Sandoval Signpost


An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Up Front

V & L Motors, fine art photograph, by Jim Carnevale. See story in Sandoval Arts, this Signpost

Lafarge gravel mine in Placitas

County sues Lafarge over Placitas gravel mine

—Bill Diven

Lafarge North America is violating the agreement that allows the company to mine sand and gravel in western Placitas, according to a lawsuit filed by Sandoval County.

The suit filed on April 21 alleges Lafarge expanded the quarry and moved its processing outside areas designated in a 1988 agreement. Named in the suit are three Lafarge companies, property owner Mt. Adams Holdings, and M.T. Investments, identified as leasing the property from Mt. Adams and subleasing it to Lafarge.

The suit follows a notice of zoning violations sent to Lafarge in June 2013 that prompted the company to sue the county.

County officials declined to comment on the lawsuit. A Lafarge representative would only take questions from the Signpost by email and by deadline had not issued a response. A call to the local lawyer named in court records as defending the company was not returned.

Neighbors of the one-thousand-acre quarry located off the Interstate 25 frontage road north of State Road 165 have been pushing the county for years to take action against what they see as a growing threat to their property and health.

“The dust and noise is driving us crazy around here,” said Dick Ulmer, president of the Anasazi Trails Homeowners Association.

Ulmer is among those within the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association (ES-CA) leading the newly formed Land Use Protection Trust. The nonprofit trust has engaged a land-use attorney in an effort to protect the character of area communities and the integrity of zoning ordinances, according to a statement from the group. Seed money from ES-CA and other donors launched the trust, but organizers estimate they need to raise one hundred thousand dollars to be effective.

“Placitas is at a crossroads,” the statement said.  “Before Lafarge is able to negotiate a new lease, or other operators gain footholds, residents must act and act forcefully to curtail these kinds of operations.”

Among the concerns is the quarry, with its 2010 closure already extended to 2015, plans to continue indefinitely and expand further. There are additional worries of new quarries being established within the communities.

Gravel mining at what is now Lafarge’s dig site dates to the early 1970s with no formal permitting until 1988 under what was then a separate zoning buffer around the town of Bernalillo. Sandoval County took over jurisdiction in 2006 and affirmed the 1988 permit.

Zoning in the West Placitas Community District does not allow sand and gravel mining, although the 1988 agreement with a previous operator permits it as a nonconforming use. That deal specified the location, sequence, and method of mining operations.

In February of 2013, county inspectors reported Lafarge had moved its processing equipment and expanded the quarry into new areas before completing mining in existing areas. Lafarge responded, claiming the terms of the 1988 agreement no longer were in effect.

After an “unproductive” meeting in May 2013 where Lafarge representatives offered no remedies for the alleged transgressions, the county issued a notice of violation, according to the lawsuit.

Lafarge tried to appeal the county’s claims but was told the zoning ordinance doesn’t allow appeals of violation notices. The company then sued to force an appeal hearing, and in April District Judge James Sanchez agreed Lafarge is entitled one.

However, since the zoning ordinance is unclear on allowing appeals, Sanchez also ruled the county would have to go to court to enforce the notice of violations. About ten days later, the county did just that, filing the lawsuit that is now pending before District Judge George Eichwald.

Settlement reached on Dixon Apple Orchard

—Ty Belknap

Jim and Becky Mulane, owners of Dixon’s Apple Orchard, agreed on May 20 to relinquish their lease on the orchard and another 8,600 acres of land managed by the State Land Office in exchange for two million dollars.

Under the two million dollar deal, the Mulanes will receive $1.8 million from Cochiti Pueblo and $200,000 from the State Land Office. State Land Commissioner Ray Powell said that his office has signed a five-year lease with Cochiti Pueblo.

In a statement, Pueblo Gov. Joseph Suina said the lands “are of deep historical and cultural significance to the pueblo. Our forefathers have sought the return of these lands for the past sixty years.”

Although the Mulanes had found great success in operating their iconic seventy-year-old family business, they decided that continuing was neither safe nor economically feasible after the orchard was severely damaged by the 2011 Las Conchas Fire and ensuing floods; much of the irrigation system and other infrastructure was completely destroyed. They arranged in 2012 to transfer the State Land Office (SLO) lease to San Felipe Pueblo for a reported $2.8 million.

Powell issued an emphatic public denial of the transfer, saying allowing reassignment of the lease would perpetuate a “sweetheart deal” and would waste taxpayer dollars. He said San Felipe lacked the orchard experience required by the lease and were motivated by an interest in cultural sites in eight thousand acres of Land Office land surrounding the orchard.

Powell said that the deal arrived at under the administration of his predecessor, Pat Lyons, short changed the public interest by granting a seventy-year lease on the property for a mere one hundred dollars a year.

