Sandoval Signpost


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  Up Front

Coronado Historic Site Ranger-researcher Ethan Ortega was honored for his field work, which is rewriting the history of the site near Bernalillo.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven

Ranger's work expands knowledge, size of Coronado Historic Site pueblo

~Signpost Staff

Researcher and Ranger Ethan Ortega was awarded first prize in the prestigious Cordell-Powers competition at the 2017 Pecos Conference for his research at Coronado Historic Site.

After proclaiming itself as the authority on Middle Rio Grande Pueblo culture and first European contact, the “facts” printed on monument panels are being rewritten. Ortega’s award-winning presentation was entitled: "False Truths, Restored Ruins, and New Artifacts: Looking Beyond the Oxymoronic Past of Coronado Historic Site through Field Work."

For the first time in over one hundred years of archaeological research, the entire property of Coronado Historic Site, including Kuaua Pueblo, has been extensively surveyed. In a joint effort with New Mexico Historic Sites, the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies, and the Friends of Coronado Historic Site, several new sites have been identified.

A report on the findings from the Coronado excavation will be released later.

"With the help of 75 volunteers over seven weeks this summer, we excavated dozens of test units showing that Kuaua Pueblo was larger than once thought and may have had an extensive turkey industry," Ortega explained to the Pecos Conference audience in August. "Additionally, this project has revealed the best way to connect people to the past is to let them literally dig into it."

Ortega donated the $550 cash prize he received for winning the Cordell-Powers competition to the Coronado Historic Site. The 2017 Pecos Conference and annual gathering of Southwestern archaeologists were held on Rowe Mesa south of Pecos, N.M.

"Even in a pool of such remarkable talent, it is no surprise to any of us that Ethan would walk away the winner of this competition," said Historic Sites Director Patrick Moore. "His knowledge of the subject matter is only eclipsed by his enthusiasm. We are very proud of Ethan."

The Cordell-Powers Prize is an award for the best extemporaneous talk (without audiovisuals) presented at the Pecos Conference each year by an archaeologist 35 years of age or younger. Applicants must submit a title for their talk and a one-hundred-word abstract, which the Prize Committee uses to select the ten best applicants.

Presentations are limited to ten minutes and may report interim or final results of archaeological fields work or on research in which the presenter is an investigator or participant. The award is based on delivery, ability to engage the audience, organization and professionalism of the presentation, interest and importance of the subject matter, and adherence to the time limit.

Sandoval County Commission approves controversial oil and gas ordinance

~Ty Belknap

On September 21, the Sandoval County Board of Commissioners voted to approve publication and posting of an oil and gas drilling ordinance recently proposed by newly appointed Planning and Zoning Commissioner Dan Stoddard. This action culminates nearly two years of public process devoted to developing a policy to address environmental concerns and public safety.

The so-called Stoddard Ordinance put the process on a fast track and is backed by the oil and gas industry. The ordinance requires no public notice of drilling applications and eliminates local control over the industry, relying instead on state and federal regulation.

The seemingly foregone decision came in spite of several hours and dozens of comments from the public, centered mainly on the threat posed by drilling and fracking through the aquifer which is the vital water supply to Sandoval County and the Rio Grande Valley. They complained about bias in favor of the industry and lack of transparency. Many Native American speakers expressed frustration over being left out of the process.

The overflow crowd of about two hundred filled the hallways of the County administration building in Rio Rancho. Many were seated in a meeting room and provided with live streaming of the proceedings. Representatives of the oil and gas industry were seated in the first two rows of the commission chambers. During the public comment period, they extolled the economic benefits and safety of oil and gas drilling.

The commissioners, dominated by Rio Rancho Republicans, were unapologetic about their support for the oil and gas industry, which they said was safe enough and already overregulated. They all thanked the public for comments, however District 2 Commissioner Jay Block tempered his thanks with accusations of “threats, lies, bullying, and personal smears” from some “anti-ordinance people.” The only no vote on the Stoddard Ordinance came from District Five Commissioner Kenneth Eichwald the only Democrat, who cited inadequate regulation and safety. The vote to publish and post the proposed ordinance is the first step in making it law.

The four-hour meeting also included:

  • Joanie Griffin of Griffin and Associates presented a “branding” strategy and slick new ad campaign to attract business and tourism to Sandoval County and its natural wonders. The commission approved $50,000 per year for up to four years for the campaign.
  • County Business Director Antoinette Vigil made a detailed presentation regarding a financial assistance request to the Local Government Planning Fund at New Mexico Finance Authority.
  • County Manager Dianne Maes credited the assessor’s office for this year’s lower property tax rates. Rates will go down mainly because of the vote in last year’s election to eliminate a 4.25 mill levy for local hospitals and the addition of properties to the tax rolls.
  • Several union leaders spoke up to encourage county commissioners to avoid acting on so-called “right-to-work initiatives.” They consider “right to work” a union-busting strategy that would lead to lower wages, as well as costing the county, in terms of lost gross receipt taxes and legal expense.

