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An Independent Monthly Newspaper Serving the Community since 1988
  Up Front

Bill protecting the Crest of Montezuma in Placitas from mining and development passes House

Legislation sponsored by U.S. Representative Martin Heinrich (NM-1) to expand the Cibola National Forest passed the House of Representatives on April 24, 2012, by a unanimous vote. The bill, H.R. 491, would improve recreational access for local residents while ensuring that the land, located just east of the village of Placitas, is not subject to future mining and development.

“The Crest of Montezuma is the backdrop to Placitas,” said Rep. Heinrich. “As an active hunter and conservationist, I sponsored this bill to protect the high-quality wildlife habitat found on the Crest of Montezuma. My bill will ensure that these lands are protected from future development and improve recreational access for East Mountain residents.”

The bill would also simplify management of the area by transferring a parcel of land known as the Crest of Montezuma from the Bureau of Land Management to the U.S. Forest Service.  

This bill has strong support from local residents, including the support of Las Placitas Association, a 300-member citizen group that represents residents near the Crest of Montezuma. Local sportsmen, including the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, support the bill because of the importance of these lands as wildlife habitat.

Bernalillo P&Z considers high density housing

Signpost staff

Town of Bernalillo Planning & Zoning Commission Meeting met on April 3 to reconsider a master plan for an 157 acre site on the I-25 Frontage Road, just north of the Petroglyph Trails subdivision which had been annexed by the Town of Bernalillo several years ago.

A Master Plan for 245 housing units had previously been approved for “Sole Toscano” on this site. Tierra West, the developer, recently asked for an amendment to the Master Plan, adding a mixture of traditional housing, senior living, and four hundred apartments totaling 617 units. They changed the name of the development to “Santa Rosa.”

A three-to-one vote essentially rescinded the previous vote for approval. There was discussion about why it may be unwise to approve this Master Plan. Commissioner Hooper felt that major issues were not given detailed description and discussion, particularly concerning water, sewage, traffic, and school attendance.

The Commission now consists of seven members, three of whom are new. Chairman Moloney asked if any of the new commissioners wished to recuse themselves from this issue. All three asked to be recused.

Chairman Moloney then discussed his concerns, which mainly involved the effects of increased density. The present population of Bernalillo is 8320, inhabiting 4.7 square miles. The Santa Rosa property is approximately a quarter square mile, so this would increase the area of Bernalillo by five percent. According to the last census there are 2.86 persons/household in Bernalillo. If there were the same average for households in Santa Rosa that would add 1,765 people to Bernalillo’s population, meaning a 21 percent population increase over only a five percent increase in area. Chairman Moloney expressed his belief that one of the major attractions of Bernalillo is its small town character, and the quality of life that goes with that. He worried that this increase in density could destroy that small town ambiance.

After Chairman Moloney’s comments, Ron Bohannon, representing Tierra West asked to be able to rebut some of the Chairman’s points. At first the Chairman felt that was out of line, since all evidence had already been taken at the previous meeting, and that this was just a continuation of the discussion among Commission members prior to voting. But Town Attorney George Perez said that he felt it would be okay for Bohannon to offer his rebuttal.

Bohannon disputed the estimate of density. He said that the national average for density in apartments is 1.1 person per household. And the national average for density of single-family homes is less than the 2.86 persons/household figure for Bernalillo. Commissioner Hooper expressed distrust in those national average figures as applied to Bernalillo, since clearly the average for Bernalillo is higher than the national average. Bohannon made a quick computation based on the Bernalillo figures, using the 1.1 person/household figure for apartments, and estimated that there would be 865 persons living on the entire property, rather than the 1,765 estimated by Moloney.

Bohannon then disputed whether this higher density on the periphery of Bernalillo would change the core character of the Town. By pushing the higher density to the periphery, he said, that would keep it out of the old Town, helping to preserve its character. He said the development would supply more Gross Receipts Tax and Property Tax to the Town. Bohannon said that because of present demand, if these apartment “products” aren’t located somewhere in Bernalillo they will go to Rio Rancho instead.

Bohannon also pointed out that because a good portion of this development will consist of senior housing, the impact on school attendance will be minimal.

Commissioner Hooper did not feel that there had been enough study of the impact on the city as regards water and sewage.

Bohannon requested the deferral of this decision to the May 8 P&Z Commission Meeting, at which time more detailed testimony could be presented about the various impacts. The commission voted unanimously to defer the decision until the next P&Z Meeting on May 8.

Dixon Orchard

Sandbags line Cochiti Creek at Dixon Apple Orchard after the Las Conchas Fire in anticipation of the flood that nearly wiped it out in 2011. Photo credit: Ty Belknap

Truck in mud

Dixon Apple Orchard truck stuck in the mud after the flood

State nixes Dixon exit plan

—Ty Belknap

After disasters all but destroyed the Dixon Apple Orchard in 2011, the Mullane family found a way to salvage something from the seventy-year-old family business and move on to greener orchards in Wisconsin. To their surprise and dismay, the State Land Office rejected their plan for complex reasons that may create a losing situation for all concerned and result in the destruction of what is left of the popular fall destination at the mouth of Cochiti Canyon. The trees are blooming now and will not produce or survive for long without water.

