Nearly eight years ago, Santa Fe County shelled out $7 million of taxpayer dollars to purchase 470 acres of land near La Cienega.
Since then, county officials have struggled to find a purpose for the sprawling woodland formerly known as Santa Fe Canyon Ranch. At one point, the county formed a steering committee to evaluate ideas for the property, now called La Bajada Ranch. The open space has remained untouched. Once considered a blank canvas with possibilities limited only by the imaginations of land planners, La Bajada Ranch today is more commonly associated with bureaucratic slog.
But a county plan presented this fall and a separate lease agreement signed last week look poised to finally put the land to use. Hang some ornaments on those piñon trees, Santa Fe County. We have ourselves a holiday miracle!
Frank Mancuso Jr., a film producer known for horror flicks, last week entered into a five-year lease with the county for roughly half the land, agreeing to pay about $21,600 over the term. The contract limits the property to agricultural, livestock and educational purposes.
Mancuso already owns about 850 acres of adjacent property, which he purchased from Santa Fe Canyon Ranch, LLC, in 2014, ending a plan to develop multiple homes in the area. He rezoned the property for a single-family homestead.
When the now-disbanded La Bajada Steering Committee accepted ideas for the neighboring acres more than a year ago, Mancuso was the only one to submit a proposal. He plans to transform sections of the area into a community farm to encourage local agriculture.
The film producer declined to speak with SFR this week, pending an approval of the lease by the state Department of Finance and Administration. "This process has been difficult and frustrating, and I am embarrassed that it has taken this long to get into an agreement and a project we can share with the community," Mancuso told SFR in July.
Carl Dickens, president of La Cienega Valley Association, welcomed the news. "Anything we can do to bring agriculture back is something we support," he tells SFR, noting that the property once served as a working cattle ranch. "We hope the community college will be involved."
As for the unleased section of the ranch, the county this fall made steps toward a vision. A development plan presented to commissioners in October would allow for residential development alongside public services. Mark Hogan, director of the county's Projects, Facilities and Open Space Division, suggested the land could be used for a fire station, trail network or visitor center. The proposal also calls for opening the property for a county program that allows landowners to sell development rights to more densely populated areas, part of an initiative to reduce sprawl.
"I think we were all pleasantly surprised," said Eric Blinman, former chairman of the La Bajada Steering Committee. "The county invested hard cash in that and the county needs to demonstrate that there is some fiscally responsible return for that investment." Blinman adds that Mancuso's "narrowly limited" ideas for the property posed a challenge for the county to meet the committee's recommendations. The request for proposals called for plans that would maximize the county's investment while still preserving the property's "unique cultural, agricultural, historical and biological resources."
"I think that if the Mancuso proposal had been more holistic, that the county would have done something different," he says. The short timeframe of the agreement, on the flipside, presents opportunity. "It's like there's nothing lost in granting the lease to Mancuso, and it leaves open the idea of a broader approach in the future."
But not everyone is happy with the results. Paul White, who also served on the steering committee, tells SFR, "This just flies in the face of what the community wanted." He pointed to a 2010 poll that showed the majority of surrounding residents preferred to leave the area as open space. A report from the poll showed that "residents are clearly very resistant to any types of projects that might take away from the rural nature of the area."
Dickens says he needs to hear more about the county's plan before he offers any sort of endorsement. "The idea of finding someone who will lease the property and build sustainable homes, we find kind of interesting," he tells SFR. "We at one point were faced with the possibility of 635 homes there, so it's a helluva lot better than it was then. This is something our community has been dealing with, and we're hopeful that things will be settled. We'll be watching as time moves along."
Editor's Note: Due to a math error, a previous version of this story misstated the rent value of Frank Mancuso's lease with the county. It is $21,600 over five years, not $108,000. SFR regrets the error.