In the Dark

County committee weighing how to protect open space after being left out of controversial disposal of South Meadows property

A Santa Fe County committee formed to advise policymakers on acquiring property for open space had no idea until earlier this year that a beloved 22-acre parcel on the Southside had been approved for sale almost a year prior.

The revelation came Wednesday evening at a special meeting of the County Open Lands, Trails and Parks Advisory Committee (COLTPAC), called amid community upset over the Santa Fe County Commission’s quiet vote in July 2020 to sell the property on South Meadows Road to affordable housing developer Homewise.

“To be honest and candid with you, we were caught by surprise,” COLTPAC chair Rubén Cedeño said at the meeting, in response to a question from SFR.

In 2001, the county bought the South Meadows property with the intent of building a park, but estimated construction costs exceeded the available budget, according to county spokeswoman Carmelina Hart. County officials say they offered the land to the city of Santa Fe after the area was annexed in 2014 but the city declined.

Mayor Alan Webber denies having received an offer.

In any case, the County Commission approved the disposal of the property in July 2020 and the county entered a sale agreement with Homewise in May. Homewise plans to develop the land into about 95 affordable housing units, a school and a small park.

For the plan to go through, the city must approve the plans; as of last week, Homewise hadn’t submitted a formal rezoning application.

COLTPAC was created in 1998 and is tasked with, among other duties, advising the County Commission on properties to be acquired for open space.

On Wednesday evening, members conceded that they’d been in the dark about the sale of the South Meadows property.

Committee member Mori Hensley attributes some of the confusion to the pandemic.

“This was a perfect storm of things that happened, so COLTPAC didn’t actually find out, to my knowledge, about this purchase until this year,” Hensley said. “Part of that was because of COVID and that kind of messed up our meeting schedule and we missed several meetings.”

The committee does not advise the Commission on the disposal of properties. Maria Lohmann, the county’s open space and trails senior planner, says leaving that responsibility off the committee’s list of duties was an “oversight” when the committee was first formed.

Committee members plan to continue discussing and evaluating methods Lohmann and planning manager Robert Griego presented on Wednesday, including conservation easements, deed restrictions, transferable development rights and land trusts.

The lesson of South Meadows—hovering in the near rearview mirror—was part of the impetus for Wednesday’s special meeting. The committee’s discussions honed in on strategies to prevent a similar open space disposal that could lead to future development.

“How can we kind of use some of the lessons we’re learning from this, I mean, fiasco might be a strong word, but I feel like it’s this pretty big thing that’s happened,” Hensley said.

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