Last summer’s Las Conchas Fire incinerated the entire watershed above and around the orchard, but most of the apple trees survived. Then two massive flood events in the barren canyon washed away much of the irrigation system along with about half of the trees. It was also a life-threatening event for the Mullanes and anybody else in the floodplain. For a number years, it will continue to be a dangerous place to be and a difficult place to run an orchard.

So the Mullanes decided to call it quits. Becky Mullane said, “It was a hard decision, but in a way it was easy because there is no end [to problems] in sight, and our family can’t afford to keep it going. It’s just not doable. We can’t make a living here anymore.”

The Mullanes negotiated an agreement to sell their lease held by the State Land Office to San Felipe Pueblo for $2.8 million. They planned to use the funding to start a new orchard in Wisconsin. The tribe was seeking some sort of control over 8,500 acres of state land adjoining the orchard for religious and cultural reasons.

The State Land Office sent a letter rejecting the deal to the Mullane’s attorney and local media on April 12. State Land Commissioner Ray Powell said that he took this action to protect taxpayers from a bad deal made by the former administration that swapped three thousand acres of developable urban land to the University of New Mexico for the 8,500 acres in Cochiti Canyon, and leased the 8,500 acres to the Mullanes for a mere one hundred dollars a year. Powell told KRQE television, “The lease requires that someone has twenty years of experience of running an orchard. San Felipe Pueblo does not have that experience.” He said that low rent should not be passed on to the San Felipe Pueblo. "We have to have it where we are not spending taxpayers' money to subsidize a private business," Powell said. "That just wouldn't be right."

The rejection letter sent from Land Office attorney Harry Relkin to the Mullane’s attorney Thomas Hnasko points out that, for the public good, the Land Office has the fiduciary duty to get as much money as possible from state lands, and that the Powell administration would never have made such an unfavorable exchange in the first place. Apparently the Land Office does not think it is for the public good that UNM benefited from the deal. “While we respect the Mullane’s desire to move to another state, we cannot subsidize the move with dollars from New Mexico taxpayers that should support public schools.”

The Mullanes plan to appeal the rejection. Becky Mullane took exception to what she considered Powell’s heavy-handed media attack on her family. She said, “We never took a penny of tax dollars. The deal with San Felipe we wouldn’t be paid by taxpayer dollars. We found a way to keep the trees alive and move on.” She said, “Ray Powell has treated our family horribly and has never done anything to help the orchard. We haven’t seen him since he came out here for a press conference after the floods.”

Mullane said that her grandfather, Fred Dixon, originally leased orchard land from a Mr. Pool who owned 9,000 acres of the former Rancho de Canada land grant. Mr. Pool donated the land to UNM “in perpetuity.” Dixon then leased the land from UNM. Mullane said that the current lease was imposed on her family when the Land Office did the land swap with the University of New Mexico in 2005.

Powell told the Signpost that he has a great deal of respect for the Mullanes and considered them an asset. He said, “They are honest, hard-working people. They earned $330,000 a year from the orchard and the state got ten percent of that plus $8,000 for the lease.” The Land Office letter states that “the Mullanes are the most uniquely qualified operators of this orchard to be found anywhere.”

Powell said that the lease on the adjoining 8,500 acres was a “strange deal that was not in the best interests of the state or the Mullanes. This is an opportunity to take a step back and put the trust in a more reasonable position. It makes no sense to continue the lease for 75 years.” He said that the Land Office estimates that the land could lease for as much as $250,000 a year or could be used for a favorable land swap.

Powell went on to say that San Felipe did not have the twenty years experience in orchard management required by the lease, and that the pueblo is not interested in apples anyway. He said that FEMA regulations require the Mullanes as lessor to spend the money up front to repair the irrigation system, after which they would be reimbursed by FEMA.

Mullane said that her family simply does not have money to invest in an irrigation system that could be washed away in the next flood. She said that the Land Office owns the system and should be the ones to fix it. She also disagreed with Powell’s assessment of San Felipe’s interest in the orchard. “Members of the tribe worked with us during thinning and harvests for twenty years. Our foreman of twenty-five years wants to continue working here.” She said that the tribe had asked for a list of equipment and had sought advice.

Mullane said, “The Land Office won’t talk to us. If we can’t work this out, the trees will die.”

Powell also expressed his desire to get water on the trees. He said that the Land Office put a great deal of effort and money into the unsuccessful attempt at flood mitigation and is having engineering studies done on the system. He said that work on the system, if they can find a way around FEMA’s restrictions, needs to be done in concert with the Mullanes because they know the system and own the trees. Powell said he was trying to get their lawyers to sit down and talk before it is too late. Any settlement, he said, must be fair, transparent, and reached in “complete sunshine.”

