Planning for the future
Health, safety and welfare. It’s pretty much the driving force behind every modern zoning ordinance ever written.
While those are lofty sounding goals, the practical core of zoning is to help separate incompatible land uses.
It’s used to prevent a hog rendering plant being built next to a park and to make sure a retirement home doesn’t go in between a steel mill and the railroad tracks.
In addition to zoning, land-use laws typically include nuisance ordinances that dictate everything from how tall your weeds and fences can be to how many nonworking cars you can park on your frontyard.
Often these laws and regulations are looked at as being unnecessary and intrusive upon people’s personal property, their space. And that is the last thing Valencia County Regional Planner Jacobo Martinez wants to do.
“The decisions we as a government institution make on land use impact people in their day-to-day lives. So it’s important to make it as right as possible,” Martinez said. “The space we walk around in is important. To our core, we live in our spaces every day.”
In order to “make it as right as possible,” Martinez said government planning and zoning should focus on making space as accessible as possible, as open as possible and safe for everybody.
“A major function of government is to help build resilient communities,” he said.
And it helps build them through strong zoning and land-use regulations that allow for all members of the public to come together and discuss future uses of land in their communities.
“One of government’s most important functions when it comes to land use is to bring all these interests together and look at what the future land use should be for an area,” he said. “Having zoning and land-use regulations is important to have so that communities can come together and have an identity. Each place has a distinct character. For a community to help identify who they are is healthy.”
Land use and zoning doesn’t necessarily mean more buildings and more development, Martinez said. It can also help preserve history and spiritual space.
“One thing being left behind are our historical gathering spaces; the old town plaza around the church where people would congregate, catch up,” he said. “There used to be the resolaneros, a group of old men who sat on the south side of the plaza and talked, told stories and passed on knowledge. Now, instead, our commercial institutions want us to come and congregate there. Starbucks wants us to hang out there.”
In terms of what he calls spiritual space, Martinez named Tomé Hill as an example: A place that isn’t necessarily sanctified, but brings people a sense of peace and belonging.
“Good land use wants to know how to protect these spaces instead of stifle them,” he said.
While a new Walmart may bring in a lot of gross receipts taxes, it may encroach on a spiritual space.
“That’s the conflict. So how do we resolve that,” Martinez said.
In the village of Los Lunas, the community leads the changes for planning its growth, said Christina Ainsworth, community development director.
Two years ago, the village began work on a new comprehensive plan in conjunction with its community branding process. To make sure the plan was on the right track, Ainsworth said the village talked to focus groups, put out an online survey and did interviews to find out what people value and identify as special in the community.
“What we found is that people really care about the agriculture in the area,” Ainsworth said. “But at the same time, they encourage economic development and growth.”
To balance those two desires, Ainsworth said the village needed to find places in the village where higher population densities are appropriate so that the open, agricultural spaces can be preserved.
One of those areas that is appropriate for higher density is the Rail Runner station area on N.M. 314.
That area also underwent the most recent large-scale zoning change in the village, she said. Over the years, the area has slowly shifted away from being predominately agricultural, as more businesses are established along the highway.
When the village began exploring the idea of higher density, mixed-use development, the area around the station seemed ideal. In 2008, the village established a plan for transportation-oriented development around the station
Permissible uses in the area include single-family homes, mobile home parks, apartments, townhouses, patio homes and others. Commercial enterprises allowed range from grocery stores to banks to florists to restaurants.
The goal of the plan is to set up a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere.
“It’s gone from just a passing corridor from point A to point B to the beginning of a place,” she said.
While the TOD around the rail station is an example of zoning as a broad planning tool to help shape growth, sometimes laws can be very specific, Ainsworth said.
She stressed that for the village, zoning laws are put in place in response to what community members want. At this point, the zoning in the village doesn’t get into fine details like types of fencing materials, home facades and landscaping.
“This community has never asked us to impose an aesthetic in the residential areas,” she said. “Typically, you see those types of issues controlled by restrictive covenants that lay out architectural standards. The village does not enforce private covenants.”
The village has set aesthetic standards for businesses along Main Street, she said.
“There is the Main Street overlay that requires building facades to have a certain aesthetic appeal, and not just be a metal building,” Ainsworth said. “The community has not asked us for anything like that in residential areas.”
While not strictly land use, Ainsworth said the village is beginning revisions to its master transportation plan. That plan will incorporate a bypass to the south — the much-planned and contested corridor that will connect Interstate 25 to N.M. 47 — with a limited access road cutting through the valley.
“The transportation plan looks at the future, how we want to manage other modes of transportation such as walking routes and bike paths, improving public transit so people don’t have to drive,” she said.
Part of the plan will look at alternative routes to Main Street to take traffic across town.
“Right now, we don’t have internal connectivity. If you want to go from (the west side of Los Lunas) to a grocery store at the Y, you have to get on Main Street,” she said. “There’s no other way.”
To provide options to Main Street, the village might look at connecting internal neighborhood roads to larger arterial roads, which may mean taking property at the worst and increased traffic in a residential area at a minimum.
