Placitas Land Protection Trust Chairman Dick Ulmer (left) and Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association President Rob Gorrell made their case for gravel mining in Placitas doing more harm than good to the Sandoval County economy.
Photos credit: —Bill Diven
New administration brings new delay for Placitas gravel decision
Anyone waiting more or less patiently for the feds to decide whether to allow gravel mining on hundreds of acres in Placitas may need more patience.
That's because Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze, an appointee of President Obama, lost his job when the Trump administration took over on January 20. Kristin Bail, a 32-year veteran of the agency is filling in as acting director, but it's anyone's guess when a permanent replacement will be named, let alone win Senate confirmation.
Left in limbo is the BLM's nearly nine-year effort to revise the 1985 Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the Rio Puerco Field Office covering almost a million acres of public land in six New Mexico counties. Within that vast expanse are four parcels in Placitas including the Buffalo Tract, 3,142 acres in northwest Placitas with eight hundred acres identified as rich in gravel, ripe for exploitation.
A BLM spokesperson in Washington told the Signpost that no policy prevents the acting director from signing off on an RMP. However, she cautioned, the incoming administration could place a hold on all pending actions.
By Signpost deadline, Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., nominated as Secretary of the Interior, had not yet been confirmed by the Senate. He would oversee the BLM and its new director.
A last step before releasing the RMP was to be the "director's review" conducted by Kornze and BLM Albuquerque District Manager Danita Burns. Now no one is betting on when that review will take place.
"It's going to be a while," John Brenna Jr., Rio Puerco field manager, told the Signpost. "We're waiting patiently."
Not waiting is the Eastern Sandoval Citizens Association (ES-CA), which adamantly opposes more gravel mining and is working to limit existing quarries. The Placitas Land Protection Trust (LPT), an ES-CA affiliate, has joined a county lawsuit alleging zoning violations by the largest of the four mines already operating in western Placitas from Bernalillo to Algodones.
Those mines cover about 2,200 acres in total with room for expansion. Just to the north, San Felipe Pueblo, citing water and air-quality issues, canceled leases for gypsum and gravel mining there in 2014 and 2015.
On January 12, ES-CA and LPT leaders presented their economic and environmental case to the two continuing and three new members of the Sandoval County Commission. The county stands to gain more in tax revenue from residential development in Placitas than from gravel mined here but sold and taxed in Bernalillo County, they said.
The mines run counter to the Placitas Area Plan that the county approved in 2009, depress property values, use three times the water as similar-sized residential areas, and affect air quality—all of which discourages potential new residents from moving to Placitas, especially retirees with disposable income that create jobs, they added.
"What we're hearing also from our Realtors is the number of people who are coming and say, 'Don't even bother to show us anything that has visibility to that mine,'" LPT chair Dick Ulmer told commissioners. "What we need to do is regain momentum.
"This current situation that we've got is not conducive to the kind of positive economic expansion that we think you, the county, envisioned when the Placitas plan was created."
Of the estimated one hundred people present during the presentation, half or more were wearing "Stop Placitas Gravel Mining" stickers.
ES-CA President Bob Gorrell noted that U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich introduced a bill in the last session of Congress to withdraw the Buffalo Tract from mineral development. Heinrich plans to reintroduce the bill with Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, expected to again carry a companion bill in the House.
The commission approved a resolution supporting the initial bill, and commission Chairman Don Chapman suggested a new resolution of support be placed on the February 2 agenda.
"The commitment we can make to everyone in the room tonight is we'll take under consideration doing the resolution again under the new board of county commissioners and share it with our friends at the federal level on your behalf," Chapman said. "It's the least we can do."
The Buffalo Tract, shaped roughly like a west-facing buffalo in profile, extends about four miles from near I-25 east to the junction of Camino de las Huertas and Camino de la Rosa Castilla. It abuts both Santa Ana and San Felipe pueblos, whose tribal governments have asserted ancestral claims to the land.
The San Antonio de las Huertas Land Grant also has expressed interest in part of the tract, and advocates for the free-roaming horses in Placitas have long eyed the property for a horse sanctuary. Presumably commercial players are waiting in the wings should the BLM open the land to mining, or other development amid local concerns, that could include oil and gas exploration.
An attempt to buy the tract for public use under the federal Recreation and Public Purposes Act failed in 2012 when Governor Susana Martinez vetoed funding approved by the Legislature.
For its part, the BLM has said it won't entertain any proposals for the Placitas lands until the RMP is final. Part of the delay in completing the RMP relates to the draft plan released in 2012 drawing more than fifty thousand comments on multiple issues spread across the Rio Puerco Field Office, which extends from the Arizona border to well east of the Sandia Mountains and includes all of Sandoval County.
In addition to the Buffalo Tract, the BLM administers three other parcels in Placitas: 195 acres surrounded by residential development about a mile northwest of Placitas village, 56 acres adjoining San Felipe Pueblo in northeast Placitas, and the Crest of Montezuma, 917 acres defining the eastern border of Placitas and already under consideration for transfer to the U.S. Forest Service Cibola National Forest.
