- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 16, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - After months of meetings and heated public debates, a planned community west of Albuquerque that developers say could someday be home to as many as 90,000 people cleared a major hurdle Tuesday.

The commission in Bernalillo County, New Mexico’s most populous, voted 3-2 to approve a master plan for a nearly 22-square-mile development known as Santolina. The development would rival some of the state’s largest cities once completed in 50 years, and it comes during a period of heightened concerns over water following years of severe drought.

Bernalillo County commissioners narrowly approved the plan despite opposition from residents of Albuquerque’s historically Hispanic South Valley area over fears that Santolina would draw from much-needed water sources.

Those opponents, who crowded the meeting Tuesday in matching yellow T-shirts, promised legal action over the commissioners’ vote. One protestor held an ear of corn in the air to highlight what she said was the loss of water resources to American Indians near the planned development.

Commissioner also voted 3-2 to approve a zoning change to allow for the project.

“It’s unacceptable,” Santiago Maestas, 67, a South Valley farmer told commissioners.

Javier Benavidez, executive director of the advocacy group SouthWest Organizing Project, said opponents were disappointed with the votes, but they were not discouraged even though it may affect residents for decades.

“It’s a generation commitment for a development on the fringe,” Benavidez said. “We also want to be part of the discussion for a better future.”

Tom Garrity, a spokesman for Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, the developer, said the project is still years away from breaking ground, but developers said they were pleased with the votes after two years of meetings. The project will help with expected population increases over the next 20 to 30 years, he said.

“All Santolina is doing is accommodating growth,” Garrity said. “They are not generating growth.”

Santolina sits on a portion of the historic Atrisco Land Grant doled out by Spain to early settlers of present-day New Mexico.

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

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