The Santa Fe Planning Commission late Thursday night postponed a vote on nonprofit affordable housing developer Homewise’s requests for rezoning and amendments to the city’s General Plan for its Los Prados project, which has drawn sometimes bitter debate in recent months.
Homewise has entered into a $1.79 million sales agreement with Santa Fe County with an aim to develop a 22-acre property on South Meadows Road into a 6.3-acre park and 161 townhouses, condos and single-family homes, 50% of which would meet the city’s affordability standards, Homewise’s agent Jennifer Jenkins said at Thursday’s meeting.
The unanimous decision to put off the vote—and to not immediately reschedule it—came after five hours of presentations, discussion between commissioners and Land Use Department staff and three dozen residents making comments. (The case was originally set for Feb. 3 before Homewise asked that it be pushed back.)
“I’m not sure, given all the complications we face as a city around housing and the balance of amenities, that we need to necessarily make a yes or no decision at every meeting,” Commissioner Pilar Faulkner said. “I think we can offer postponements as an opportunity for the developer and staff and the community to have one more opportunity to get it a little more right.”
Finalizing the sale between the county and Homewise depends on the city’s approval.
County commissioners quietly approved the disposal of the property in 2020—about two decades after the county bought it for the purpose of building a park—without holding any public hearings or submitting the disposal to the County Open Lands, Trails and Parks Advisory Committee for review.
Some county officials claim they offered to donate the land to the city, but both senior planner Dan Esquibel and Assistant City Attorney Pat Feghali say they haven’t found written evidence of that offer.
The Office of the State Auditor opened an examination last month in response to a formal complaint over the pending sale.
Commissioners Thursday night discussed approving the requests on the condition that Homewise follows through on building affordable housing and a community park, meaning the rezoning and General Plan amendments wouldn’t kick in unless the development goes to plan.
Land Use staff’s original analysis was that the commission should recommend the City Council deny Homewise’s requests, writing in their report that the developer hadn’t satisfied approval criteria.
Esquibel said he would reverse course and recommend approval if it was conditional.
About 36 people weighed in during public comment. With a mix of supporters and opponents of the development, concerns ranged from traffic congestion and the Southside’s disproportionate lack of access to outdoor spaces to the urgent need to address Santa Fe’s affordable housing crisis.
Marlow Morrison, president of the neighboring Tiempos Lindos Homeowners Association, laid out the benefits the open space offers the community, including a potential education resource for children.
“Setting aside all mishandled processes by the county, betraying public trust, I’ll get to the root of this conversation which is, nothing should be built on this property,” Morrison said.
Ellen Stone, another nearby resident, voiced her opposition, too.
“I do feel like if this field is developed, it’s missing a huge opportunity to support the health and well-being of our residents,” Stone said.
A few well-known figures in the city’s housing industry spoke in support of the development.
“This is a terrible decision to make, but I think we need to hold the nuance that this can both be a breach of trust with that neighborhood around the understandings of what that land was, but it can also still be the highest and best use of this land to make affordable housing and a park,” said Daniel Werwath, executive director of New Mexico Interfaith Housing.
Another supporter of Homewise’s proposal was Tamarra Ortiz, a nurse at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, who said some coworkers can’t afford to live in the city where they work.
“We are in a serious workforce shortage,” Ortiz said. “We need our community to flourish and this is not only in regards to nurses, this is also for policemen, firefighters and teachers.”
Sean Duncan, co-founder of a new public charter school called Thrive Community School, also offered his support.
Homewise originally proposed Thrive for the site, along with 95 housing units and a 1.67-acre park, but adjusted its plans based on community feedback, Jenkins, the consulting agent, told SFR.
Two residents raised concerns about the open space’s neighbor: the Eberline plant, a former radioactive manufacturing facility, which shut down operations in 2007. The state Environment Department has since found that the company that owned the plant, Thermo Fisher Scientific, violated several nuclear regulations.
Demolition of the building, which was originally set for October 2020, has yet to happen, and a survey of air, soil and surfaces by a licensed contractor is ongoing.
“In our regulatory oversight role of the Eberline facility and their contractor, we’re holding the parties accountable to ensure proper site characterization before we allow them to proceed with demolition and cleanup of the building,” Matt Maez, an Environment Department spokesman, writes in an email to SFR.
Environmental consulting firm NV5 conducted a radiological survey of the South Meadows property for Homewise last December. The survey found that “radiation levels on the property are the same as ambient environmental levels present in the rest of the community surveyed.”
A Homewise employee listed in the report didn’t respond to questions from SFR, including why Airport Road is wrongly called “Airline Road” throughout the document.
After about three hours of public comment ending at 11:30 pm, commissioners voted to postpone the meeting after some additional discussion of conditional approval. Faulkner urged both Homewise and opponents in the community to “try to find something that’ll work” before the commission takes up the request again.
“Good luck everyone,” Faulkner said moments before the meeting adjourned.