In 2006, real estate developer Jeff Branch convinced the city to annex land near Agua Fria Village to help him build a 222-unit subdivision. In return, Branch agreed to bring the city 23 acre-feet of water rights and make 40 percent of his housing units meet the city’s affordability guidelines. Five years and a devastating housing market crash later, the lot for Cielo Azul, the name of Branch’s city-approved project, remains empty.
Now, Branch has a plan to finally fill it—by changing Cielo Azul’s blueprint to a mobile home park, with smaller lots targeted toward people looking to rent, not own. But to Linda Flatt, who lives in the Las Acequias subdivision near the lot, Branch’s latest idea is a reversion to “the lowest-common denominator.”
Flatt, like many nearby residents, feels that another mobile home park could result in increased crime and lower property values.
“We don’t need another trailer park,” Flatt says, pointing out that the city already has 17 mobile home parks. “Let’s find something that is more substantial. It’s time to move on.”
She’s not the only one upset over the mobile park proposal.
“[Cielo Azul] was done with a specific purpose and intent: for single family housing,” City Councilor Miguel Chavez tells SFR, “not rentals, not mobile homes.”
Branch, whose name is behind the developments of Zafarano Road and San Isidro Plaza, has a track record of pushing through ambitious proposals in the city for the past two decades.
“When it comes to his projects and development, he will go head-to-head, toe-to-toe” with anyone to achieve his goals, Flatt, who’s active with the Las Acequias Neighborhood Association, tells SFR.
(Although Flatt has sparred with Branch in the past—she sued him a few years ago after falling and injuring herself at a fundraiser he was hosting; Branch says she fell “after too many glasses of wine”—she says her opposition isn’t personal.)
But according to Agua Fria Village Association President William Mee, allowing Branch to build mobile homes would simply be another in a long list of city concessions to Cielo Azul.
“At some point, the project is going to cost the city more than it gets back in property taxes,” Mee tells SFR. “At some point, it’s not going to be an advantage at all.”
In 2009, the city gave Branch, who struggled to find bankers to finance Cielo Azul, a three-year extension to complete the project. The next year, he successfully lobbied City Council to drop the required amount of affordable homes on Cielo Azul from 40 percent to 30 percent.
Despite those concessions, Branch says his company still couldn’t find a partner willing to build foundation homes. In December, Branch Design and Development started working with Albuquerque-based mobile home developer Karsten Homes on the new proposal.
Branch says Cielo Azul would still be a gated community with more amenities and higher-end living units than the city’s other mobile parks. He adds that people think badly of mobile homes for some valid reasons: Many trailers in Santa Fe are outdated and in bad condition, for instance.
“I know the model in their heads is old [mobile] homes, and I don’t blame them,” Branch says. But he also says some neighbors’ complaints are unjustified.
“A big part of it is racism,” Branch says. “The connotation is that Mexicans will live there. That’s unfortunate.”
Branch still has a long way to go to gain public favor for the new proposal, and Branch Design representatives were no-shows at a neighborhood meeting scheduled for Jan. 24.
Mayor David Coss, who received $2,500 in campaign contributions from Branch in 2010, says the city has never changed an affordable housing project into a mobile home park. Coss adds that the city doesn’t want to add mobile homes.
Currently, the city is reviewing whether the mobile home park would require new zoning for the project. If it doesn’t, Branch can apply for building permits and move forward with the project, but both Branch and the neighborhood associations say they want to work things out in discussions before any plans go forward.
Branch has at least one on-the-ground ally: Ramon Romero, an Agua Fria resident who clashed publicly with developers in the past over a parcel of land that his family had owned for 350 years.
“Branch is a fair man,” Romero, who sold his Agua Fria house to Branch as part of the San Isidro project, tells SFR. “You just have to be up-front and honest—and keep him honest.”
Editor's note: Although SFR did ask Flatt about the lawsuit mentioned in this article, we did not ask her specifically about Branch's claim that she had too many glasses of wine. Flatt tells SFR she had only half a glass of wine and that "I fell because the patio didn’t have sufficient lighting, since it was at dusk and I didn’t see the step, not because I had a half a glass of wine." Read her full comment below this article.