lawsuit alleging zoning violations at the Lafarge gravel mine in Placitas recently bought by Vulcan Materials Co.

In addition, the New Mexico Environment Department has served notices on the mine over alleged violations of air-quality and record-keeping regulations.

One certainty of the 2015 session will be the historic shift of control in the House from the Democrats to the Republicans who attained 37 to 33 majority in the 2014 election. It’s the first time the GOP has controlled the House outright in sixty years.

Rep. Don Tripp, D-Socorro, expected to be the new House speaker, is well liked by both parties and is considered fair like his Democratic predecessor, according to Smith.

Smith will be in the thick of any funding fights and may move up from member to vice chairman of the Appropriations and Finance Committee, the body tasked with drafting the budget. As senior GOP member of the Voters and Elections Committee, he also might become chairman there, and as a retired teacher, he’s asked for a spot on the Education Committee.

Those assignments won’t be made until after the session begins and Tripp is elected speaker of the House.

Rep. James Roger Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo, stands to lose his chairmanship of the committee overseeing Indian gaming compacts. Several compacts are up for renewal, he said.

“How well the House can work with the new majority is an issue I’m concerned with,” he continued. “Some are more political than willing to compromise. I’m afraid we’re going into a deadlock and that will not be acceptable to the public.”

Madalena thinks it may somehow work out, and he’ll do what he’s always done in the thirty years he’s represented the district that stretches from Sandia Pueblo through Bernalillo and central Sandoval County into Rio Arriba County. “I work with everybody,” he said. “I try to be as diplomatic as I can.”


Outgoing two-term Sandoval County Commissioner Orlando Lucero chats with county Information Technology Director Jerri Paul-Seaborn after his final meeting in December.
Photo credit: Bill Diven

Lucero bows out of office, but not public life

—Bill Diven

Orlando Lucero wrapped up eight years on the Sandoval County Commission with gavel in hand after Chairman Darryl Madalena stepped aside for the night.

“I’ve really enjoyed it,” Lucero said shortly before declaring the meeting adjourned.

But before he could lower the gavel, his newly elected replacement, James Dominguez, stepped up during the public-comment session.

“We look back at him as a role model as we were growing up,” Dominguez said. “He was my teacher.”

Lucero and Dominguez are from Bernalillo, with a history dating back to Bernalillo High School in the late 1970s when Lucero taught history and government. He served at BHS for 12 years before earning a masters degree in bilingual education at the University of New Mexico and working in education around the country.

Since returning to Bernalillo, he’s lived in the home he built at age 14, farms, and dives into public issues—including time as chairman of the town of Bernalillo Planning and Zoning Commission. He’s busy behind the scenes with efforts like engineering a flood-control meeting of local, state, and federal officials with Algodones residents after storm runoff flooded parts of the community twice last year.

He has already volunteered for and been nominated to the board of the Eastern Sandoval County Arroyo Flood Control Authority. The governor didn’t make the appointment, however, likely because he’s a Democrat and she’s not, Lucero said. The ESCAFCA position remains vacant.

Lucero also ran against incumbent state Rep. James Roger Madalena in the June primary but lost. With no office or appointment on the immediate horizon, he’s hardly going to disappear.

“I’ll be active, but that’s just me,” he told the Signpost. “My schedule has slowed down the last three weeks. I didn’t know the world could be this way.”

Dominguez, who defeated Republican Gary Miles of Placitas on Election Day, was scheduled to be sworn in during ceremonies at the county administration building on December 31.

During Lucero’s last meeting, officials’ secret ballots were counted to elect his replacement on the board of the New Mexico Association of Counties. Commissioner Nora Scherzinger took the honors receiving five votes to four for commission Glenn Walters and one for County Treasurer Laura Montoya.

Commissioner Don Chapman took time to look back on the successes of 2014, including the formation of an economic-development alliance with Rio Rancho that has become a role model for other efforts. He also noted the tight quarters of the Judicial Complex and the sheriff’s office aren’t going away just because voters said no to funding expansion projects, and that the county has yet to complete a five-year financial plan.

“We need a longer-term approach for the county,” Chapman said.

Commissioners also heard a report on the New Mexico Mission of Mercy dental event it helped underwrite in Rio Rancho in October. Dr. John Crisler reported a corps of 273 volunteer dentists and hygienists handled 8,633 dental procedures during the two days backed by another 1,074 community volunteers covering everything else from sign-in to parking.