Maybe sunshine will reveal whether apples are really the issue at all. If the Land Office comes to agree with the Mullanes that preserving Dixon Apples is neither safe nor economically feasible, will the twenty-year orchard experience requirement still be the deciding issue? If no one else steps up, shouldn’t the tribe be allowed to try to save the orchard? Does the Land Office have the fiduciary responsibility to block the sale of the lease and deny Felipe Pueblo control over lands of religious and cultural significance? Ultimately the courts may have to decide, but by the time that happens, the trees could be long gone.

Broken valve cuts Bernalillo water supply

—Ty Belknap

The Town of Bernalillo water supply was cut off on Thursday, April 19, while crews were repairing a leak in a sixty- to seventy-year-old, eight-inch water main. Businesses and homes east of the Rio Grande were without water for most of the day. Students were sent home from Bernalillo Public Schools when they arrived for class in the morning. Traffic on US 550 was slowed to a crawl due to a lane closure at the repair site in front of Pizza Hut.

Mayor Jack Torres told the Signpost that crews excavated the leaking line on the previous Wednesday. When they tried to isolate and repair the leak at first light, a valve stuck in the closed position, and then the valve stem was broken. A replacement part for the valve was rushed in from Pecos, Texas, and town crews made the repair with the help of TLC Plumbing.

Water supplies were restored at about 5:30 p.m., but it took several hours to bleed air from the lines at fire hydrants and for water pressure to build back to normal.

Traffic tangles continued through Friday as road repairs were completed, under the supervision of the NM Department of Transportation.

Torres said that much of the Bernalillo water system is between fifty- and seventy-years-old. Nobody really knows. Mapping of water lines is inaccurate, and many valves and meters are in need of repair. Torres said that the Town has obtained a Community Development Block Grant, and that work is beginning on replacement of parts of the system. “Our new water department supervisor has done a phenomenal job over the last eight months. He has gotten to know the system well and has eliminated a lot illegal water taps. We also hired a geographic information system specialist to update maps of the system and find valves—some are paved over. As we find the fiscal means, the information will help us make improvements.”

Sandoval County Commission News

Signpost staff

At a March 29 special meeting of the Sandoval County Commission, SC Detention Center Director Al Casamento presented a plan to address problems that may have contributed to three recent suicides at SCDC. The United States Marshal Service pulled all federal prisoners while weighing the policies, practices, and procedures at SCDC. A decision based on that review will determine whether the prisoners will be returned. SCDC derives nearly half of its $8.6 million annual budget from housing federal prisoners.

Commissioners voted unanimously to approve new policies and procedures and a one-year agreement costing $98,000 between Sandoval County and Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc. for inmate mental health-care services.

SCDC will add a mental health nurse practitioner and mental health professional to the staff for twenty hours a week. They will also be available by phone or pager twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.

Casamento told the Commission that the psychiatrist, registered nurse, and medical doctor who currently work at the jail will now make referrals for inmates in need of mental health services, therapy, or medication.

The new procedures involve treatment and care of prisoners considered to be a suicide risk, including a round-the clock “line-of-sight” watch and confiscation of shoelaces. More information will be required of the staff when conducting suicide and medical screening when inmates are booked into SCDC.

At the April 19 regular meeting, commissioners approved several corrections and updates to the procedures. A decision had not been reached at that time about returning federal prisoners to SCDC.

Also at the April 19 meeting:

  • Presentation of robe to Probate Judge Frank Marquez. Marquez was appointed to the position last year to replace the deceased Mary Kwapich. He is campaigning for reelection in the June primary.
  • Presentation by Pueblo of Zia—Governor Wilfred Shije. Shije requested county funding for the last mile of fiberoptics for its high-speed internet project. The pueblo also sought assistance with a proposed retail center in San Ysidro.
  • Lobbyist Lawrence Horan gave a legislative report, which was pretty long considering the minimal funding received for the county wish list.
  • Intel spokespersons presented a quarterly report on its positive impact on the local economy. They also said that Intel would be contributing another $100,000 penalty to the School to Work program to comply with the conditions of the Industrial Revenue Bond that requires sixty percent of its workers to be New Mexico residents. Only 35 percent fit this description. Their presentation on environmental performance lauded green initiatives such a solar panels and recycling of water and chemicals. They said nothing about Corrales residents who continue to register complaints of illnesses they relate to Intel’s emissions.
  • The Commission unanimously approved a request by Tom Ashe for a zone map amendment plan of the Petroglyph Trails subdivision, approximately 210 acres. This is located on the I-25 Frontage Road, north of Hwy. 165. It borders on the Placitas Trails and Anasazi Meadows subdivisions. The amendment allows mixed use of commercial, light industrial, single family residential, and higher density residential. The I-25 Frontage/Bernalillo Interface Overlay District is designated to include these mixed usages.
  • County Manager Phil Rios requested a motion to award bid for collective bargaining agreements and labor relations services to Management Associates, Inc., and authorize the County Manager to negotiate and enter into a contract for professional services. The motion passed unanimously.
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