Rep. James Smith
Rep. Derrick Lente
Sen. John Sapien
Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert
Legislature shakes up leadership, acts on budget mess
Before the Legislature could tackle the state's fiscal crisis, it first had to shuffle offices and committee assignments based on the outcome of the November election.
That left Rep. James Smith, R-Sandia Park, looking for new quarters after the Republicans lost control of the House after two years in power. The change cost Smith, whose district includes Placitas and Algodones, his chairmanship of what was then called the Government, Elections, and Indian Affairs Committee.
He did, however, retain his seat on the Education Committee, and his request to return to the Appropriations and Finance Committee, which crafts the state budget, was granted. After the election, Smith told the Signpost that those were the two seats he would seek and that he would continue to work in a bipartisan manner as he did before and after the Republicans were in the majority.
The newcomer in the mix is Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, successor to Rep. James Roger Madalena of Jemez Pueblo, who retired after 32 years in the House. Lente's district sprawls from Sandia Pueblo to the Colorado border taking in eastern Bernalillo, six pueblos around the Jemez Mountains and all of western Sandoval and Rio Arriba counties.
While veteran legislators told Lente that past sessions began slowly, usually with a three-day weekend, that didn't happen this time. Instead, he said, money issues years in the making made the first week more like a separate special session focused on the forecast $69 million shortfall in the six billion dollar budget for the fiscal year ending June 30.
By Signpost deadline, the House and Senate, after convening on January 17, had approved similar but not identical bills to balance the current budget but had yet to resolve the differences. Whether the governor would sign or veto the combined measure remained an open question, as does what happens with next year's budget.
"I've not been involved for the last ten years, and now we have to clean house," Lente told the Signpost. "As a freshman, I have to say it's honestly been difficult… It's been difficult because as a business owner, if this were any other business, we'd have gone belly up a year ago."
The "slicing and dicing" is putting people, communities, public projects, and state agencies in jeopardy, he added. Lente said he's been vocal about Democrats presenting a united front and in working with Republicans to limit the impacts on his district and other communities.
"It's been an adventure," Lente said. "It's what I signed up for."
Lente was named to three committees: Business and Industry, State Government, Indian and Veterans Affairs, and Enrolling and Engrossing-B. The latter basically assures clean copies of bills pass between committees and between the House and Senate and that final versions sent to the governor are accurate and complete.
On the Senate side, an extensive and expensive campaign led by Gov. Susana Martinez's political adviser and his political action committee led to the November defeat of Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen. Democrats chose Sen. Peter Wirth of Santa Fe to replace him and re-elected Sen. Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces as president pro tempore of the Senate.
Along the way Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, lost his chairmanship of the Senate Education Committee in favor of Las Cruces-area Sen. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park. Sapien moved to the Senate Finance Committee with its broad purview over money matters.
Sapien continues as chairman of an interim committee that monitors the funding, effectiveness, and equity of school facilities projects, the Public School Capital Outlay Oversight Task Force.
Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales, whose district includes western Bernalillo, joins Lente on the Business and Industry Committee with a second assignment to the Transportation, Public Works, and Capital Improvements Committee. Before the election shakeup, she chaired the House Business and Employment Committee.
Newly elected Sandoval County Commissioners (from left) Jay Block, David Hiel, and F. Kenneth Eichwald await their turn to be sworn into office during ceremonies on December 30.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven
Commission begins 2017 with conflicts over new hire and P&Z appointments
The Sandoval County Commission launched its new year by restructuring its leadership to reflect a new Republican majority, dealing with fresh turmoil in its zoning commission, and grilling the county manager over the hiring of an ex-commissioner for a county job.
Newly elected Commissioner Jay Block figured in all three actions by first nominating fellow Rio Rancho Republicans Don Chapman and David Heil as chairman and vice chairman respectively. Democrats James Dominguez of Bernalillo and F. Kenneth Eichwald of Cuba joined in making the selections unanimous.
Heil and Eichwald were both elected in November to fill term-limit vacancies on the commission while Block defeated incumbent Commissioner Nora Scherzinger of Corrales, who was seeking a second term.
Block also found himself in the middle of a dispute over replacing with his own appointment a current member of the county Planning and Zoning Commission from his district. When Jo Anne Roake of Corrales was told by phone that her supposed two-year term was over after not quite three months, social media erupted alleging a political scheme to remove Roake illegally and to pack the P&Z commission with members from Rio Rancho.
"I've been smeared on social media, and I don't appreciate that," Block said. After one of the many briefings that new commissioners receive before taking office, he added, he was told he could make an appointment and that the planning and zoning staff would inform Roake her services were no longer needed.
Before that discussion began, Planning and Zoning Director Mike Springfield read a statement saying an "administrative error" led to Roake, Alonzo "Lonnie" Clayton, and Bobby Greene being offered two-year terms when they should only be serving out the remainder of the vacancies they filled. For Roake, that time would be up in March instead of October 2018.
By Signpost deadline, Roake had not responded to a request from comment on the situation.
P&Z commissioners are volunteers, and the planning staff has acknowledged the difficulty in finding qualified people willing to put in the time required for the job.
