The Santa Fe City Council voted unanimously late Wednesday night to delay a vote on a controversial Southside rezoning proposal. Why? In the interest of time. Councilors agreed that the number of questions they had would likely push a special meeting into the early hours of Thursday.
That means a decision on whether a plot of former open space land off South Meadows Road should be rezoned to allow for a mix of condos, houses, townhomes and a park will have to wait.
Councilor Michael Garcia broached the subject before discussion of the South Meadows proposal had even begun by invoking a land use issue over connecting sections of Richards Avenue, which took up several separate meetings.
“We had a case in front of us where we had probably close to 10 hours of questions that we had, and I don’t know if that’s going to be the instance with this matter,” Garcia said. “If it is, that can put us up until 4 or 5 am to make a decision.”
Mayor Alan Webber agreed not only that the questions would stretch the meeting, but that many attendees who might be hypothetically answering the council’s questions had already left the council chambers for the night.
“There’s a lot of material that I feel we need to go over carefully, and give respect to, and give proper time to,” Webber said. “I think we’ll be calling residents who tested back if they’re available.”
City Manager John Blair confirmed with councilors that there is enough room on their next meeting agenda to squeeze in discussion of the zoning proposal.
The decision to delay a vote, let alone any discussion, came after nearly two hours of comments Wednesday night from residents in favor of and against the city approving zoning changes needed for Santa Fe-based homebuilders Homewise to move forward with 161 units of affordable housing and more on the 22-acre parcel in question.
Most of the public testimony was evenly split, with those in favor of the development arguing that rising housing costs have driven workers outside the city and county limits. Those who spoke against rezoning the former open space cited the land’s ecology, the process Homewise used to acquire the land and the neighboring property as reasons the council should pump the brakes on allowing Homewise to move forward.
The council’s Wednesday night meeting is the latest in a string of public hearings that span a little more than a year, but the saga of the South Meadows land’s fate goes back to 2001 when Santa Fe County bought it with the intention of transforming it into a public park.
Concerns of leftover radioactive material at the old Eberline site, just to the south of the Homewise property, goes back even further, but were reinvigorated after coverage from SFR in 2017. Eberline stopped manufacturing radiation detection equipment in 2007, the building has been sat empty since then, despite repeated assurances from the company that it would decommission the property and mitigate any potential hazards. The unknown scope of how dangerous the Eberline site may be has remained mostly in the background while residents of nearby neighborhoods cried foul over how the county sold the one time open space that eventually went to Homewise. Critics of the deal accused the county of violating its own oversight rules while the county claimed running the plan by an advisory committee was not required.
Environmental safety concerns and proper sale protocol have only added to the list of reasons some say the city should hold off, if not halt, the approval of zoning changes. Meanwhile, Homewise officials have repeatedly recapitulated their mission to provide housing at affordable prices in the most expensive city in the state and during a time when many who work in Santa Fe live sometimes an hour away.
Johanna Gilligan, Homwise’s chief external affairs officer, told councilors during Wednesday’s meeting that the development, known as Los Prados, would offer significantly cheaper options than the current median Santa Fe home cost of $675,000. She said the cost of a one-bedroom home would be less than $145,000 and work out to a mortgage payment of less than $1,000.
“We really see this as a great opportunity to add housing stock that can help address this out migration and keep Santa’s fans here who are the people that are really propping up our economy,” Gilligan told the governing body, referencing the high number of Santa Fe workers who live outside the city.
The Santa Fe City Planning Commission in November voted unanimously, after hearing hours of arguments both for and against the tract of houses, to recommend the governing body approve the zoning, after continuously rescheduling it multiple times.