Local citizens applaud one of many public comments opposing the Stoddard Ordinance at the Planning and Zoning meeting on September 21.
Photo credit: —Ty Belknap

Locals watch the September 21 Planning and Zoning meeting on a television screen in another room due to overflow capacity in the meeting room.
Photo credit: —Ty Belknap

County advances fast track for permitting oil, gas wells

~Bill Diven

A citizen attempt to derail a county ordinance allowing oil and gas drilling by administrative permit with little public involvement failed to gain traction in mid-September.

Instead, Sandoval County commissioners received a draft ordinance similar to the state process, essentially a checklist of items an applicant must present to the county planning staff to be granted a drilling permit.

The legal notice must be published twice, and the earliest commissioners could take final action would be their October 19 meeting, Acting County Attorney Heather Smallwood said during a September 12 public hearing by the Planning and Zoning Commission. The P&Z Commission, with Commissioner Dennis Trujillo absent, voted 3-2 to recommend the County Commission approve the ordinance.

Known as the Stoddard Ordinance, for P&Z Commissioner Daniel Stoddard who introduced it on August 22, the proposal categorizes oil and gas drilling and production as a permissive use. That means it's automatically allowed, after listed criteria are met and reviewed by the county P&Z staff.

The so-called Citizens Ordinance, prepared by a group of county residents, adopts a July P&Z staff recommendation that drilling and production be treated as a special use. That would have required public hearings before both the P&Z Commission, which only makes recommendations in such cases, and the County Commission, which has final say short of an appeal to District Court.

It goes beyond the Stoddard Ordinance in setting tougher standards for noise control, groundwater and air monitoring, emergency preparedness, insurance coverage, damage to county roads, and enforcement of violations.

"Not to discourage oil and gas, but to protect the residents, to protect our environment," said Mary Feldblum, a former Corrales planning and zoning commissioner, in presenting the first, and apparently the only, point-by-point discussion of the 25-page citizen document before a county board.

The only substantive change to the Stoddard plan adopted from the citizens' effort was to reduce permitted noise levels heard at 750 feet from the well site, the setback distance from the closest homes, churches, schools, and businesses. Where the Stoddard draft set levels at 60 decibels (dB), allowing up to a month of spikes at 80 dB, those were cut to 55 dB and 60 dB respectively.

The Environmental Protection Agency identifies maximum levels of 55 dB outdoors and 45 dB indoors as "preventing activity interference and annoyance."

"What this means is, you can't understand a member of your family in your own house," said Dr. Stephen Palmer, a university professor working with the citizen's group.

The commission rejected the group's suggestion to limit drilling to eight hours five days a week, after Patrick Padilla of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association called it a "categorical no" that would triple the cost and time to drill and complete a well, which typically is three days. He called the Stoddard Ordinance a balanced approach that would be manageable for the county, while much of the citizen proposal would be unworkable.

In addition to the Oil and Gas Association, Steve Jenkins, new president and CEO of the Sandoval Economic Alliance, spoke in support of the Stoddard Ordinance as a means of adding jobs and attracting new business. "We believe and know it opens up opportunity for those who are not on pensions and enjoying life in retirement," he said.

Opponents have noted what they see as a rush to approve the Stoddard proposal as staff-produced amendments to the current zoning ordinance fall by the wayside.

"I've been up here a few times and almost every time I'm asking you guys, 'Why?'" Randy Erickson of Placitas said during the public-comment period. "I'm going to stop asking why, because its very clear to me somebody or some set of people have borne down on you guys and said, 'Get it done, get it done tonight and just get it to us.'"

At past County Commission meetings, Chairman Don Chapman, who appointed Stoddard to the P&Z Commission, has expressed frustration at the pace of producing an ordinance. "That goal is now in sight," he said at his board's meeting on September 7.

While the P&Z commissioners declined to rework the Stoddard ordinance, they did add language about public notice when a drilling application is filed. However, there would be no public hearing unless the applicant requested a variance from any of its requirements.

The Commission also agreed to send a memo to the County Commission, outlining issues raised by the citizens group worthy of further consideration. Those included whether the well pad—the ground around the well—should be subject to county zoning control as a conditional use, which the P&Z Commission can approve or deny after a public hearing.

Also in the memo are the issues of inadequate staffing of the state Oil Conservation Division, which issues permits and inspects wells but doesn't check applicants' financial condition or out-of-state environmental records, and the public's right to know about drilling proposals in what is proposed to be an internal administrative process.

The drive for an ordinance began after an Oklahoma company filed in late 2015 for special-use zoning for a 10,000-foot exploratory well on a forty-acre site four miles west of Rio Rancho. After public hearings but before a resolution, the company withdrew its application and soon declared bankruptcy.

Two New Mexico companies hold a lease on 55,000 acres of private land bordering Rio Rancho and falling under county jurisdiction. The head of one company has said the Albuquerque Basin could be the state's next big oil and gas play, similar to development in the San Juan Basin around Farmington and the Permian Basin around Hobbs.

The Albuquerque Basin stretching from northeastern Sandoval County to Socorro also contains the aquifer providing water to many of the 700,000 residents in the metro area.

Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres has called the Stoddard Ordinance “terrible” and has written to the County Commission about it.

"It has no protections for the community," he said during the September 11 Bernalillo Town Council meeting. "The aquifer doesn't know the difference between the county and the communities."

Commissioner John B. Arango’s letter of resignation

[Longtime Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman John Arango resigned after the September 21, 2017, County Commission meeting.]

September 22, 2017—I resign from the Sandoval County Planning and Zoning Commission, effective immediately.

The decision to make an oil or gas well a permissive use in unincorporated areas of the County makes key parts of the Planning and Zoning Ordinance indefensible and public hearings on conditional or special uses absurd.

Consider, for example, a recent proposal to use several lots in Placitas for a small multi-family residential facility for senior citizens. Although literally everyone agreed that the facility was well designed and needed, the P&Z Commission denied the application. The denial was based on the New Mexico Supreme Court’s Miller v. City of Albuquerque decision that ruled that, once a zone is established and property has been developed within the rules set by that zoning, the County may not change that zoning unless there is a compelling reason for that change. Testimony at the public hearing revealed that recent residents had bought homes in that zone because it allowed only single-family homes on large tracts. Based on that testimony, the P&Z Commission found that since the multi-family facility could be located in other areas of Placitas where such projects are allowed, there was no compelling reason for granting an exception to the lots’ zoning.

Now, that same lot can be used for an oil or gas well. Without any notice to adjoining property owners or any opportunity for the public to review and comment on the proposed land use.

Or consider the next application on the P&Z agenda: a controversial proposal to build a self-storage facility on a lot in Algodones. Given that, in a few weeks, that lot can to be used for an oil or gas well, a detailed examination of the proposal by the P&Z Commission is ridiculous. How does the County propose to defend a possible decision to deny the application, given that it has made a much more intrusive use of the lot permissive?

                                                                                                —John B. Arango

With his wife Karen observing, newly installed Sandoval County Commissioner James Holden-Rhodes of Placitas addresses the audience after being sworn in by District Court Judge George Eichwald.

New county commissioner brings history of serving county and the public

~Signpost Staff

James Holden-Rhodes didn't set out to be a politician, but after decades in the Marine Corps, education, and other public service, he's become one.

Sandoval County's newest commissioner, appointed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez in late August, was sworn into office on September 7. The Placitas resident fills the District 1 vacancy created when Democratic Commissioner James Dominguez of Bernalillo resigned in June as part of a plea deal that resolved domestic-violence charges.

"I've never aspired to politics," Holden-Rhodes told the Signpost. "I don't aspire now."

That said, the lifelong Independent, now turned Republican, said his current plan is to run for the office when the remainder of Dominguez's four-year term ends next year.

A friend suggested Holden-Rhodes apply for the position, and after visiting with two of the four county commissioners, he filled out the online application on the governor's website. Surprised when the position was offered, he said he stepped up out of the same sense of duty and service that motivated him through 31 years as an active and reserve officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.

"I know no one in Santa Fe," the retired lieutenant colonel continued. "My only ax to grind is, damn it, if you're going to do it, do a good job."

Holden-Rhodes joins what is now a 4-1 Republican majority on the commission as multiple issues percolate from economic development to an upcoming county right-to-work ordinance. At his first meeting he stepped into the controversial process of developing an ordinance governing oil and gas development in the country.

Expressing support for independent monitoring of groundwater for signs of pollution, he later pulled back saying he would defer to well inspections by the Oil and Gas Conservation Division, the agency that issues state drilling permits.

Since leaving active military duty he's earned a doctorate in public policy from the University of New Mexico, and lectured and taught at universities and government centers. As a U.S. Naval Academy Blue and Gold Officer, he continues to work with students from Bernalillo and seven other area high schools who are being considered for appointments to Annapolis.

The New England native came out of college in 1965 with a degree in history and a commission as a Marine Corps second lieutenant who soon found himself in Vietnam leading a reconnaissance platoon and eventually a recon company. While in a tight spot, he vowed he would find a special place to live if he survived.

The special place turned out to be Placitas. New Mexico men in combat with him convinced him to take a look at the state, and his brother, an Albuquerque educator, lived in Placitas at the time.

In 1971, he bought a then-fifty-year-old adobe with a dirt roof near Placitas village. His children both went through Placitas Elementary School.

His son, who graduated from Albuquerque Academy, earned a master of business administration degree and works on the business side of the music industry in New York City. His daughter, a 2017 graduate of Sandia Prep, is on track to enter the U.S. Naval Academy next year with the goal of becoming a naval aviator.

Holden-Rhodes wife Karen also holds an MBA holding executive positions and presiding over her own consulting company. She, too, works with students seeking appointment to the Naval Academy.

Holden-Rhodes also is an author whose books include a biography of Marine Gen. Henry Clay Cochran, who served from the Civil War into the early 1900s and is considered within the Corps as an innovator and reformer. The book rescues Marine history from its Dark Ages that followed the Civil War, according to one reviewer.

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