The Commissioner — Spring 2011
Bernalillo County, New Mexico,
By Karen Finucan Clarkson
Bernalillo County encompasses the city of Albuquerque and the open plains of New Mexico. It mixes centuries of history with the pressures of urban growth as the beauty of the region draws new residents yearly.
The seven-member planning commission in this semirural county serves in a quasi-judicial capacity. "The planning commission looks at each request carefully, working out a lot of the details before passing its recommendation to the board of county commissioners," says Nano Chavez, the county's planning and land-use manager.
"The board of county commissioners relies on us to thoroughly review the issues, especially contentious ones," says Linda Barbour, chair of the Bernalillo County Planning Commission. "We look at the application, review staff findings and recommendations, and take testimony; then we condense it down and send it to the [county] commissioners for their consideration."
The planning commission is the decision-making authority on issues involving major subdivisions. Items such as zone changes and land-use plans are referred to the county board for final approval. The planning commission also serves as a board of adjustment, reviewing appeals from those taking issue with decisions by the zoning administrator.
Planning commissioners are appointed by the county commissioners. Three county commissioners get one appointment each; the other two — from the largest districts in the Bernalillo County — get two appointments. Planning commissioners may serve no more than two consecutive three-year terms.
Commissioners meet twice a month — once in public session and once in a study session. "The study sessions, which the public may attend, are basically where the staff brings the planning commission up to speed and alerts them to issues they should be aware of," says Chavez.
Following the study session, the commission takes a site tour. "It makes it easier to understand what the applicant's justifying or why neighbors are complaining. Sometimes what's reflected on paper doesn't match up with the site," Chavez says.
"For new commissioners, the site visits are the best training," says Barbour. "It helps us all visualize what's going on. We are, however, careful not to talk about the individual cases — we don't want to violate open meetings rules."
During its public sessions, the commission spends the most time on special use permit requests, which can be contentious. "Part of my job is to help people work through the issues," says Barbour. "Sometimes it's just a lack of knowledge; people may not understand what the applicant wants to do."
As chair, Barbour strives for consensus or, at a minimum, some level of agreement. "It works best when everyone is willing to give a little here and a little there," she says. "When we can't reach an equitable conclusion, I feel I have failed."
Barbour, who estimates she puts in anywhere from 15 to 30 hours a month, appreciates the various backgrounds — banking, law, real estate, neighborhood advocacy — her fellow commissioners bring to the table. She particularly values the perspective of one commissioner who also serves on the City of Albuquerque Zoning Board of Appeals.
Barbour views planning commission service as an important public service. To those interested in volunteering, she suggests: "Never forget that you serve the community — that you have a responsibility to every single applicant. You're dealing with their livelihood — how they live and earn a living — as well as the lives of those in our community."
Zoning, Environment Top Concerns in Bernalillo County
Given the number of special use permit requests that come before the Bernalillo County Planning Commission, it might be time for a change. "Our zoning ordinances are outdated and really need to be looked at," says Linda Barbour, chair.
As the county has grown and evolved, conditions in many neighborhoods have changed. Much of the land in the county is zoned A-1 or A-2, which usually means a one- or two-acre minimum lot size. Smaller lots often require a special use permit.
Such is the case in the West Central/I-40 area, a community gateway with lot sizes of between five and 10 acres. Over the years, special use permits have created a haphazard land-use pattern that is neither consistent with long-term development goals nor aesthetically pleasing.
"We just received some funds and are hoping to do a plan along West Central, a main corridor that's zoned A-1 and should be mixed use," says Nano Chavez, the county's planning and land use manager. "We're hoping that this will eventually reduce the number of special use requests."
Located in central New Mexico, Bernalillo County stretches from the East Mountain area, just north of the Sandia Mountains, to the Volcano Cliffs on the west mesa. At 1,166 square miles, which includes the City of Albuquerque, the county is the third smallest in the state. Of the roughly 640,000 people who call the county home, about 130,000 live in the county's unincorporated area.
"We have the same set-up with mountains to the east that the Los Angeles Basin has," says Barbour. "We do have smog. There are times when you really can't be outside due to the air quality."
As part of the effort to improve air quality, planning commissioner George Castillo serves on the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board. The planning commission, for its part, does consider air quality — in an attempt to safeguard public health — when reviewing special use permits. It occasionally will request modifications such as the use of vegetation, landscaping, and other erosion techniques to minimize dust pollution.
Given the semiarid conditions of the American Southwest, water is another concern in Bernalillo County. Its average annual rainfall is less than nine inches and only about 10 percent of that precipitation penetrates the soil surface and enters the aquifer.
"When it comes to major housing developments, water is a big issue," says Barbour. Developers are required to demonstrate 70 years of water availability before receiving planning commission approval.
"Oftentimes people don't fully understand how environmental issues affect development," says Barbour. "That's where education comes in and where we can make a difference. Our quality of life depends on it."