Sandoval Signpost

 

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Grayce Shor of Placitas joined a rally supporting stronger regulation of oil and gas development in Sandoval County. Her sign challenges the ordinance proposed by Planning and Zoning Commission Dan Stoddard.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven

State Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, urges stronger regulation of oil and gas development in Sandoval County during a rally before the Oct. 19 County Commission meeting. Lente said a proposed regulatory ordinance needs more work and is being rushed to approval.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven

Sandoval County Commissioners listen to public comment during the September 21 Planning and Zoning meeting.
Photo credit: —Ty Belknap

Glitch delays vote on county oil and gas development ordinance

~Bill Diven

The two-month push to allow oil and gas drilling on private land in rural Sandoval County, without requiring public hearings, stumbled in October not on its merits but on a publishing and website error.

County commissioners were to consider adopting the Oil and Gas Ordinance on October 19 after publishing legal notices that included where to find and review the proposed law. But the directions to the county website proved faulty, so commissioners first chance to amend or adopt the ordinance comes on November 16.

A rally before the meeting drew about 75 people to the county administration building where speakers assailed what they see as a rush to approve a nine-page ordinance lacking protections for taxpayers and the environment.

"This is a major issue," Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres said. "It will affect us for generations to come."

The ordinance, first introduced at the August 22 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting by member Dan Stoddard, puts oil and gas wells in the zoning category of "permissive use" in areas zoned rural residential agricultural. That would allow the county staff to approve drilling and production based on a company's application and a checklist of supporting documents.

While not required by the draft ordinance, Planning and Zoning Director Mike Springfield said his department will post notice of applications on the county website. The ordinance would apply only to private lands outside municipalities and exclude state, federal, and tribal land.

Under the current zoning language, oil and gas development is a "special use" where the P&Z Commission holds public hearings and sends a recommendation to the County Commission, which has the last word pending any appeals to District Court.

"People need to be horrified that they're being excluded from this process," Mary Felblom of Corrales told the Signpost. "They won't know it's in their neighborhood until they start drilling." The only required public notice of oil and gas drilling is provided by the state Oil Conservation Division (OCD), which posts approved permits on its website, she added.

Felblom was part of citizen group that proposed its own extensive ordinance to regulate oil and gas drilling. Little of their work found its way into the final draft after its one public airing, although the Planning and Zoning Commission did raise drillers required insurance to $5 million from $1 million.

County Commission Chairman Chapman said the public still would have a say after the county staff issued a drilling permit. He cited a section of the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance allowing permissive-use approvals to be appealed to the P&Z Commission and ultimately the County Commission.

"I want the public to have their say, and there is an appeal process," Chapman said in an interview. "What were trying to do is strike a balance between having the oil and gas industry exist Sandoval County and putting forth a responsible ordinance that protects the people in the county… And I have to add to that we are reliant on the state, the federal government, EPA, to do their jobs, too."

According to the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, after a permissive use is approved, it can be overturned only for error, abuse of discretion, or lack of supporting evidence. A drilling operator also would need a public hearing if requesting a variance from requirements in the ordinance.

The drive toward the Oil and Gas Ordinance began after an Oklahoma company filed in late 2015 for special-use zoning to drill an exploratory well about four miles west of Rio Rancho. The site is part of about 55,000 acres of private land leased to two New Mexico companies for petroleum exploration and development.

The drilling company later withdrew its application and declared bankruptcy, but along the way county staff said it lacked both the expertise to evaluate drilling applications and an ordinance specific to the issue. Experts at New Mexico Tech were retained as consultants, and the first attempt at an ordinance, drafted by county staff, appeared last June.

The checklist for a county permit includes an approved OCD permit, a brief description of the drilling, road and emergency plans, water sources with estimated usage, reasonable measures to avoid polluting surface and groundwater, a well setback of 750 from homes, churches, schools and cemeteries, and short- and long-term noise limits.

(The draft ordinance can be found online at SandovalCountyNM.gov under Departments/Planning & Zoning/Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance—Legislative Draft—Posted 10/22.)

