Southside residents opposing the potential sale and development of a Santa Fe County-owned open space on South Meadows Road are questioning whether county officials followed their own rules when they approved the disposal of the land.
The process was “egregious,” says Helen Wunnicke, a former area resident who, by compiling information for the County Open Lands, Trails and Parks Advisory Committee’s (COLTPAC) consideration, played a role in the county obtaining the land in 2001.
Officials, on the other hand, say there’s no established procedure on the disposal of open space because it’s so rare. That means, by the county’s reasoning, those officials did not break any rules.
The county bought the 22-acre property two decades ago using about $1 million of 1999 Open Space and Trails general obligation bonds, with the intent of constructing a community park. The bond was fully paid off in 2018, according to spokeswoman Carmelina Hart.
County commissioners—after, some claim, offering the land to City of Santa Fe officials on multiple occasions—quietly approved the disposal in July 2020 on a unanimous vote. (Commissioner Rudy Garcia recused himself.)
A sale agreement for $1.79 million between the county and affordable housing developer Homewise could result in 161 for-sale units and a roughly 6-acre park popping up on the land, pending city approval.
Homewise is calling the project Los Prados, as advertised on a recently-launched website.
Opponents of the sale, many of whom live near the property, have pointed to the county’s Open Land and Trails Plan, adopted in 2000, as evidence that the county didn’t follow its rules governing such a move.
The plan states that sale proposals “should be” subject to two public hearings at least six months apart “so the public has an opportunity to voice opinions about the sale,” and then the proposal should be submitted to COLTPAC before the commission makes a final decision.
The county didn’t hold any public hearings on the proposal, and COLTPAC didn’t review it.
COLTPAC Chairman Rubén Cedeño told SFR at a special meeting last October that the committee was “caught by surprise” after learning of the disposal more than a year after it was approved.
Asked why the county didn’t follow those guidelines, Hart writes in an email to SFR: “That plan did not mandate any specific procedures be followed to dispose of open space property. Rather, through the use of the word should, it expressed a preference for certain procedures rather than a mandatory requirement.”
Besides, the plan was part of the 1999 Santa Fe County Growth Management Plan, which was replaced in 2010, Hart says.
The most recent plan is the Open Space, Trails and Parks Strategic Management Plan, which doesn’t outline disposal procedures.
“The county has not adopted replacement recommendations concerning open space disposal because open space disposal is exceedingly rare,” Hart writes. The South Meadows disposal is the only instance of which she’s aware.
Hart adds that the public will have opportunities to weigh in on the proposed development as Homewise makes its way through the city’s approval process. The case is set to go before the Planning Commission on March 3.
“In agreeing to sell the property to Homewise, the county understood that Homewise would need to secure appropriate land use, zoning, and development rights from the City of Santa Fe,” Hart writes. “It also understood that the city’s land use processes would involve public notification and hearings concerning the proposed uses of the property.”
The dispute isn’t relegated to talking points, however.
The Office of the State Auditor—which investigates governmental waste, fraud and abuse—received a formal complaint about the pending sale Tuesday and has opened an examination, spokeswoman Stephanie Telles tells SFR.
“Compliance with rules is something we would review,” Telles tells SFR, noting the auditor looks into all formal complaints. “We would also review transactions at issue.”
Marlow Morrison, president of the nearby Tiempos Lindos Homeowners Association, tells SFR she contacted State Auditor Brian Colón via email Monday evening about the disposal.
“My neighborhood is very concerned about the ethics of this sale,” Morrison wrote in her email, which she shared with SFR. “The sale is not final but is in final stages and can still be stopped.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story was updated to include a formal complaint filed with the state auditor.