A former La Cienega-area ranch has been in public hands for more than seven years, yet Santa Fe County officials still appear to lack a vision about its best use.
Back in 2009, the county shelled out $7 million to buy La Bajada Ranch and announced plans to try to lease out at least part of the area. But those negotiations kicked off a year ago, and Hollywood producer Frank Mancuso, on the other end of the table, says he’s getting fed up with the wait.
Mancuso wants to convert part of the area into a community farm to bolster local agriculture. He already owns 850 acres of adjacent property, which he purchased from the same private owner who sold La Bajada Ranch to the county. His land acquisition nixed plans to build an 18-home subdivision in the area.
Efforts to secure a lease on the rest of the canyon property have not been as easy.
“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,” says Mancuso in a statement read to SFR by his attorney, Kyle Harwood. “There is not a clear and obvious pathway for when individuals and governments try to cooperate in a unique endeavor such as this.”
Deputy county manager Tony Flores tells SFR, “County staff is proceeding methodically and deliberately to ensure that the county’s interests are protected and that as many policy objectives for the ranch as possible are met.”
Several months of delay came from the county’s appraisal process, according to Harwood. Figuring out how to factor in a new program that allows property owners to sell development rights is also complicating the process. Both Harwood and Flores declined to offer more specific details regarding the stalled negotiations.
La Bajada Ranch stretches along I-25, from La Cienega’s western edge to the Sandoval County line. Juniper trees, short grass and shrubs dot the sprawling woodland. Experts have identified 54 archeological sites on the property, 38 of which are considered significant. A winding gravel road connects the entrance to a 4,229-square-foot house.
At one point, developers planned to build 174 houses on the property under the name “Santa Fe Canyon Ranch,” but they failed to secure the necessary water rights. Santa Fe County officials received praise from neighboring residents and conservationists when they purchased the former cattle ranch with taxpayer dollars. In 2012, the County Commission convened a citizen’s advisory group, officially called the La Bajada Ranch Steering Committee, to help brainstorm and evaluate ideas for the property: an RV yard, a sculpture garden, a kite park.
When Mancuso submitted his offer for the ranch during an open bidding period in late 2015, the committee voted to endorse his proposal. (An organization that wants La Bajada Mesa designated a national monument did not file its paperwork by the deadline.) From that point, the future of La Bajada Ranch rested in the hands of elected officials.
“Those of us on the committee really don’t know what is going on. We haven’t received any official communications in almost a year,” says committee member Claire Fulenwider. “It makes us feel unvalued, or at least it makes me feel that way.”
The steering committee last met in April 2015. Chair Eric Blinman says he occasionally asks county officials whether the group should formally disband. “And they sort of say, ‘Well, you know, not necessarily yet.’ It has just been in suspended animation,” Blinman says.
Further confusion arose in May when the commissioners’ biweekly meeting agenda included a resolution to enter a lease agreement with Mancuso for 293 acres of La Bajada Ranch. Officials tabled the item days before the meeting, but not before La Cienega area residents saw it.
Carl Dickens, president of La Cienega Valley Association, tells SFR he is alarmed that the agenda item did not account for about 40 percent of the ranch, leaving the door open for other ideas. “We’re horribly concerned,” Dickens says. As of now, the county maintains development rights for the property.
Commissioner Kathy Holian says she is “not surprised” that the saga over La Bajada Ranch has stretched over so many years.
“The county had never done anything like this before. I think we were all a little bit at sea as to how to proceed over the years,” says Holian. “We’re sort of feeling our way forward.”