Sandoval Signpost


An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Up Front

Doing their part to begin construction of the new Bernalillo Senior Center are (from left) Sandoval County Commissioner James Dominguez, Rebecca Martinez of the state Aging and Long Term Services Department, senior center Manager Desi Aragon, County Commissioner David Heil, County Manager Phil Rios, Toby Kessler of the New Mexico Area Agency on Aging, County Treasurer Laura Montoya, and Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven

Construction of Bernalillo Senior Center begins

~Signpost Staff

Politicians and officials donned hard hats and wielded shovels on May 12 to kick off the delayed construction of Sandoval County's new senior center in Bernalillo. The $1.8 million project replaces the current center, a 77-year-old former home, with a 7,200-square-foot building adjacent to the Bernalillo Recreation Center at Rotary Park. The town provided the land, statewide voters provided the bond money for construction, and the county handles operations with ongoing expenses funded largely through the state.

"It just shows what we can do when we really work together," town Councilor Ronnie Sisneros said before the official groundbreaking ceremony.

"We couldn't do this without the partnerships," added County Manager Phil Rios as he served his last month in the job before retiring.

Construction was to begin last year, but the first round of bids came in over budget, as did the second. State procurement law then allowed the county to negotiate with the lower bidder to trim the project to stay within the budget.

County nears final draft of oil and gas zoning ordinance

~Bill Diven

With oil and gas potentially waiting beneath the surface of southern Sandoval County, the petroleum industry and its supporters are wary of a county zoning ordinance now in preparation.

At this point, however, whether there's an underground bonanza in the Albuquerque-Rio Rancho area is largely unknown. Only a handful of deep test wells have been drilled here over the decades.

Still, the success of horizontal drilling and fracking in the Mancos shale formation of northwest New Mexico is generating interest farther afield. The formation underlies much of the San Juan Basin including the petroleum-producing corner of the county around Cuba.

So what hides in the depths the Albuquerque Basin, stretching from northeastern Sandoval County south through Bernalillo and Valencia counties?

The first few new wells in the basin would be pure science, James Manatt Jr., chairman and CEO of Thrust Energy, Inc. of Roswell, said during a May 12 county commission work session on the proposed oil-and-gas zoning ordinance. Months of analysis would follow examining core samples and other data, he said. "Southern Sandoval County is not ready yet," Manatt continued. "We're trying to open that door."

In 2014, Manatt's company joined with Ruidoso-based Cebolla Roja LLC to lease 55,000 acres in the county from subsidiaries of AMREP Corporation, the founding developer of Rio Rancho. At the time, oil was selling around $100 a barrel before crashing to $30 and rebounding to near $50 today.

The companies hired SandRidge Exploration and Production of Oklahoma to drill a 10,500-foot well four miles west of the Rio Rancho city limits. But because the AMREP land was zoned for residential development, SandRidge filed in November 2015 for a zone change, needed for surface work at the forty-acre site, despite already having a state drilling permit.

SandRidge dropped its request about four months later citing economic conditions, the hurdle of the zoning process, and better opportunities elsewhere. Its parent company filed for bankruptcy protection a few months later but soon returned to business after shedding a reported $3.7 billion in debt.

At the time, the county planning staff conceded it lacked in-house expertise and a clear ordinance to deal with oil and gas production. Since then, it has hired New Mexico Tech as a technical consultant, studied other county's ordinances and experiences in drafting an ordinance of its own, and worked with the state Oil Conservation Division (OCD) to avoid overlapping regulations.

The goal of a new ordinance would be to simplify the re-zoning process while still protecting public safety, the environment, and taxpayers, Planning Director Mike Springfield said.

At last look, the draft ordinance was not yet on the county website. The county's zoning jurisdiction does not include tribal, state, federal lands, or property within municipalities.

The formal part of the May 12 work session was devoted mostly to presentations by current and former state officials and the director of oil and gas technology at New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs in New Mexico's prime oil-producing region. Their talks focused on existing regulation and inspection of petroleum drilling and production and the significant revenue the industry generates for operating schools and supporting state and local government.

Tom Clifford, a former Department of Finance and Administration cabinet secretary in Gov. Susana Martinez's administration said technological advances and the surge in production have cooled talk of world supplies tailing off.

"Peak oil was all the talk when I was in graduate school," he said. "Now it's treated as a renewable as long as the price support is there."

While the crash in oil prices has cost jobs and pummeled the state budget, about fifty drilling rigs are currently at work in the state, a significant increase from last year, Clifford added.

Bob Wessely of Placitas, the only member of the public on the speakers' agenda, urged a continued focus on local impacts outside state and federal regulation. Wessely, who consulted on an oil and gas ordinance approved in San Miguel County, also said the thinking should not be about a few wells but of an entire industry moving in.  "The ordinance is needed for a few bad guys," he said. "Virtually all the bad acting comes from weak regulation or weak enforcement… The purpose is to put strong incentives on operators to prevent bad things."

The full house included representatives from petroleum, business, and governmental associations and a free-market think tank, environmental and political activists, and Sandoval County residents.

Comments from the audience ranged from not needing an ordinance at all, to the threat of escaped methane creating a plume, as currently hangs over the San Juan Basin. Critics complained about the lack of discussion on social-justice and environmental-racism issues and the potential taking of private property rights in low-income rural parts of the county.

"Our area is a land-based economy," La Jara rancher Ernie Torres said. "We're worried about this. If we can't appreciate our mineral rights, why are we here?"

Springfield said the planning staff was to meet with OCD on May 24 to go over the agency's final comments on the draft ordinance. He would then be ready to present a proposed ordinance at the June 27 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting to begin the public hearing process expected to take months.

