Sandoval Signpost

 

An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Up Front
 

Known for their extraordinary flight skills, flying 2,000 miles during their migratory transits, Rufous hummingbirds pass through in Sandoval County.
Photo credit: —Todd Rennecker


Way cleared for county trash pickup, end of gravel mine lawsuit

~Signpost Staff

Two long-simmering issues—countywide rural trash pickup and a zoning fight over a Placitas gravel mine—appear to be settled, although not to the satisfaction of all involved.

At their August 10 meeting, Sandoval County commissioners awarded the trash-haul contract to United Waste Systems (UWS), a California company already expanded into Valencia County. The county twice requested proposals from interested companies with only UWS and Bernalillo-based Road Runner Waste Service responding.

"It's been a long road, over a year and half," said Ryan Tidwell, a frequent presence at meetings urging the commissioners to help residents and do something about illegal dumping. "It looks like we have something. I'll be able to tell my grandfather he's going to get trash service… This is what we've been waiting for."

Commissioners also signed off on settling the zoning lawsuit filed in 2014 against the gravel mine now owned by Vulcan Materials Inc. Under the agreement, Vulcan will close its Placitas Pit but not until 2027.

Vulcan, the county, Mt. Adams Holdings, which owns the property, and Placitas residents who joined the lawsuit have all signed the settlement, which still must be approved by a District Court judge. The case had been set for trial in October.

Commissioners voted 4-0 on both items as the fifth seat remains unfilled since the resignation of District 1 Commissioner James Dominguez more than two months ago. The district covers the southeast corner of the county including Bernalillo, Placitas, Algodones, Peña Blanca, Cochiti Lake, La Madera, and the pueblos of Sandia and Santo Domingo.

Commission Chair Don Chapman quoted a member of the governor's staff as saying applicants to fill the vacancy were undergoing background checks with a selection possible within a month. As of late August, Governor Susana Martinez's website still had a homepage link to apply for the position.

The eight-year deal with UWS sets up an exclusive franchise for roadside residential trash pickup for $23.90 a month. The franchise covers areas outside cities, towns, and tribal lands and also excludes Placitas where residents fought to keep the three competing waste-haul services already operating here.

Commissioners also made signing up for home collection voluntary and kept open two-day-a-week convenience centers in Peña Blanca, Cuba, and Cañon. However both UWS and its competing bidder, Bernalillo-base Road Runner Waste Service said mandatory collection would better fight illegal dumping, one of the goals of the service.

While commissioners have talked about a ten percent franchise fee, the agreement only commits UWS to paying a fee set by the commission. UWS will also pay the county $14.50 per ton for trash hauled to the landfill from the home collection routes.

UWS had 75 days from the county giving it notice to proceed to begin the service.

The owners of Road Runner again questioned the process where both companies submitted proposals but the county only negotiated with UWS. "No negotiation. Nothing," Lee Dante said.

While Dante and Vicki Andrews argued their proposal was a better deal for the county and the customer, the county's financial advisor called the UWS proposal "substantially better."

The zoning lawsuit Vulcan inherited when it bought three area quarries from Lafarge North America seemed destined for trial after both the county and the Placitas interveners rejected an earlier settlement proposed by the company. Giving Vulcan nine years and nine months to finish mining and reclaim the 1,000-acre site was a compromise between the 15 years the company wanted and the five years sought by the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association (ES-CA), according to participants in the negotiations.

Still, some residents objected to the settlement as ES-CA members Stephen Vaughan and Dick Ulmer, participants in the lawsuit, held multiple meetings in Placitas to explain the agreement.

"We tried to make this agreement best for all the community, but it's impossible to satisfy everybody," Vaughan told commissioners. "But we got a better deal than was available to this commission before we got involved and before we got our positions heard."

The lawsuit centered on 1988 zoning agreement controlling the growth and operation of the mine off the Interstate 25 frontage road about a mile north of State Road 165. Vulcan argued a later letter from the county negated the agreement.

"Vulcan is pleased that there is an agreement in place with the community regarding our facility," the company said in a statement released to the Signpost. "We look forward to working cooperatively with the community and the County to execute that agreement and we continue to be honored to be part of the Sandoval County community."

Vaughan and Ulmer previously have said that while they felt they had a good case, even if they won, the appeals would drag on for years. "Certainly there are a lot of what-ifs," Ulmer said.

Dwight Patterson, who lives in one of the neighborhoods adjoining the quarry, asked for commissioners' help in working with the county assessor in lowering property taxes while the mine remains open. Citing research by a Placitas developer, Patterson said proximity to the mine reduces property values around 15 percent.

"There's going to be a fallout here if the Vulcan deal is approved," said Patterson, who added he was advocating for his neighbors and not for or against the settlement.

