In 6-3 vote, with both District 1 city councilors and District 3's Chris Rivera dissenting, Santa Fe's governing body rejected an appeal by neighborhood groups and a former city councilor that will allow a luxury home development overlooking Fort Marcy Park near downtown.
The neighbors and former councilor Karen Heldmeyer appealed the Planning Commission's approval of the proposed Estancias del Norte subdivision, a 40-acre tract north of Hyde Park Road where developers hope to build 49 homes.
Many were concerned about the impact of the development on stormwater for homes below, off Valley Drive, Bishops Lodge Road and Artist Road.
The developer, Ernie Romero, argued successfully that he had overengineered retention ponds and other erosion control features for his lots, effectively mitigating any new problems he'd cause and, he said, potentially solving some that have existed for years.
At a marathon meeting last month that featured six hours of debate on the appeal, the council voted to put off deciding on the matter and asked the two sides to meet and see if they could come up with a solution on their own. They could not.
The governing body attached one condition to its denial; that Romero build additional stormwater retention features should homeowners decide to build more than just a home on their sites.
That wasn't enough for neighbors, or for Councilors Rivera, Signe Lindell and Renee Villarreal.
"I feel like there's been inconsistent application of the escarpment ordinance," District 1's Villarreal said of her vote against the hilltop development.
Villarreal worried that those other buildings, called accessory dwellings, on each of the 49 relatively large lots would create additional drainage requirements that hadn't been contemplated by developers.
Building just one house per lot, she said, probably isn't "going to be the norm."
Councilor Peter Ives amended the denial to require homeowners to build similarly robust stormwater catchments if they build accessory dwellings. Ives noted Romero's engineers believed they had built beyond what city code calls for in the current design, and he asked that they do the same for any new buildings on the same lots. By law, those "accessories" can be 1,500 square feet.
Earlier in the meeting, a group of three councilors tried to dispatch the issue immediately, offering a motion to deny the appeal as soon as the governing body took up the matter. Villarreal and Lindell bristled, saying they both had questions for city staff that hadn't been answered in the last hearing.
"I would call for the question and see where we land up," Councilor Roman Abeyta said, attempting to force a vote on the matter instead of reopening the discussion to allow councilors to ask questions of city staff and the parties in the case.
That motion failed and the council spent about an hour getting questions answered by staff, the developer and the neighborhood groups before eventually allowing the project to move forward.
The Great MIX-up
After months of questioning the city manager's reassignment of a contract with Andrea Romero Consulting to the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, the city has instead allowed Romero's contract to expire and entered into a new one with the chamber's nonprofit arm, called the Opportunities Fund.
The contract, to promote and manage activities for the business networking group and the organization bizMIX, which acts as a business accelerator, had been reassigned in June by City Manager Erik Litzenberg.
At last month's meeting, however, City Attorney Erin McSherry raised concerns that the reassignment may have been improper, since the contract was between Romero and the City Council, not the city manager. The city opted instead for the new contract.
City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler had also called out the move as potentially being politically motivated, since Romero is running for the state House of Representatives. She's been endorsed by Mayor Alan Webber.
“I’m a little bit amazed,” Vigil Coppler told the council Wednesday night. “There was really no good reason to my satisfaction as to why this contract had to be moved.”
The advantage of transferring the contract to the Chamber of Commerce is unclear, though, since even if the chamber hires her to continue the work, it would have to disclose her expenses and billing to the city if she wanted to be reimbursed. The contract caps any third party work, as Romero's would now be, at $30 an hour. That's equal to the previous contract, as is the total amount of $20,000.
MIX co-founder Kate Noble has said that the group's board asked Romero to make the request for a reassignment as part of its long-term mission of becoming self-sustainable. Noble showed SFR email exchanges between herself, the chamber and city staff that discussed the reassignment. They were from before the date Romero made the request, as well as before she won a hotly contested Democratic primary with incumbent state Rep. Carl Trujillo.
In the end, the council didn't get to vote on the matter, since Romero's contract officially expired in July and the city manager has the authority to enter into a new contract.
City Economic Development Director Matt Brown told the council he planned to work on a new request for proposals that would return the contract for the work to a competitive bidding process. He expected to have criteria for the next contract ready by the end of the year.
Brown told SFR after the council's vote that a bizMIX event last week, the first under the chamber's new contract, had gone well.
"[It] rocked all the other events, so clearly they're able to do the work," he said. Brown wasn't sure if Romero had been hired by the Chamber of Commerce, though she's featured prominently in photos from the event.
Brown thinks both MIX and bizMIX are vital parts of what he called Santa Fe's social capital—the hobnobbing between business owners that creates new deals, new ideas and new ventures.