How Does A Bad Idea Almost Get City Approval? + A Call to Action Against More Drilling in San Juan

A chance to stop yet another gas & oil affront; info on coming events in Santa Fe; and a different spin on the City Council deliberations (until 1:15am) on a proposed housing development. Is it time to revise our building codes?

More OIl Rigs in the San Juan Basin? One of our most active Retake leaders, Lynne Fischer, sent me this call to action. She was on a statewide Methane Team call Thursday and one of the members alerted those on the call that Hilcorp has requested a permanent rule change from the NM Oil Conservation Department that would allow them to double the number of wells currently in the San Juan Basin (primarily focused on San Juan and Rio Arriba Counties) from one every 40 acres to one every 20 acres.
First, click here for an article from DESMOG BLOG from when Hilcorp tried this back in May. They were defeated at the time but they’ve come back and we need to defeat them again. Don Schreiber, the rancher in northern NM who alerted those on the call, has requested that people:
  1. Contact Florene Davidson at NMOCD 505 476 3440 and tell her you oppose Hilcorp application #16403 or just, “No Double Drilling the San Juan Basin!”  Or email NMOCD director Heather Riley and say the same thing. Heather is a former oil company exec for Williams pipelines, and her boss, EMNRD cabinet secretary Ken McQueen, is ALSO a former Williams oil co. exec. They are panicked by the upcoming election and want to change the NMOCD spacing rules so that their friends at Hilcorp will never have to be in a public hearing again and can drill roughly 7,500 wells in a beautiful corner of New Mexico. On top of the 30,000 wells that are already here, under the famous Methane Hotspot.,
  2. Mobilize your social media outlets
  3. Help get people informed and activated
He also supplied this paragraph which Lynne and I have each used on our Facebook pages. You can also paste it into an email to a group of friends:
“Hilcorp, now NM’s largest natural gas producer is fast tracking a permanent rule change at NM Oil Conservation Commission to double the number of wells they can drill in 2 formations in 2 counties in the San Juan Basin. Estimated additional wells? 7,500. Hearing date? Sept. 13. Public input allowed? Hell no…that’s why we’ve got to flood social media and media while a couple of us scramble to try and find attorneys to put an emergency stop to the proceedings and get time for the public to be informed about what Hilcorp, a ‘rip and run’ company, is trying to do with the full cooperation of the NMOCD. Contact Florene Davidson at NMOCD 505 476 3440 and tell her you oppose Hilcorp application #16403 or just, “No Double Drilling the San Juan Basin!”  Or email NMOCD director Heather Riley and say the same thing.”
Retake Our Democracy on KSFR 101.1 FM 8:30am today. I speak with Cathy Garcia, Democratic Socialists of America, and Miguel Acosta, Co-Director or Earth Care. We talk about how each organization is working (and organizing) to achieve equity and justice in Santa Fe and NM. Cathy tells us about how DSA is working to support passage of the Health Security Act, and Miguel talks about organizing and empowering Southside families and youth in Santa Fe. Two very sharp folks makes for a very interesting show.

Mariel Nanasi Santa Fe NEESunday, September 2, 11am, Collected Works with Mariel Nanasi, Executive Director of New Energy Economy.  Nanasi will discuss the current PNM case and  her efforts to force Sandy Jones to recuse himself, an effort now going to the NM Supreme Court. I am sure she’ll also hit you with a bunch more on the current state of the environment, her view of the MLG campaign, and much more. Whenever Mariel is at the mic, you get a tremendous blend of passion and insight. Hope to see you there.

Paul Gibson on Richard Eeds radio show for an hour, discussing the Regional Coalition fiasco, the audit findings, the media’s surprisingly misinformed reporting, and some highlights from the Look Listen & Learn Road Trip.  Click here to hear the podcast.

City Council Goes til 3am but Get’s it Right. When a Bad Idea for a Development Passes Multiple City Reviews Maybe It’s Time to Update Zoning Regs and Building Codes to Address Climate Change & Other City Priorities? 