“It won’t be just one road that everyone uses though,” Ainsworth said. “People will use what’s most convenient but it impacts people’s property either way.”
As the village’s population increases and development continues, Ainsworth said it’s important to plan for the future to make sure new projects are compatible with what’s already here.
“We have to work together to have good land use,” she said. “We are working to improve what we have.”
In the city of Belen, Steve Tomita is working to improve what is already there and balance what might eventually come in the form of 6,000 acres of brand new development in Rancho Cielo.
“We kind of have two communities, so our planning has to include those differences and diversity,” said city planner Tomita.
In 2007, the Belen City Council voted unanimously to annex the development of Rancho Cielo, northwest of Belen, along the interstate. Plans call for about 10,000 to 12,000 homes, schools, parks, retail, commercial and light industry to be developed in phases over a period of 10 to 15 years.
While development hasn’t begun yet, Tomita and the city are anticipating the future.
“We have to look at how to mold Rancho Cielo in terms of industrial areas, new houses, open space, commercial development — all the things you see in a master-planned community,” he said.
Rancho Cielo’s master plan embraces the live/work/play concept that will allow residents short, easy commutes to both work and recreation opportunities. The development also has more dense residential areas of multi-family dwellings and smaller houses on smaller lots.
That contrasts with the already established parts of the city that boast large, single-family homes on large lots. Tomita said the city is focusing on redevelopment in parts of Belen that will create mixed commercial and residential areas, with small galleries and shops at street level and urban living on the second story.
“We are building upon the amazing history and culture of the old Southwest. The building styles in Belen range from Spanish territorial to Victorian gingerbread,” he said. “You want a unique community, but it needs to be harmonious at the same time.”
The goal of melding the two parts of Belen is to create a community that flows together. To that end, Tomita said he has always looked at zoning ordinances, codes and comprehensive plans as living documents.
“You need all of them to be able to change, depending on what is best for the community,” he said. “Good land-use policy also protects the city and its residents.”
Tomita said government will always get complaints from people about what their neighbors are doing.
“If you move in next to a dairy and then complain about the smell, well, you knew it was there,” he said. “If you are a developer looking at a map, you know it’s there because our zoning tells you.”
Taking a broad look at zoning helps prevent a subdivision from being built right up against an industrial zone, Tomita said.
“A good land-use plan will call for a buffer area, a transition between the two,” he said.
The most important part of land use, Tomita said, is the impartiality of the decision-makers, the ability for people making zoning rulings to remain neutral.
“That is extremely difficult to do. It’s often tempting to view a request through the lens of ‘Would I want this next to me?’ You’re not supposed to think like that,” he said. “You are supposed to look at the whole community and not the individual. You have to be cognisant of the individual but if it is helping the whole community, it may be worthwhile to make a difficult decision.”
In its nearly four decades of existence, the village of Bosque Farms has worked hard to maintain its rural atmosphere, large residential lots and animal-friendly ways.
Former mayor and current planning and zoning commission vice chairwoman Sharon Eastman said when the village first zoned itself in 1976, it relied heavily on community input.
“There were a lot of meetings and probably a citizen survey,” Eastman said. “Over the years, we’ve done three or four citizen surveys on land use and zoning and found overwhelmingly that people want the large lot sizes. That hasn’t changed.
“People want to keep the density low. That’s why the village has no apartment complexes,” Eastman said. “Our ordinances have always been based on what the people say they want the village to be like.”
The large lots and ability to keep and even raise livestock in the village limits attracts people to Bosque Farms, she said. But that doesn’t mean the small town is becoming crowded.
The Middle Rio Grande Council of Governments predicted by the year 2000, the village would be completely built out.
“Well, that hasn’t happened,” Eastman said, laughing.
While the large dairy farms that used to dot the area have been subdivided into residential lots, there is still plenty of open space. A hay field abuts West Bosque Farms Loop, providing residents with a bucolic vista on the way to pay their water bill at the village offices.
When Valencia County experienced an influx of new residents 15 years ago, Bosque Farms wasn’t left out of that growth, Eastman said.
To accommodate that growth, the village had to make sure its zoning ordinances addressed things such as roads and access.
“We had to make sure that when former farm land was divided and developed, roads were built to a maintainable standard and given names so emergency services could locate the houses,” she said. “We’ve remained a strong horse community and we’re friendly to livestock of all kinds. If you look at our ordinances, you can have a cow, a goat, a horse, something, in any part of the village.”
Bosque Farms is known for its stringent nuisance laws and its strict enforcement of those laws. Eastman said they need to be in place for the good of a community.
“If you keep junk cars, piles of trash and debris on your property, that can attract bugs and vermin. Dry weeds, six-feet tall, are a fire hazard,” she said. “It’s not fair to neighbors. But the people who do these things, they don’t care what their neighbors think. That’s why we pass ordinances in the first place to say, ‘Fine, you can’t do that.’
“Planning and zoning didn’t create the atmosphere we have,” Eastman said. “It preserved it. It was already here.”
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