On May 11, 2012, Dixon Apples filed an appeal with the New Mexico State Land Office regarding the decision. On April 12, 2013, former District Judge James A. Hall, serving as hearing officer, issued a non-binding ruling that the SLO acted improperly in rejecting the deal with San Felipe Pueblo.

San Felipe has since announced that they are no longer interested in the lease.

Powell said that the $200,000 paid by the SLO covered improvements made to the property by the Mulanes—mostly apple trees. He said that, unfortunately, the orchard is not expected to recover. These funds will be recovered after the land is appraised and the tribe obtains land to exchange for the 8,600 acres.

Powell described the deal as a win for all parties, including a fair settlement for the Mulanes, the best interests of the public, and the return of land to the Cochiti Pueblo, which tribal elders described as “our blue lake.”

County-wide reappraisal begins

The Sandoval County Assessor’s office is currently working on a county-wide reappraisal project. The Assessor’s office will be in the Placitas area from now until approximately November, 2014. They will be going door to door to verify their current data, which includes measuring homes and taking update pictures. The data collectors will be wearing royal blue shirts or jackets and will have a name badge. The Assessor’s office staff asks for residents’ cooperation. For more information, call 867-7562, extension 1627 or 1637.

New Mexico First executive director Heather Balas (standing) meets with one of the groups going over 21 recommendations for handling the free-roaming horses in Placitas.

(Above) State livestock inspectors herded two free-roaming horses into a trailer after the stallions were corralled on private property in Placitas. Photo credit—Story photos by Bill Diven

Task force wraps up study of Placitas wild horses

—Bill Diven

With its job now done, the outside group laboring to add data and focus to the conflict over free-roaming horses is turning the problem back over to the community.

The nonprofit New Mexico First is scheduled to submit the final report of the Free-Roaming Horses of Placitas Task Force it organized to the Sandoval County Commission on June 5. The report, prepared under a $23,000 dollar county contract awarded last year, carries the results of dozens of  interviews, legal, technical, environmental, and political research and two community meetings.

The final meeting on May 3 measured support for 21 task-force recommendations.

“We’ve got a lot of leaders, and we’ll come up with something,” County Commissioner Orlando Lucero, a member of the task force, said in closing the meeting.

The twenty members of the task force include representatives of local, state, and federal agencies, Santa Ana and San Felipe pueblos, and Placitas residents on both sides of this issue that has split the community. They and other experts were interviewed for the report.

While horses no longer roam on State Road 165, they still wander onto properties farther away. Two stallions seen near Camino de las Huertas about two miles from NM 165 in late April were corralled by a property owner, collected as strays by the New Mexico Livestock Board and then held in Placitas, pending their auction.

The task-force recommendations, listed by degree of difficulty, ranged from counting the horses to creating a sanctuary or state park. In between topics covered fencing, contraception, toughening animal-welfare laws, a complete roundup, and adoption programs, among others.

At the May 3 meeting, New Mexico First divided the approximately sixty participants into discussion groups to go over the recommendations. It then reassembled what was, by then, fewer than fifty people, handed out computer-connected clickers and tallied opinions for, against, and moderately supportive for each recommendation.

“There are no claims you represent the community as a whole,” New Mexico First Executive Director Heather Balas told the audience. “You are the people who cared about this community and came out on this Saturday morning to give your input.”

(For a link to the final task force report and the complete results of the audience survey, click here.)

The strongest unqualified support, about 75 percent of participants, came for clarifying government powers and regulations, educating the community, training volunteers to administer contraceptives to mares, increasing warning signs on roads and highways, and strengthening animal-welfare laws. The weakest numbers, about a third of participants or less, offered strong support for setting up a website, enforcing existing laws, relocating the horses, restricting horses to “welcoming” areas, and setting up a state park.

The numbers muddle, however, as participants could register moderate support and then submit written comments about their concerns. More than half of the participants said they’d be willing to donate money to help with upkeep for the horses.

In a separate ranking of “cross-cutting ideas,” guaranteeing none of the horses would be slaughtered came out on top.

“I actually think most people are not opposed to the horses,” Placitas resident Karen Marie Jones Meadows said after the meeting. They’re opposed to having their property torn up. “I hope this brought us together more than it divided us.”

One result of the task force research, and called a “breakthrough,” is a change in New Mexico Department of Agriculture regulations involving the contraceptive PZP and its listing as a vaccine. The contraceptive has been under the tight control of the state Livestock Board, but the new rules also list it as a pesticide and broaden who can authorize its use.

The Humane Society of the United States is being asked to renew its licenses to distribute PZP in the state, which, in turn, and under strict controls, would allow trained volunteers to help control the horse population.