Roxanne and I have been back in Santa Fe less than a week. On our road trip we were continuously inspired and informed by conversations with community leaders who had developed a process, a program, or a policy that had a dramatic impact on their community and created movement toward justice and equity. After 70 days on the road, we returned inspired and ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

And then we get home and we’re struck with the reality of the other side of the process, moving from idea to functioning success. The logistical and practical difficulty of taking a good idea from paper to policy to practice hit home as I sat in the City Council meeting Wednesday night. The Council began its first of two meetings at 5pm, ending at 7. I arrived at 7 for the hearing on the Hyde Park Estancias del Norte appeal. For those who missed Wednesday’s post, here is the key information on the development.

Over 20 years ago developers tried to build out a bunch of single family homes on a steep slope in the Hyde Park neighborhood. It failed to achieve approval because the development would have been on a steeply sloped terrain just aching to flood the neighbors who already lived below.

“Any construction on this land would decrease the watershed value and also contribute to non-point sediment pollution, even with a well planned subdivision. It is my opinion and recommendation that the land has more benefit to adjoining areas if it remains undeveloped. If it is determined that development will take place I feel it should be considered for low density use only.” USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, District Conservationist.

You’d think that would have settled it, but on the heels of a 1 in 1000 year downpour and flooding (that is likely to become a once in a decade or even an annual event), a developer still sees a profit to be made and so is seeking approval to develop 49 homes in the precise location the USDA found so wanting

After hours of testimony from the the developer team and those appealing the plan, community comment began and extended for another hour, after which the Councilors and Mayor weighed in for a an hour or more. In the context of the discussion, I was struck by three comments from Councilor Villarreal. I paraphrase these comments:

  • I am just sad that our community decision-making process has devolved into a battle between attorneys trying to “win” instead of a community wrestling with the issues and arriving at a common sense solution;
  • Each of us [Councilors and Mayor] was provided between 700-800 pages of background material for this one housing development; and
  • Maybe we shouldn’t have approved any developments in flood plains. [In relation the decision to approve or not approve the new development because of its potential threat to increase erosion and flooding for the neighbors below.]

Think about how long the hearing took, how much documentation councilors had to review, and the fact that none of them are engineers or architects. How can they digest and weigh the relative merits of a developer and his engineers who say they had complied well beyond what was necessary and prudent, along with information from engineers supporting the appeal who point to soil conditions and slope that are impossible to mitigate? If you are a City Councilor, how do you weigh these competing versions of reality?

Despite the complexity of the issues and the vast amount of information to be understood, the Councilors seemed on top of their game, asking pointed questions that seemed utterly on target. But there was something wrong with having a developer jump through a zillion hoops to get the approval of staff from several city departments, a planning commission, and I am guessing at least one or two city council committees, only to be challenged by some very compelling data and testimony from expert witnesses claiming that this was a bad idea. How was this approved in the first place?

There is something wrong about a very bad idea or proposal garnering the approval of so many smart people. Maybe the developer did meet city requirements, but at the end of the day common sense bridles at the idea of building expensive homes that will likely be sold to out-of-state folks looking for a vacation home and placing these homes on a very steep terrain prone to flooding homes below.

This brings me to Villarreal’s last comment: ‘Maybe we shouldn’t have approved any developments in this area.’ I am guessing that Villarreal’s point in this is that given the steep slope, the uncertain terrain, the history of runoff, the advance of climate change bringing with it the likelihood of 1,000-year storms as possibly annual events, maybe we need a new way of looking at housing and other development. I wasn’t sure if this is where Villarreal was coming from, but it certainly was what I took from it.