“A lot of people got out of pain,” Crisler said.


Donation presentation for Rio Rancho police, fire, and rescue departments

On December 23, there was a donation presentation for the Rio Rancho police, fire, and rescue departments held at St. Felix Pantry. Representatives from the city of Rio Rancho’s Police and Fire and Rescue departments received a donation of stuffed bears, made possible through a partnership by PetSmart and St. Felix Pantry. Personnel from these public safety departments use stuffed animals to comfort young children affected by a traumatic event (i.e., traffic accident, etc.). For additional information about the program, contact Manuel Casias with St. Felix Pantry at 270-1366.


Martin Montaño of the Bernalillo Public School closes the gate to the vacant Roosevelt Elementary School after a group of veterans toured the campus under consideration for a military museum.
Photo credit: Bill Diven

Vacant school conjures vision of military museum

—Signpost Staff

The quest by a group of veterans to create a military museum for New Mexico recently led them to the vacant Roosevelt Elementary School in downtown Bernalillo.

The property has the buildings, the friendly feel of a campus, and especially the space for outdoor displays, if you can picture a Vietnam-era Huey helicopter, or a 1950s F-100 Super Sabre fighter jet in the former playground.

“Do you know how cool this would look with a Huey?” Julio M. Carattini III said as the group toured the 7.7-acre property. This wouldn’t be a dry don’t-touch-anything museum, but a hands-on place where if a kid wanted to sit in a Jeep, tank or helicopter, he or she could, he added.

It also was projected to draw one hundred thousand visitors during its first year, according to the consultant hired by the city of Rio Rancho when the push was on to put the New Mexico Museum of Military History there. But a state Senate attempt in 2008 to dedicate one million dollars to the project, morphed into passage of $145,000 dollars, specifying Las Cruces as the location ultimately leading to a veto by Gov. Bill Richardson.

So, where does the group go from here? And how does it raise $2.8 million dollars for the Roosevelt property? “The second question is the big question,” Carattini told the Signpost in a later interview. “After we lost the funding, it kind of faltered.”

The board and friends of the nonprofit corporation have since renewed their effort to give the state a museum honoring its veterans and spanning all conflicts dating to the American Revolution when Spain and Spanish New Mexico provided support. An area reserved to tell the story of Native American servicemen and women with space for tribal functions also is planned.

“That’s our passion,” said Carattini, a 21-year veteran of the U.S. Army Special Forces who retired as a lieutenant colonel and lives in Placitas.

The group has donated aircraft, vehicles, weapons, and personal items. Every donor is asked to provide a personal story or photograph for the object. A new Army blanket is just an item, but a tattered blanket kept by a soldier who fought in New Guinea in World War II is authentic, Carattini said.

The tour of the property also sparked interest by the Bernalillo Public Schools. “We’re excited,” Superintendent Alan Tapia said. “We hope something comes of it.”

The school complex has been vacant four years and on the market for two, drawing inquiries but no offers. In the meantime, vandals have smashed exterior and interior windows and stolen some of the copper plumbing.

The four buildings vary in age and condition and include the two-story adobe library built in 1925 as Bernalillo’s all-grades public school. The library, appraised at six hundred thousand dollars, is on its own land. The remaining acreage and buildings—the newest almost forty years old—are valued at $2.2 million dollars.

Given the deterioration of the buildings, BPS could consider a lower offer but would need state approval to accept it, BPS Facilities Director Martin Montaño said. The museum group or anyone making an offer on the property also could request a new appraisal, he added.

“They’ve thought out many ideas,” Montaño said. “This has been the most viable option for us and the most promising so far.”

Also supporting the museum effort and joining in the school tour were the Museum of the American Military Families (MAMF) and the Sandoval County Vietnam Veterans Memorial Committee. The families museum created three-and-a-half years ago also is looking for a home, whether in concert with the military museum or on its own, said MAMF founder and Director Circe Olson Woessner.

While MAMF’s presence is mostly on its website and social media, the reaction from across and outside the country shows strong interest, Woessner added.

New Mexico ranks high nationally with about eight percent of the population having served in the military, according to the state Department of Veterans’ Services. About half of the state’s 171,000 veterans live in the four counties of Sandoval, Santa Fe, Bernalillo, and Valencia, the department reported in 2013.
 
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