Commissioners didn't respond, but other residents have individually protested the property assessments that are the basis of their tax bills.


Simplified oil and gas zoning on county fast track  

~Bill Diven

The complicated process of crafting a zoning ordinance covering oil and gas development in Sandoval County took a turn for the simple in August.

The county planning staff and the Planning and Zoning Commission had been wrestling for months to draft what became a 27-page amendment creating a new section of the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance. That plan set up separate application and review processes for established drilling areas in the northwestern part of the county and for the more urban southeast recently targeted for exploratory drilling.

At the direction of county commissioners in July, the discussion then shifted to working within the existing rules for special-use zoning by adding a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) specific to oil and gas exploration and development. The P&Z Commission was set to consider the 17-page SOP at its August 8 meeting but postponed any action after Commissioner Daniel Stoddard introduced a six-page ordinance addendum he prepared to guide oil and gas zoning.

Stoddard's plan quickly shifted to the fast track.

The P&Z commissioners were to discuss both the SOP and Stoddard's plan at the August 22 meeting, but the published agenda lists only Stoddard's document. And at the county commission's August 10 meeting, Chairman Don Chapman requested a "placeholder" item be added to the August 24 commission meeting in case they wanted to discuss Stoddard's plan.

But on August 21, an amended agenda for the county commission came out adding an option to vote on publishing and posting Stoddard's ordinance, the first step to making it law. Whether the P&Z Commission would vote to advance the ordinance two nights earlier remained to be seen as these events were scheduled after the Signpost's September deadline.

Chapman, during the August 10 meeting, touted Stoddard's plan and expressed concern at the pace of moving the SOP through the P&Z Commission to the county commission.

"I feel like there's a little frustration among the commissioners as to when we're going to get an oil and gas ordinance out of the P&Z," Chapman said. "This might be the way to get it done."

The draft SOP yields to state regulation on some issues like flaring gas but requires site, drainage, road and emergency plans, and other documentation to be reviewed by the P&Z Commission with a recommendation forwarded to the county commission for a decision. It also requires prompt public notice of any drilling application or public hearings.

Stoddard proposes fewer application requirements and sets a ten-day deadline for the staff planning and zoning director to certify an application as complete or to ask for more information. His approach makes no mention of public notice of drilling applications.

He does include a preamble, citing the benefits of oil and gas development to the county and saying state and federal regulators adequately supervise the industry while protecting the environment.

Where the SOP requires drilling to be at least 1,350 from any structure, Stoddard's proposal puts the setback at five hundred feet. Yet, each allows an operator to apply for a variance to such requirements.

Both concepts leave groundwater protection to state and federal agencies. Any rules would apply only to the unincorporated areas of the county and exclude state, federal, and tribal lands.

"I wanted to try to help and get something together that would be crystal clear on what the (county) commission wanted from us and hopefully what we've all discussed about with all our concerns about public safety and the communities and their concerns," Stoddard said during the August 8 meeting. "As I looked up the SOP and continued to look at special use and conditional use it was very unclear to me how we were going to arrive at where we want to be."

Special use and conditional use are two types of location-specific zone changes for projects not otherwise permitted under the existing zoning.

Proponents of tough county regulation still favor a full-scale amending of the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance. Critics of the abbreviated procedures questioned the lack of detail compared to other special-use requirements in the zoning ordinance.

"Look at how it handles sand and gravel," said Randy Erickson of Placitas. Rules governing sand and gravel mining cover 13 of the 18 pages in the special-use section of the one-hundred-page zoning ordinance, he said.

"Using the same general guidelines for cluster housing makes no sense," added Laura Robbins, also of Placitas.

P&Z Commissioner Dennis Trujillo questioned why Stoddard wanted to move so quickly on his newly introduced plan.

"We've gone over this over and over again," Stoddard said. "I'm not trying to rush, but we've heard everybody's discussion… We all have our hearts in the best interests of the community and public safety, but we have been directed by the (county) commission to move forward.”

The issue of an oil and gas ordinance arose after an Oklahoma company filed in late 2015 to drill an exploratory well four miles west of Rio Rancho. While the company later withdrew the application, P&Z staff said it lacked the rules and resources to properly evaluate such proposals.

Since then, the county has engage New Mexico Tech as a consultant and researched other county ordinances in the state. One in Mora County attempted to ban drilling but was overturned in court.

Subsidiaries of the company that developed Rio Rancho have leased 55,000 acres west of the city to two New Mexico companies for oil exploration and production. They hired the Oklahoma company to sink the first well and have said the underlying strata is similar to those producing oil and gas in the Four Corners and northwestern Sandoval County.
 
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