But I spoke with her yesterday and she affirmed that I had it right. Maybe the City needs to start thinking about how building houses in areas prone to flood and erosion doesn’t make sense. To be clear, she is not suggesting we shouldn’t support those residents who live in areas that are in floodplains, just that we shouldn’t approve future development in those areas. Do any of you ever wonder about those folks who live on islands south of Louisiana that get washed out every 2-3 years? Does the light ever go on that this is not a great place to build a house?  Can we learn from experience?

But if we are using code developed in the 50s or 60s, as most jurisdictions are, how germane are these codes, how could they possibly anticipate the kinds of challenges faced in the 21st century? If we presume staff is competent, then the only answer is that there is something amiss with the rules and codes governing housing development. After all, staff absolutely must abide by the code in determining whether to recommend approval or they risk a lawsuit.

Building codes developed in the mid-20th century were designed to foster suburban sprawl, did not incorporate concepts of walkability, bike paths, preservation of hiking trails, incorporation of energy conservation features, or even density allowances. While jurisdictions have been able to rezone certain areas to encourage different kinds of housing and mixed use developments, what if our building codes and zoning regulations actually reflected the values of the community and encouraged the kind of housing and business development that fosters sustainability and environmental coherence in a climate change future?

Let’s face it: Santa Fe has a water problem, with the likelihood of many more droughts and a shrinking water supply. Acknowledgment of that reality should inform our development of new housing as the more people we have the more water we consume. In that context, would homes for wealthy, mostly out-of-state folks looking for a vacation home be a priority?

What if our building codes and defined our development priorities: passive solar, water catchment, solar, walkability, mixed use, higher density preferences, etc? Couple that with defining priorities in relation to the kinds of housing sought — low-income rental property, low-income family housing, single family homes for targeted employment sectors from teacher to police — and staff would have clear direction into what the city is looking for in terms of development, and developers would not even bother trying to foist ill-conceived plans for housing that is outside our priorities. Certainly much of this can be achieved in a housing plan or community development plan, but if the zoning and building codes don’t reinforce our priorities, we wind up with staff just doing their jobs and approving plans that don’t fit those priorities.

I figured that if the concept of reforming our building codes and zoning regulations was on my mind, someone more immersed in community development would have thought of it before. Bingo. The Congress for the New Urbanism has a range of great ideas, case studies, and tools for local community development, among them the Project for Code Reform. It is designed to enable a city to transform its building codes in three phases from the easy lifts to more expansive changes over time. To find out more about about Congress for the New Urbanism’s Project for Code Reform, click here.

As to Estancia del Norte, the City Council decided to postpone making a ruling on the appeal for 30 days. The vote to do so was reached at 1:15am after hours of conversation. I was proud to be among the 40-50 others from the community to have weighed in, opposing the development. While I am glad the Council delayed their decision and asked the two parties to see if they could reach a compromise, maybe we need to think about creating a new way of viewing development.

In solidarity,

Paul & Roxanne



Categories: Local-State Government & Legislation

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5 replies

  1. Paul, does the city’s zoning code really date from the last century? The county’s code, the Sustainable Land Development Code is only a few years old and yet it still prepares us for the 100 year rain. Actually, it is worse than that — in area of monsoon, it prepares us for the 100 year, 24 hour duration rain. The County code practically guarantees that people will build in areas subject to flooding and that their construction will make things worse for their neighbors. The slope can be steep or even flat, the results are basically the same.

    A problem is that the flood zone maps are based on historical data. And the historical data has been rendered irrelevant by the combination of climate change and development. Even a 100 year flood plain map updated to 2018 is a trap for the unwary because the historical data is worthless.

    I have been trying since 2013 to get the county to move away from the 100 year flood based on historical date to something called “best science”. Good luck to you. You will undoubtedly be more successful.

