Growing up, Shelby Englert chased lizards and caught snakes in a 22-acre open space off Airport Road. When she decided to buy a house next to her Southside childhood home in 2018, the property—which abuts hers—was a major factor.
Englert wants her 10-year-old daughter Tegan to get the same experiences of playing outdoors.
“I envision my daughter growing up with the love of nature and of this land and the animals on it,” she tells SFR. “I love the idea of her growing up with that.”
But that might not be possible for much longer.
Affordable housing developer Homewise has plans to build homes, a school and a small park on the county-owned land.
How did it come to this—from a sprawling outdoor space with community-maintained hiking trails and abundant wildlife to the potential site of another multi-use development? City and county officials can’t agree on an answer, though one city councilor says staff on both sides have been discussing the possibility of the city taking over the land and turning it into a park.
Santa Fe County bought the land as part of its open space program in 2001 at the insistence of nearby residents with the intent of building a community park. A construction estimate from 2012 shows a roughly $1.2 million price tag for a list of improvements.
Then in 2014, the city annexed the area under a settlement agreement with the county, although the open space remained in the county’s possession.
County commissioners formally approved a strategy to sell off the property in July 2020. County spokeswoman Carmelina Harts says the County Open Lands, Trails and Parks Advisory Committee did not weigh in on the sale. The committee makes recommendations to the County Commission on properties that should be acquired for open space but it doesn’t advise on property disposal, she tells SFR.
Earlier this year, the county entered a sale agreement with Homewise, proceeds from which would go toward future open space projects, Hart says. The final sale is pending the city’s approval of Homewise’s development plans.
Several years before entering the agreement with Homewise, county officials say they offered the land to the city at an informal meeting in May 2018—attended by Mayor Alan Webber, four city councilors and the city manager, along with the county manager and County Commissioner Anna Hansen, according to Hart—but the city declined.
“We were offering it to them,” Hansen tells SFR. “We weren’t going to charge them for it. They didn’t want it.”
Hansen says it’s the city’s responsibility to take over and maintain the land.
A county resolution from July 2020 approving the disposal of the land states “the county offered the real property to the city of Santa Fe for purposes of establishing a park, which offer was not accepted.”
Mayor Alan Webber, on the other hand, tells SFR that he doesn’t recall city officials receiving such an offer.
“To the best of my memory, we talked about annexation and the county did not give us a written document that said ‘we want to donate this land to the city,’” Webber says. “I don’t remember the county saying, either, ‘Do you want this parcel of land?’”
Neither the city nor the county appear to have kept minutes from the meeting, and neither has yet produced documents related to discussions of the property requested by SFR under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act last month.
City Councilor Roman “Tiger” Abeyta—who has long decried the lack of parks on the Southside and who represents Council District 3 where the land is located—tells SFR that city and county staff have had discussions recently about the city taking the land from the county.
“That’s where I want to go, if that’s what it’s going to take,” Abeyta says in response to whether it appears the city is going to buy the land from the county. “If the county is willing to give it to us we’ll take it but if we have to buy it, I’ll certainly try my best to find the money and get the votes to do that.”
Miguel Acosta, executive director of the nonprofit community organization Earth Care, agrees that the area desperately needs a park and, in general, more attention from the city.
“The area had been identified years ago as a park for the community,” Acosta says. “There was discussion about open space or a park and we kept saying, no, a park. There has to be direct investment and resources to support children and families in the area.”
For now, the land remains in limbo—because it is not clear whether the rest of the governing body, which would have to take a vote, shares Abeyta’s enthusiasm for snapping the land up.
Homewise put down a deposit in May but the sale going through depends on whether the city Planning Commission and City Council sign off on the development plans, which include rezoning requests to allow for 95 units of affordable housing and a school. Approval is generally a six-month process, according to Lee Logston, a senior planner in the Land Use Department. Homewise has yet to formally file a rezoning application.
Residents including Englert and John Macker, who’s lived near the open space for eight years, have been organizing to protest the sale, including via a Facebook group with nearly 150 members.
“I’ve gotten emails from people who are not from this immediate area but live around the Southside and they’re totally opposed to it because they understand that this open space is such a rare species now,” Macker says. “Everything is getting gobbled up by development.”
Further complicating matters is the land’s proximity to the Eberline plant, a former radioactive manufacturing facility that violated several nuclear regulations, the state Environment Department found.
Operations shut down in 2007 and the building was tentatively set to be demolished in October 2020 but it’s still standing and a soil and air survey is ongoing.
“They’re going to dig and unearth who knows what and then invite hundreds of people to come to school and come live here,” Englert says. “It’s scary that they’re going to possibly dig up a bunch of radiation in our backyard.”
The developer held a well-attended early neighborhood notification meeting last month and a second meeting is set for Thursday evening.
Julie Ann Grimm contributed reporting.
EARLY NEIGHBORHOOD NOTIFICATION: 5:30 pm Thursday, Oct. 14. Online at santafe.primegov.com/public/portal