Commissioner Jay Block who represents Corrales and parts of Rio Rancho has indicated he'll propose amendments to the ordinance, and Commissioner James Holden-Rhodes of Placitas sent fellow commissioners a letter that urged more protection for groundwater. Holden-Rhodes also said he supports zoning oil and gas as a special use requiring public hearings.

At the October 5 meeting, concerns over violating the state Open Meetings Act thwarted discussion of possible amendments since it wasn't on the agenda.

Block did cite as one of his proposals to exclude community districts and design overlay zones from petroleum development. The Comprehensive Zoning Ordinances lists 12 districts and overlays that add extra zoning rules to much of Algodones, Rio Rancho Estates, the Jemez Valley, La Cueva and much of Placitas.

However, the language creating those districts varies on whether or not permissive use zoning is allowed, according to former P&Z Commission Chairman John Arango. The P&Z Commission could hold hearings and reject a special use on a piece of property while the county staff could approve an oil well on the same site, he said.

"I don't claim to be an expert in oil and gas, but I do claim expertise in planning and zoning," Arango, a 25-year member of the P&Z Commission, told the Signpost. "It undermines the whole concept of having a planning and zoning ordinance… I would have felt ridiculous sitting up there."

Permissive use is allowed in Algodones, Diamond Tail, Ideal Acres, Las Placitas, and in the West Placitas Community District, where P&Z commissioners earlier this year rejected a co-housing project on six acres surrounded by large-lot single-family homes, he added.

Arango resigned after the County Commission accepted the Stoddard ordinance in September. He also takes note of complaints that the Stoddard ordinance is being rushed, under pressure from Chapman, who appointed Stoddard, a former Clovis city commissioner, to the P&Z Commission in April.

"That's an accurate perception because it was ramrodded through," Arango continued. "I gave him (Chapman) what he wanted and quit because it wasn't what I wanted."

Arango said he initially recommended special use zoning but then proposed conditional-use zoning, which would let the P&Z Commission decide applications with the County Commission hearing appeals.

"All I know is he submitted a letter of resignation," said Chapman, who in the past has denied trying to rush the ordinance process.

Chapman also is attributing a new controversy involving San Felipe Pueblo to a misunderstanding over comments he made during the October 5 meeting. Chapman, Commissioner Ken Eichwald and county staff had met with San Felipe tribal leaders the previous day to discuss the ordinance.

In an October 10 letter, San Felipe Governor Anthony Ortiz listed concerns including lack of consultation with area tribes on the ordinance. He also accused Chapman of misrepresenting San Felipe's position by saying the tribe agreed with the ordinance.

Chapman, citing the video recording of the October 5 meeting, said he had only commented on tribal officials agreeing to respect the time and effort the county put into the ordinance and its process leading to a vote. The comment was not meant to imply San Felipe agreed with the ordinance itself, he added.


Town of Bernalillo officials report on year of hard work and continued progress

~Signpost Staff

Times are good in Bernalillo Town Hall, Mayor Jack Torres said during the annual State of the Town presentation in October; budget controls, collaborative relationships, and a hardworking staff, administration, and a couple councilors have united to benefit residents.

"Anybody that's been in any organization knows, that when people are pulling together, things move forward," Torres, mayor since 2010, said. "I feel strongly that everyone is pulling together real well now… It's really been a good year for us again."

Town staff has "an absolute commitment to public service" and works smartly across department lines to come up with creative solutions to problems, Torres continued.

Councilor Ronnie Sisneros, outlining capital projects, said that over the last year, staff has done much of the work on the Athena Park playground and Rotary Park concession stand. Town crews also turned the Depression-era adobe portion of the former Roosevelt Elementary School into the new home of the Martha Liebert Public Library using existing grant funds. That expanded the 3,000-square-foot library in a renovated home next door to 12,000 square feet, spread over two stories in the historic school building, he said.