During the New Mexico First meeting, horse advocate Patience O’Dowd of the Wild Horse Observers Association questioned spending taxpayer money for a report instead of action, echoing criticism in her resignation from the task force ten days earlier. In her emailed resignation to County Manager Phil Rios she criticized the lack of community surveys in the process and the inclusion in the task force the New Mexico Livestock Board, whose roundups “put the horses in direct risk of slaughter.”

Last year, Gary Miles of Placitas Animal Rescue also resigned from the task force accusing it of providing political cover for removing the horses. He has been caring for horses collected by the NMLB and buying horses at auction when they are sold as unclaimed strays.

Placitas Appreciation Day fun on June 7

The annual Placitas Appreciation Day will be held on June 7 at the Homesteads Village. Placitans can dress up their pets and attend the Pet Parade, which will start at 10:00 a.m. sharp. Watermelon Mountain Ranch will offer vaccinations and pet washing. Two local bands will perform, starting at 11:00 a.m. and the Merc will once again provide free green chile cheeseburgers at noon.

There will be presentations by community associations, and fire and rescue personnel will be on hand to display trucks and talk to residents about safety issues. Events for kids will include a “bouncy bounce” and the fire department fishing derby. Residents can show off their classic cars.

Tom Ashe, one of the organizers, says, “This is a chance to reconnect with neighbors and meet new friends, while celebrating our unique sense of community in a special place.”

Homestead Village is located at 221 Highway 165. For further information, contact the Merc at 867-8661.

Defendants seek dismissal of WHOA v. NMLB

—Ty Belknap

The New Mexico Livestock Board (NMLB) has filed for dismissal of a lawsuit filed on February 26, 2014, by the Wild Horse Observers Association (WHOA). In their complaint, WHOA asked the New Mexico State Court for an order to declare the “Placitas horses” as wild, and to order the NMLB to stop impounding these horses as estray livestock on public and private land. WHOA claims removal of the horses adversely affects their aesthetic, recreational, scientific, educational, and economic interests. They also asked the court to order NMLB to stop blocking their use of PZP contraceptive.

The court refused to hear a request filed by WHOA in March, seeking a temporary restraining order to stay the ongoing operations of the NMLB “that involve rounding up and disposing of the unclaimed, free-roaming, wild horses of Placitas.”

On April 29, the court approved an emergency motion to intervene and decreed, “The style of this case shall henceforth be amended to read WHOA, Inc., Plaintiff, v. NMLB, Defendant, and Susan Blumenthal, Ash Collins, Susan Collins, Jon Couch, Peter Hurley, Judith Hurley, Zane Dohner, Carolyn E. Kennedy, Lynn Montgomery, Joe Neas, Mike Neas, and Pamela Neas, Defendants by intervention.” WHOA initially opposed this intervention, but later approved the motion, as did the NMLB.

These Placitas residents, represented by attorney Dave Reynolds, support the right of private property owners to have free-roaming horses that they capture on their private property impounded by the NML. They believe that these horses are harmful to the environment and constitute a threat to public safety and property rights. Their pleadings filed in the lawsuit agree with the NMLB’s position that all horses, free-roaming or otherwise, are “livestock” under the New Mexico Livestock Code, and are therefore subject to capture and NMLB impoundment. They also agree with the NMLB that WHOA is attempting to re-litigate issues that have already been decided against WHOA by the federal court in the WHOA v. BLM litigation that was filed in 2011.

c. Rudi Klimpert

Primary election voting started May 6

Voters can cast ballots for this year’s primary elections by absentee voting by mail and in-person right now. The regularly scheduled Primary Election Day is June 3. Mail-in absentee ballot applications can be secured by going to the Bureau of Elections Office on the first floor of the County Administration Building at 1500 Idalia Road in Bernalillo, by telephoning the Bureau of Elections at 867-7577, or by mailing a request to the Sandoval County Bureau of Elections at 1500 Idalia Road, Building D in Bernalillo 87004. Applications for mail-in absentee ballots must be submitted by 5:00 p.m. on May 31, and the actual ballot must be returned to the Bureau of Elections by 7:00 p.m. on June 3.

You may vote in person at the Sandoval County Transit Center, open 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, through May 30. On May 31 the Center will be open from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. The transit center is located at 1500 Idalia Road, Building C in Bernalillo. Additional early-voting centers will be open in Rio Rancho, Corrales, and Bernalillo from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday, through May 31, as well as on Native American Pueblos and the Navajo Nation Chapter Houses located within the county.

A comprehensive list of early voting locations and their hours is available at the Bureau of Elections website, which also lists voting locations for the regularly scheduled Primary Election Day on June 3.

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