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Signs protesting the environmental hazards of oil and gas development line the wall during the July 11 meeting of the Sandoval County Planning Commission. The commission is holding a series of public meetings as it drafts an ordinance regulating such development in the rural areas of the county under its jurisdiction.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven

County adds meetings on regulating oil, gas development  

~Bill Diven

Drafting a zoning ordinance covering oil and gas development has prompted the Sandoval County Planning and Zoning Commission to double the number of meetings it holds through October.

In addition to the regular meetings usually held on the fourth Tuesday of the month, extra meetings are scheduled for August 8, September 12, and October 10. Unless discussion of the proposed ordinance is on the agenda, regular meetings are reserved for other commission business, Chairman John Arango said.

The current draft of the ordinance divides the county into Northwest and Southeast Energy Development Areas. Northwest Sandoval County already has an established oil and gas industry and is home to about ten percent of the county's population. The southeast, with its urban centers, sits on potentially valuable petroleum resources but sits on top of the aquifer of many homes and business.

In both areas, the county zoning director would administratively approve temporary permits of oil and gas exploration. The director, after administrative review, could also approve production wells in the northwest.

In the southeast, however, those would require conditional-use zoning, which involves the planning commission, county commission, a series of public hearings, and the right to appeal decisions to district court.

One caveat in all this is that much of the county is state, federal, and tribal lands, or incorporated municipalities, over which the county has no zoning jurisdiction.

During the July 11 P&Z commission meeting Arnold Farley of Corrales said that while he prefers a ban on drilling, the county should at least delay any action until NM Tech completes a study of geology and hydrology requested by the county. "We don't need to squeeze our aquifer any more because we're already in trouble," he said. "Exploration is drilling if they find it."

Laura Robbins of Placitas said the number of signers of a petition to preserve the county's land, air, and water has now gotten more than 600 signatures—with about 250 of those being Placitas residents. “The county has the opportunity to be creative and put people above the rights of so-called corporations,” she said.

Earlier in the meeting, in a discussion of zoning court cases, Assistant County Attorney Heather Smallwood said counties’ regulatory powers are largely limited to what the state grants and whatever doesn't conflict with federal law. That is part of why a federal judge rejected a 2013 Mora County ordinance that tried to ban oil and gas drilling, she said.

Under current zoning, drilling for oil or gas falls into the special-use category where each application is treated as a unique situation. Adding a specific oil and gas ordinance would set standards governing all such applications with each case potentially setting precedents applying to future cases, P&Z Commission chairman John Arango said.

"That puts us in the position of thinking what's ahead for the county in the next forty years," he said while noting language in the current ordinance dates to the 1980s. "Once someone files an application, you can't say, 'Oh, wait, we forgot something,' and amend the ordinance.”

During an earlier presentation to the county commission, one oil industry executive described the Albuquerque Basin stretching from Sandoval to Socorro counties as having the potential to be the next Permian or San Juan basin. The Permian in southeast New Mexico is a major oil producer while the San Juan in the Four Corners is known for natural gas and ongoing disputes over a methane plume covering the area.

The P&Z Commission was scheduled to hold its regular monthly meeting on July 25 with the oil and gas ordinance the only item on the agenda.


Placitas out as debate continues on county-wide trash pickup

~Signpost Staff

A franchise for residential trash pickup in rural Sandoval County, excluding Placitas, is on hold as the discussion moves to the future of landfills and who should dump there.

Awarding the eight-year agreement to California-based Universal Waste Systems (UWS) was on the County Commission's July 13 agenda for approval. Instead, it was bumped to the August 10 meeting with the commissioners, scheduling a three-hour work session on August 1.

"We haven't thought about this whole landfill thing strategically," Chairman Don Chapman said. He also expressed frustration that both the Rio Rancho and county landfills are located in his urban district with out-of-county trash haulers also using the county facility.

"They're an eyesore, and they're inappropriate with the way Rio Rancho has grown," he said. He also wondered whether there might be alternatives to the county even being in the trash business.

Commissioner Jay Block, who voted to act on the franchise that night, focused on the "tipping fee," the amount trash haulers pay per ton for dumping at the landfill. Commissioner David Heil questioned whether the county was recovering the true cost of landfill operations.

"To me this looks like a bad deal for the county," Block said.

Public Works Director Tommy Mora said the tipping fee is $24 a ton, but a volume discount for companies hauling more than 125 tons a month drops that to $14.50. The rates apply to local haulers and trash brought in from other counties, he said.

It costs Public Works $8 a ton to cover and compact the trash, Mora added.

UWS, which already operates in Valencia County, and Roadrunner Waste Services of Bernalillo were the only companies to respond to a request for proposals issued in August 2016. The companies and Public Works both favored making trash pickup mandatory for households in unincorporated areas of the county.

Commissioners opted to make the franchise exclusive awarding it to one company but not forcing households to sign up. The plan led to stiff opposition from the Placitas area where Road Runner, Waste Management, and Placitas Rubbish Removal compete for customers without county involvement.

Under the proposed franchise, UWS would charge $23.90 a month for weekly pickup discounted for indigent households, operate the three county convenience centers, and offer other services including providing containers for community cleanups and clearing illegal dumps. In addition to the tipping fee, UWS would pay ten percent of revenue as a franchise fee.

Road Runner owner Lee Dante said he went through the costly proposal process and submitted an offer in May.

"To this day no one has talked to us about our proposal," Dante said. "We feel we were not given the opportunity to negotiate."

Meanwhile, the county has moved to extend the life of the landfill on Iris Road by adding ten acres to the 122 acres already in use and increasing the height of the landfill mound.

Longer term, it is planning the Sandoval County Waste Regional Center to open around 2030 or within a year of closing the current landfill. The facility would cover about 380 acres of a 500-acre site off Encino Road NW west of Rio Rancho and accept trash locally and from outside the region.

 
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