Sandoval Signpost


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  Up Front

Pipeline-monitoring project moving toward tax election

Signpost Staff

Plans for independent monitoring of petroleum-related pipelines in Placitas continue to advance toward a mail-in ballot on tax support for the effort.

The Las Placitas Association is currently working with Sandoval County on how the county would administer the project using dozens of shallow wells to detect spills from oil, gas, and carbon-dioxide pipelines, said Dwight Patterson, an LPA director who is leading the effort.

Details also are being worked out on a proposed property tax to fund the ongoing monitoring. Patterson said public and private funds will be sought to install the wells while the monitoring costs would average somewhere around twenty dollars per Placitas property per year.

As proposed, the wells would use small pipes, set to a depth of around twenty feet, near the five pipelines. They would be checked regularly using a vacuum source to draw air from the wells to detect any products spilled into the ground.

LPA anticipates distributing mail-in ballots to property owners in April to vote on a tax for the monitoring. The ballots would specify the amount of the tax levy for monitoring expenses and county administration and state the tax would not be imposed if other funding weren’t found to install the wells, Patterson said.

Additional information is available on the LPA website:

Alan Friedman of Placitas (left) and Makita Hill, Sandoval County long-range senior planner, are sworn in along with dozens of other witnesses who testified during a Planning and Zoning Commission hearing on an oil well proposed near Rio Rancho.

SandRidge pulls oil well application, looks for greener pastures

Signpost Staff

The energy company wanting to sink an exploratory oil well west of Rio Rancho withdrew its zoning application in late February after facing public opposition and demands by Sandoval County for more information on the need for public services.

The county Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) already had recommended denying special-use zoning for SandRidge Exploration and Production of Oklahoma City. On February 18, the County Commission, instead of acting on that recommendation, sent the case back to the P&Z commission to give the planning staff, SandRidge and the city of Rio Rancho more time to work out details.

On February 23, SandRidge, which filed the application in early November, withdrew it without explanation in a letter that thanked P&Z commissioners and county staff for their work on the project.

“SandRidge has chosen to focus its time, energy, and resources on its proven MidContinent and Colorado assets,” David A Kimmel, SandRidge Energy communications director, said the next day in an email to the Signpost. “We have decided to end our efforts in Rio Rancho given the combination of regulatory hurdles and the current environment of extended low commodity prices.”

Critics of the project quickly renewed calls for a county ordinance to regulate energy development particularly in the groundwater basin extending from western Rio Rancho to Placitas.

“I’m not surprised that (Sand-Ridge) did this,” said Ed Majka, president of the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association. “Our efforts should be focused on a moratorium and working toward an ordinance before there are any other applications.”

At the February 18 meeting, Michael Springfield, the county’s director of planning and zoning, said his staff still needed an extensive emergency-services plan from the company. Staff also wanted details on potential maximum oil production to assess the burden on roads and other public services for the site in an undeveloped area four miles west of Rio Rancho.

“We’re talking about the public providing services if there’s a catastrophe,” Springfield said. “I want maximum production because I have to plan for the worst… We’re looking for definite answers to help us understand how this will work.”

Some opponents of the project urged county commissioners to deny the zoning permit outright. Mike Neas of Placitas argued the new information would be significant enough to warrant scrapping the process altogether and making SandRidge submit a new application.

The planning staff initially favored approval for an exploratory well but wanted a second application and hearing process for a production well. That changed to denying the zoning request when SandRidge preferred exploration and production be considered together.

Two companies have leased 55,000 acres of subsurface mineral rights in western Rio Rancho, and SandRidge proposed to drill the 10,500-foot test well on two acres of a forty-acre tract.

Meanwhile the planning staff already was looking at additional land-use regulations to address those issues, Springfield told P&Z commissioners during their January 28 meeting.

“We can write land-use laws,” he said. “We can’t write drilling laws. That’s beyond our purview.”

New regulations could be limited to the groundwater basin so as not to affect the northwestern part of the county where extensive drilling has occurred for decades, is often on tribal or federal land outside county control, and is welcomed by many local residents for the jobs it supports.

Bicyclists avoiding the afternoon rush on U.S. Highway 550 in Bernalillo hold to the sidewalk as they head for the Rio Grande bridge.

Design Project Manager Jeanette Walther of Bohannan Huston Inc. describes how traffic will flow at Sheriff's Posse Road in Bernalillo during a presentation on widening U.S. Highway 550. 

(right) Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres raises questions about protecting town business during a public meeting on state plans for widening U.S. Highway 550.
Photos credit: —Bill Diven

Bernalillo concerned about lost business from highway expansion

—Bill Diven

As the plan for widening the rest of U.S Highway 550 through Bernalillo to Rio Rancho comes into focus, details of how town businesses will be protected remains hazy.