Also completed were upgrades to a section of South Hill Road with added storm sewers in partnership with the Eastern Sandoval County Arroyo Flood Control Authority. Upcoming projects include building fencing along the railroad tracks with a dedicated pedestrian crossing, placing more fire hydrants in the eastern part of town, relocating Rotary Road to better accommodate traffic in the park and at the senior center, and street and drainage improvements.

Sisneros also discussed economic development, in which Roosevelt Complex will play a part. Working smartly with finances allowed the town to purchase the seven-acre site and buildings, which have now been zoned for commercial uses with a nonprofit, and one business has already moved in. New businesses, from Applebee's to an MVD Express, have opened, and the American Gypsum wallboard plant on the Interstate 25 frontage road is back in operation after being shut down for several years.

The town also has installed free Wi-Fi at Town Hall, the library, town recreation center, Coronado Campground, and the Public Works Department Yard.

Councilor Dale Prairie, listing progress in the Public Works Department, said 85 percent of the water meters in town are read wirelessly. Some residents have wondered why they don't see meter readers getting out of their trucks to take the covers off meters, and that is why, he said.

Improvements and new tent sites at Coronado Campground, costing the town about $14,500, have allowed a forecast increase in revenue with camping fees raised closer to what the state charges for its campgrounds, Prairie said.

Councilor Marian Jaramillo ran through the town budget and financial status, showing the town is living within its means. Annual audits are up to date, and the pending end audit findings will mark the last cleanup of what was once disarray in town accounts. "A lot of these are carryovers from prior administrations and prior years, and we have been very adamant about making sure we fix those audit findings," she said.


Contract workers assemble steel reinforcement for one of the concrete piers that will support two new lanes of U.S. Highway 550 crossing the Rio Grande in Bernalillo. 

Expansion of U. S. Highway 550 bridge over Rio Grande begins 

~Signpost Staff

The ongoing widening of U.S. Highway 550 through Bernalillo has fired up again with construction of a new bridge to span across the Rio Grande.

The $13 million job began in September and, in essence, is building a third two-lane bridge to be connected on the upstream side of the two existing bridges. Arizona-based FNF Construction Inc., whose last project here overhauled the US 550 interchange at Interstate 25 in Bernalillo, won the contract underbidding competitors El Terrero Construction and Fisher Sand and Gravel by $2.3 million and $3.7 million respectively.

The work is Phase 1 of two phases that will eventually widen two miles of US 550 to six lanes from Camino del Pueblo, the end of FNF's previous project, to a little beyond State Road 528 in Rio Rancho. Phase 2, still under design and buying right-of-way, is currently targeted to begin in as early as fall 2018 or early 2019 and wrap up in fall 2020, according to a New Mexico Department of Transportation September presentation in Bernalillo.

The second phase involves a major overhaul of the US 550/NM 528 intersection and is to replace the continuous left-turn lane through Bernalillo's northern business district with a raised center median. That design has been modified after two years of pressure from town leaders and legislators to add left turns lanes at key locations to 550.

"It's not going to be perfect, but it's much, much better than the original design that came to the town," Mayor Jack Torres during the recent State of the Town meeting. "It's still going to be crazy, especially during the second phase, but if we don't do anything to 550, things are going to get worse out there really quickly, so something did have to happen… We got good accommodations to work with local businesses and local traffic."

Surveys found traffic on 550 splits into thirds among commuters, local trying to get to homes, schools, and businesses, and regional pass-through traffic, Torres added.

For now, FNF is working off the roadway, building reinforced-concrete piers to support the bridge spans. Major lane closures on the bridge aren't expected until it's time for cranes to place spans on the new piers.

FNF's job will have some traffic impacts as it widens the westbound lanes from the bridge west to Jemez Dam Road on Santa Ana Pueblo. US 550 westbound already is three lanes as far as NM 528

Stoplights also are being installed at Sheriff's Posse and Kuaua Road, which are opposite but off center from each other and at the unnamed intersection.

FNF's work on the I-25 interchange frustrated motorists, beyond the expected aggravations, as the project wrapped up in July 2014 more than seven months beyond the contract completion date.

 
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