    • The FEMA floodplain maps aren’t very good compared to those developed by the private insurance industry involved in the catastrophe insurance market. Private firms that write catastrophe insurance policies use a variety of highly sophisticated models provided by both academic groups and commercial model providers to estimate probabilities of not only natural disasters (floods, hurricanes, earthquakes) but also such things as terrorist attacks. In this community, the models used in many cases have been updated to take into account the potential impact of climate change. (See for example the discussion paper on Catastrophe Modelling and Climate Change from Lloyd’s of London:

      A good discussion of the many issues with the FEMA floodplain maps can be found in this Bloomberg article:

      The reasons for the many problems with the FEMA maps can be traced back to a couple of sources:

      -FEMA isn’t a particularly effective agency in the best of times and has a pretty dismal track record for institutional incompetence.

      -If really accurate floodplain maps are produced, they often show that large areas of existing development are at high risk, which naturally depresses property values in these areas. Whenever FEMA actually does produce updated maps that show existing development is in a high risk area they are met with a firestorm of local opposition to the update.

      One can only imagine how the existing homeowners below the proposed Hyde Park development would react if they insisted on an updated floodplain map only to discover that their houses were (even without the new development) reclassified as being in a high flood risk area.

  2. Move council meeting to Saturdays

  3. There used to be a Moratorium against building up there. Then it became a contest to get a building site approved. That Tom Ford house, became an aspiration or a goalpost for the other builders. One of the other concerns up there, beside the flooding and unstable subsurface formations, was fire. Like many other areas, the Mc Mansions creeping up towards the wilderness, force any fire defense to protect those homes. It takes fire personnel away from fighting the fire to protecting the homes of absentee homeowners.

    It seems like the more the locals fight new building up there, the more desirable, and exclusive those lots become. The unnaturally low taxes, are one of the main selling points. We attract a sort of mean, penurious rich type, that resent taxes, and the “little people.” Of course in Santa Fe, the marketing is weaponized. Take a look at our local “Newspaper’ they even brag about how they have supported the Real Estate Market. Santa Fe attracts a particular type of home-buyer, one that likes to feel they got away with something. They tend to have this “Patron” mentality, they like having a lot of “little brown people’, to feel superior to, and order about.

    The Community has been silenced over the last few decades. Even the local news is covered in way to avoid any negativity for the RE and development business. The unlimited “crime” coverage is always “those people” on the south-side. While we get a collection of fly by night developers, in the past they have “Trumped” local workers. That is where they refuse to pay the subcontractors, leaving them holding the bag. Very few of these Crimes were prosecuted, and little of it made the ‘News.” Perhaps there is a chapter in his book, on how to get away with that. They are above the Law, the local Politicians grovel for their “Business.” A round of golf or an exclusive dinner, is usually enough to buy their protection, and even some local tax payer paid perks, and subsidies.

    Real Estate and Development are the only “Industries” here. The proliferation of big box stores and out of state corporations, is left out of the “News.” In the business pages they are touted as “Job Creators” even though they only grudgingly pay minimum wage, barely pay any local taxes, and their billionaire owners who benefit from their employees getting Medicaid, pay to lobby against it. It is almost as if they used New Mexico as a testing ground for the national nightmare in D.C.

    The constant Advertorials in the ‘News” about “Startups” and “Innovation” is a Gas Light. The banks are cashing in the people who start their own businesses, the statistics speak for themselves. They are merely a nice way of framing the Gig Economy, which New Mexicans, and in particular Santa Fean’s, have been participating in for years. People with a “Side Job” often something like housecleaning, on their off time, are presented as a Small Business Owners. If you look at how many “Businesses” go under here, after their owners, took out massive bank loans to enrich the banks, it should be obvious.

    The kids are the ones who are really feeling the impact of this.

    Capitalism has even intruded on “Activism” on Facebook, they are still peddling their wares, while pretending to be conscious. In the National News, more Cambridge Analytica, this time leaving out Facebook’s activities in all of this.

    Here is another cottage Industry ruining New Mexico, and the little Wilderness we have left.

    Even the local news coverage of the Pedophile Priests has an agenda, one shored up by the Koch Brothers.

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