For the moment, all that is certain is that money in hand will construct a second bridge across the Rio Grande likely beginning this fall. Beyond that, the New Mexico Department of Transportation and its consultants have settled on two concepts for expanding two miles of the highway to six lanes whenever funding become available.

One concept covers west of the river where there is more available land and fewer businesses. That plan also addresses speeding the high flow of mostly Rio Rancho commuters who turn at the intersection of U.S. 550 and State Route 528 on their way to and from Interstate 25 on the opposite side of Bernalillo.

The second concept covers the business-lined stretch east of the river to the town’s main street, Camino del Pueblo. From there, six lanes already connect to I-25, completed during the problematic rebuild of the freeway interchange finished in mid 2014, eight months past its contract completion date.

But before moving to final design, the consultants need a number of detailed studies, including how to manage access to businesses on both sides of the highway. Currently, a center left-turn lane is open through most of the area, but both concepts would replaced that with a raised median offering limited openings to turn left.

And that’s a problem for Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres who has pushed for an economic study of the project, since the town relies on the businesses for jobs, and sales taxes providing a significant chunk of its budget.

“One of the concerns I have been big on is that without free left turns, especially east of the river, we could see a dramatic decrease in business,” Torres said during the February 18 public meeting where the preferred design concepts were unveiled.

In meetings with the design team, Torres also has pressed for backage roads parallel to U.S. 550, but behind the businesses to provide access without disrupting the highway.

It was Julian Garza, however, who brought up backage roads during the meeting. Garza owns the McDonald’s on the already rebuilt section of U.S. 550 and said the backage road there connecting to Camino del Pueblo and also serving Bernalillo High School has worked well for local traffic.

Senior Vice President Albert Thomas of the engineering company Bohannan Huston Inc. said that the project team would meet with every business to discuss access needs before deciding on right- and left-turn access points. One business owner called for another public meeting after the access study is done, something the design team said it could probably do.

About 75 people, mostly Bernalillo residents, attended the meeting, with one bringing up the “less than satisfactory” experience of rebuilding the I-25 interchange.

Justin Gibson of NMDOT said the contractor for the U.S. 550 project would be selected under an experimental program that considers more than just the low bid. Other factors that can count for, or against, a contractor include past performance, safety records, timely payments to subcontractors, work quality, and claims filed against NMDOT at the end of past jobs.

“You may have higher costs for the bid, but you will get a more qualified contractor,” Gibson said.

The overall project cost is currently estimated at thirty million dollars, including the $13 million dollar river bridge and buying additional right-of-way. The schedule is dependent on funding, which could come from a combination of state bond sales and federal sources.

Additional information, including maps of the preferred design concepts can be found on the project website:

County clears way for bar and restaurant in Algodones

—Bill Diven

A store and restaurant proposed for Algodones can go ahead after county commissioners ended more than three years of wrangling and agreed to extend bar service and liquor sales beyond 9:00 p.m.

That overturns decisions of the Sandoval County Planning and Zoning Commission, which twice found not enough was being done to lessen the effects of selling drinks and package liquor later than the closing time under current zoning.

William Baldwin, who owns three taverns in Albuquerque, first filed for the conditional-use zoning in 2012. The property west of Intestate 25 and north of the Algodones exit already is zoned rural-commercial but needed an extra approval to operate past 9:00 p.m.

County staff recommended approving the plan but added several conditions including not allowing live music outdoors. P&Z commissioners, after hearing concerns from local residents about drunken driving, litter, and crime, denied the request citing incompatibility with the community and to protect health and safety.

Baldwin appealed, and in early 2013 the Sandoval County Commission sent the case back to the P&Z commission, which in November 2015 rejected it again. Some residents at that time supported the idea of a local bar and restaurant.

In his letter appealing the second rejection, Baldwin’s consultant Gino Rinaldi argued lingering ill feelings about Rafael’s Silver Cloud, a long-closed saloon east of I-25, created an inaccurate perception of what Baldwin has in mind. The liquor industry is now under tremendous scrutiny and regulatory oversight, he added, and the store will not allow loitering or “sale of package to drunks.”

The store will offer more products than a typical convenience store since there is no grocery in the immediate area, Rinaldi wrote.

Meanwhile Baldwin had agreed to cut off package liquor sales at 10:00 p.m. and close the bar and restaurant at midnight. State records show Baldwin purchased the full-service liquor license used by the Ponderosa Bar in Ponderosa for $375,000 in 2012 and transferred it to the Algodones location.

On February 4, the county commission heard the second appeal and more testimony before voting unanimously to approve the operation. Baldwin earlier said it might be a year after approval before construction begins.
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