Take Me Home, County Code

Santa Fe County is tying building permits to costly improvements to private roads

It certainly doesn't seem sustainable.

Carlos Kinsey, a Santa Fe architect and contractor, doesn't see how the county's latest interpretation of its new Sustainable Land Development Code can possibly stand up to the storm of protests that's coming.

Kinsey was hired by a Santa Fe County resident to turn her carport into a garage and build a breezeway to connect it to her Joy Lane home in Arroyo Hondo. The county's land use department rejected the building permit because the road leading to her home isn't up to snuff.

"I was pretty surprised by it, as was the owner," Kinsey tells SFR on a rainy fall morning. He had hoped to be working on the project by now. "It's the first time in my 19 years that I've had a project rejected because of a problem that was off the homeowner's property."

The problem, as it's been for property owners in unincorporated parts of the county since early this year, is that building permits for existing property are now tied to road improvements if access to the property is on a private road. As the county gets more demands for emergency services like ambulances and fire trucks, it's rewritten the code with more stringent requirements for road construction.

In the case of Kinsey's client, adding base course and 8 feet of width to the 1,000 feet of gravel road—which is in good shape right now—would add another 50 percent to a $100,000 project.

"Then what do you do if you can't afford to improve the road for the county?" Kinsey says. His client asked neighbors to help, but none of them had plans to pull a building permit anytime soon and didn't want to share the cost of widening the road. Unwilling to run the gamut of the county's variance process without the guarantee of an approval, she put her home on the market. The broker will have to disclose the issue to anyone who wants to buy the home.

Penny Ellis-Green, director the of the county's Growth Management Department, tells SFR the county knows it will likely need to fix problems with the new code. In the past six months, she says, the county has seen a "fairly dramatic" increase in requests for a variance from the code.

The county points out that, at $300 per issue, variances aren't prohibitively expensive. But they can be time-consuming. Kinsey says a request can lead to a six-month process with lots of hearings, notifications and meetings. The county insists building permits can be reviewed at the same time so that once a variance is approved, construction can begin. But the reality of booking contractors, says Kinsey, means "foundation guys, framers, plumbers, carpenters, surveyors … all the building trades" have to find different work while they are waiting for a decision from the county's Planning Commission.

The county has received an earful from many in the development community who have run up against the new interpretation of the code. Ellis-Green says she's met with developers, real estate professionals and others about how best to handle the mess. It's not something she feels could have been predicted when the county rewrote the entire code last year.

"You have to see if this is just a couple of people who have the issue because it's new or is it something larger that needs attention," she tells SFR.

County Manager Katherine Miller says Ellis-Green, the county fire marshal and other staff are working on an amendment to the code, "so that property owners are not overburdened." But staff acknowledged to SFR that a fix is months away, at a minimum, and will require a public hearing and a 30-day review period as well as a vote from the county commission.

In the meantime, it's an uncertain future for landowners who live on a private road and want to improve their property.

Lori Woodcock lives near Cerrillos. When her neighbor ran into the same requirement for private road improvements before a building permit would be issued, she and a handful of neighbors each ponied up $6,000 to help defray the cost. She's happy to have a better road, but she's also a real estate broker who knows there are properties at the end of long, noncompliant private roads that face prohibitive costs if the county forces them to fix the road when they build.

"All of those properties now are pretty much worthless unless someone decides to function illegally and not get a permit," Woodcock says. In the most extreme cases, such as with a 40-acre parcel she has on the market, the county has asked the property owner to improve a three-mile stretch of private road. And once the homeowner knows about the issue, potential buyers have to be alerted to it.

"I can't even imagine what that would cost," she says.

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