The four county commissioners present at the work session instead opted to wait for an update at their June 1 regular meeting before deciding whether and how to proceed with the ordinance.

"The worst thing government can do is to create uncertainty, especially if it's putting itself out there as business-friendly to economic development," commission Chairman Don Chapman said.

Fistfight livens up day that resolved zoning commission dispute

~Bill Diven

Two actions in May formally settled months of confusion over appointing and removing members of the county zoning board.

While Commissioner Jay Block's fight with a fleeing criminal suspect didn't involve a zoning issue, fisticuffs ensued outside the Valencia County courthouse where a judge ruled in favor of Sandoval County in a major aspect of the case.

The dispute here centered on terms of office for someone appointed to fill a vacancy on the Planning and Zoning Commission. In October, county commissioners appointed JoAnne Roake of Corrales to a two-year term only to have trouble arise when she was told she'd only serve until March 31, the end of the vacant term.

The P&Z staff cited a clerical error related to the ordinance governing the zoning commission for the mistake in Roake's and two other appointments. Complicating matters further, Block, newly elected to represent Corrales and part of Rio Rancho, was told he could replace Roake with his own appointee upon taking office on January 1.

Supporters of Roake cried foul and took to social media claiming she was the victim of political collusion. Another supporter, Mary Feldblum of Corrales, went to court in March saying the county commission clearly and legally approved a full two-year appointment for Roake.

The case then was assigned to District Judge James Sanchez in Valencia County after the three district judges in Sandoval County withdrew from the case over potential conflicts.

The county's outside attorney argued the ordinance establishing the P&Z commission set up specific staggered two-year terms for the commissioners. The attorney cited a similar case in 1996 when the state Supreme Court supported Governor Gary Johnson in replacing two New Mexico Tech regents appointed by his predecessor to full terms instead of the remainder of vacancies.

On the morning of May 18, Sanchez ruled in favor of the county in cutting short Roake's appointment. Then, that evening, county commissioners approved amendments to the P&Z ordinance, clarifying vacancy appointments and prohibiting removal of P&Z commissioners without cause, notice, and a hearing.

That marked the third attempt to pass the revisions as Feldblum and Alan Friedman, of Placitas, spoke up during previous meetings, criticizing that P&Z commissioners lack protection from arbitrary dismissals. "Thank you for listening," Friedman said.

Block was in his car that morning when he saw a young man sprinting from the courthouse, followed about ten seconds later by two sheriff's deputies, slowed by the weight of their gear. Block took off in his car calling 911 and getting ahead of the man who was running across a field.

The commissioner then positioned himself at an irrigation bridge the man had to cross.

"This gentleman and I just looked at each other, and something was going to go down," the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel recalled during the commission meeting. "He came at me, and something went down. Went at it pretty good."

The man broke away, but Block caught him before he could get through a fence. The fight resumed, and the man slipped away again as deputies and Los Lunas police officers arrived and forcefully subdued him.

Mistaken by a deputy for an attorney, Block said he was just a visiting county commissioner, adding, "I'm retired military. My training just kind of kicked in, and you go try to help out where you can."

Block wasn't injured, although the suspect was. KOB-TV identified him as Patrick Valencia, wanted for failing to appear in court and now facing additional charges.

Mediation unlikely to resolve lawsuit against Placitas gravel mine

~Bill Diven

Court-ordered talks over a zoning lawsuit, aimed at reining in the largest of four gravel quarries operating in western Placitas, produced an agreement that residents who intervened in the case are ready to reject.

If the residents, Sandoval County, and Vulcan Materials don't all agree, the lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in early October in Valencia County.

"We're united," said Dick Ulmer, a member of the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association and president of its Land Use Protection Trust. "This is a case we think we can win."

Details of the proposed agreement remain secret, but a closed meeting of the Sandoval County Commission to discuss the settlement, and a public vote on accepting it, were pulled from the May 18 agenda. Commission Chairman Don Chapman told the Signpost that that was to allow for a meeting with ES-CA members the next day.

"Commissioner Chapman reached out to us for additional information after he heard the outcry from our group," Ulmer said. He, four other ES-CA members, Chapman, and Commissioner David Heil attended the meeting, which Ulmer called very positive.

"The bottom line is, I believe, there now is, if not unanimous sentiment, then close to unanimous sentiment to reject the settlement," he said.

The county filed the lawsuit in April 2014 claiming the then-owner Lafarge was violating a formal 1988 zoning agreement that limited where and how mining could expand within the eight-hundred-acre site where quarrying began in the early 1970s. Lafarge responded by saying a 2008 letter from the county grandfathered the quarry and removed the restrictions of the 1988 agreement.

A few months later, Vulcan Materials inherited the lawsuit when it bought Lafarge's New Mexico operations, including Placitas Sand and Gravel on the Interstate 25 frontage road near State Road 165. Vulcan also acquired the smaller Baca Sand and Gravel pit on the frontage road near Algodones, although it is not part of the lawsuit.

In 2016, the judge hearing the case allowed ES-CA, Ulmer, and ES-CA member Steve Vaughn, another neighbor of the mine, to join the case as parties with a stake in its outcome.

Residents' complaints about dust from the operation led to a 2014 inspection by the New Mexico Environment Department and citations for violations of the company's air-quality permit. While neither the 1988 agreement nor the 2008 letter mention closing the mine, some residents say they bought their properties after seeing other documents setting the closure for 2015.

In public presentation, ES-CA leaders contend research shows the gravel mining generates little tax revenue, but is costing by holding back recovery of residential property values from the 2008 recession. They also say the mine not only affects current residents' health but discourages new residents from moving in, which would add to tax rolls and income for local businesses.
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