Springfield also said his staff was instituting new administrative procedures and clarifying vague P&Z commission bylaws. But that didn't stop members of the public from citing the county zoning ordinance that says P&Z commissioners can be removed for cause but only in writing and then only after a public hearing and majority vote of county commissioners.
"It is bad precedent and bad policy and not in keeping with good government if we were to consider these maybe at-will appointments," Mike Neas of Placitas told commissioners. "We've got some very big issues coming up for the Planning and Zoning Commission, and I think the people in this room and many of us are perfectly satisfied with the commissioners that are in place now and would not like to see them replaced… I don't see it as a clerical error."
Block apologized for the confusion and said he would abide by the results of the county attorney's review of the ordinance when Roake's appointment ends. If he does appoint a replacement, he'll advertise for applicants on his Facebook page and not inquire about political party affiliations, he said.
"There has been historical precedent, I'm not saying it's right, that after election new commissioners could appoint his or her own P&Z commissioners," Block said. "Proper procedure was not followed. I agree with you."
The three appointments restored stability to the seven-member P&Z commission, which had struggled to muster a quorum after one member died in June, two more resigned for job and personal reasons, and another withdrew from a major case over a business conflict. The board operated through 2016 without a seventh member.
Block also spent about 15 minutes quizzing County Manager Phil Rios over the hiring of former Commissioner Glenn Walters as director of community services replacing Peggy Cote who retired. Walters left office on December 31 under term limits after two terms and was hired for the county job on January 1.
Rios said Walters was chosen from more than thirty applicants, all vetted by the Human Resources office and interviewed by a board that scored and ranked the finalists. The board was made up of himself, commissioner-elect Heil and Undersheriff Karl Weise, Rios said.
However, Block questioned the potential conflict of the manager hiring a commissioner who had oversight over the manager.
"I didn't see that as a conflict of anything," Rios said. "I can see the perception somebody may have, and I think the committee discussed that when we looked at it… But I didn't want to discount the most qualified person just because there was going to be a perception."
Block went on to call for a county ethics ordinance, possibly to include a time span between when an elected official leaves office and can be hired for a county job.
"While this may be legal, it does not sit well with me," Block said reading from a prepared text. "I will say this about Mr. Walters. He's extremely well-qualified… I am not questioning Mr. Walter's integrity. I'm questioning the optics of this, and the optics don't look good."
Walters had been employed as the chief of staff for state Rep. Don Tripp, R-Socorro, who was Speaker of the House until Republicans lost their majority in the House in the November election.
With her grandson Alfred "AJ" Casaus Jr. holding the Bible and her daughter Melissa Casaus watching, Sandoval County Clerk Eileen Garbagni takes her oath of office for a second four-year term. District Judge George Eichwald is administering the oath.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven
County officials take oaths of office
Sandoval County welcomed two new faces, and one familiar one in a new role, as victors in the 2016 election. They were sworn into office as the year ended.
David Heil and Jay Block of Rio Rancho and former Magistrate Judge F. Kenneth Eichwald of Cuba repeated their oaths of office read by Eichwald's brother, District Judge George Eichwald. All three are newly elected to the Sandoval County Commission.
Block, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, now in private industry, and Heil, a past member of the Rio Rancho and county planning and zoning boards, both were making their first run for elective office. Along with Commissioner Chairman Don Chapman of Rio Rancho, they now form the first Republican majority on the commission in many years.
Eichwald spent 24 years as a magistrate judge and joins Commissioner James Dominguez of Bernalillo in the Democratic minority.
Darryl Madalena, the outgoing commission chairman, term limited after two four-year terms, told the crowd of about 150 attending the December 30 event that he was now just a regular citizen. Madalena of Jemez Pueblo had campaigned to replace his father James Roger Madalena in the state House but lost to Derrick Lente of Sandia Pueblo in the June primary.
"Remember, we work for the people of Sandoval County," Madalena said. "This isn't about individuals. Respect the people and do what's right for them."
Returning to office were County Clerk Eileen Garbagni, County Treasurer Laura Montoya, and District Attorney Lemuel Martinez.
Rio Rancho Police Chief Geier stepping down
~Annemarie L. García
City of Rio Rancho Police Chief Michael Geier is stepping down for personal reasons. Geier’s last day is February 18.
“Changing circumstances in my wife's health and personal life have made it clear to me that, in the short term, I must spend more time with my family,” said Chief Geier. “Leading the Rio Rancho Police Department has been a highlight of my public service career. I am proud of the men and women of the department and the strides we have made in the areas of community engagement, officer recruitment and retention, training, and crime prevention.”
Geier was appointed Rio Rancho Police Chief in February, 2014. Before coming to Rio Rancho, Geier was a commander for the Albuquerque Police Department, serving approximately twenty years with that agency. Geier has more than 43 years of municipal law enforcement experience.
City Manager Keith Riesberg has designated current Deputy Police Chief Paul Rogers to serve as Acting Police Chief upon Geier’s departure. A national search to find Geier’s replacement will be conducted and commence in the near future.