- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Commissioners in the state’s more populous county are set to finally make a decision on planned community west of Albuquerque that developers say could someday be home to as many as 90,000 people.

The Bernalillo County Commission is scheduled Tuesday to vote on a nearly 22-square-mile development known as Santolina that would rival some of New Mexico’s largest cities once completed. Santolina would be located along Interstate 40 and would have its own business parks and town center.

But the plan has drawn opposition from Albuquerque’s historical Hispanic South Valley area over fears that Santolina would draw from much needed water sources.

Here are things to know as the Bernalillo County Commission considers whether to sign off on the proposal:

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THE DEVELOPMENT

Santolina sits on a portion of the historic Atrisco Land Grant doled out by Spain to early settlers of present-day New Mexico. Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, the developer, wants approval to build over the next 50 years. Yet, in recent years, the land has sat dormant after another development plan fell apart thanks to the economic downturn. The California-based SunCal planned to build an 84-square-mile community but in 2009 defaulted on a $212 million loan extended by Barclays Capital Real Estate. Barclays foreclosed on the property and took control of it.

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THE PROTESTS

When Western Albuquerque Land Holdings unveiled a website detailing the Santolina development, neighborhood groups in Albuquerque’s South Valley banded together to oppose the plan. They arrived to a Bernalillo County meeting in tractors and later crowded the chambers as commissioners heard from county planners. Protesters said Santolina would take away scarce water resources from an already delicate area and could transform the area’s traditional farming life. Advocates say they’d rather have development invest in the South Valley.

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THE CLIMATE

Until recently, much New Mexico had been battling years of severe drought. Those conditions worsened thanks to a vicious cycle that has seen dismal winter snowpack followed by hot, dry and windy weather. As a result, rivers and streams level were down and reservoirs reached record lows. That anxiety led to residents in various neighborhoods around Albuquerque and Santa Fe to question any new development over concerns on water resources.

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THE FIGHT

Debate over Santolina has been the classic developer vs. community advocate battle centered on available resources. Officials with the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority recently told commissioners that they expect there would be enough water for Santolina over the next 50 years but, like all communities, the residents of the development would have to conserve. That assessment has not deterred opponents who say water officials are placing development over current community needs. Population growth in Albuquerque also has been stagnant in recent years.

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WHAT’S NEXT

The Bernalillo County Commission could approve the development plan but it will likely take years before ground is broken on any homes or buildings. The group the SouthWest Organizing Project and other Santolina opponents recently filed a lawsuit aimed at stopping the development and more legal challenges are expected. Developers say they are undeterred and plan to go ahead with a project that will fulfill a need for more affordable housing the future.

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Follow Russell Contreras at https://twitter.com/russcontreras.


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