Midnight subdividing creates unsanitary messes

  • Colonias in Dona Ana County, N.M.

    Diane Sylvain

DOäA ANA COUNTY, N.M. - Felix Ledesma stares out at the border shantytown where his family now lives and he shakes his head: "We moved here because New Mexico is the land of opportunity."

But Ledesma's children play nearby in muddy pools, and around them rise an odd assortment of homes - cinder block shacks, school buses and worn-out trailers with scrap wood additions. The few modest frame houses seem palatial and out of place.

This is a colonia, a settlement thrown together and as poor as anything in the Third World. A power pole stands at one dwelling, with orange extension cords strung off it leading to several trailers. Next to other homes sit rusted, second-hand Mexican propane tanks which lack safety devices required in this country.

Residents flush sewage into open cesspools and homemade septic systems. Sometimes they pour sewage into shallow trenches, allowing it to seep into soils only a few yards from a shallow well. Even in places where a safe water system has been installed, bacterial contamination continues to be a problem.

New Mexico health oficials say dysentery, shigellosis, hepatitis A, tuberculosis and other diseases sometimes reach epidemic proportions in the colonias. But firm data do not exist because many residents use free clinics or travel to "farmacias" in Mexico for treatment.

"Now," says Ledesma, "I got some information from the court that all these places are illegal, that there weren't supposed to be any houses here."

Ledesma is not alone in feeling abused by the developers who sold him land. Outside Las Cruces, N.M., 5,000 Hispanics live in five rural colonias lacking adequate sewer, water, road and utility improvements, and not one of these ramshackle developments was ever reviewed by land-use planners or health department officials.

How could this happen? Loose land-use laws and unscrupulous developers, say the New Mexico Attorney General and the Doûa Ana County Commissioners. In state court, they have alleged that 19 locally prominent developers illegally created the Mesquite, Vado, Milagro, Las Palmeras and Joy Drive colonias, and they've charged the defendants with conspiring to circumvent the New Mexico Subdivision Act by platting hundreds of unimproved lots with no approval from the county planning board.

State law allows landowners to divide their property into four lots every three years without county review. In each colonia, a group of individuals working in concert divided adjoining lands into smaller and smaller tracts, the lawsuit charges. But each person only divided their chunk into four parcels to avoid county review.

In one portion of the Vado colonia, the lawsuit alleges that a 42-acre tract was split into 28 lots in less than a month. In another case, developers platted 200 lots.

The plaintiffs also argue that the developers sold the property without accurately explaining to buyers that no provisions were made for sewer/water systems, improved roads and other infrastructure.

Mark Heck, a Las Cruces colonia developer, maintains the subdivisions fill a need. "We've sold the property very inexpensively," Heck says. "It is usually no money down and small monthly payments, $100 to $150. That's about the same price these people would have to pay in a mobile home park to rent. This makes it affordable for people to finally own something and not be a tenant forever."

Heck warns, "If we have to put in these very expensive roads and other requirements, people cannot afford the land. They just don't have that kind of money."

The numbers don't back him up. In Doûa Ana County, the average cost of a lot in an approved subdivision that includes proper roads and utilities and approved sewer and water systems is about $14,500. The average cost of a lot in one of the county's colonias is about $13,100 - no improvements included. Developers pocket the money which should have been spent on infrastructure.

Most people in the colonias have incomes far below the poverty line and they say they'd never get a bank to loan them money. This makes them extremely vulnerable to land-development schemes.

Typical terms for colonia lots involve little or no money down, 10-18 percent interest rates, and a contract lasting 20-30 years. But a family may end up actually spending more than $40,000 for a patch of sand to put a trailer on; failure to pay means they lose it all.

So who will pay for necessities such as roads and potable water? The Environmental Protection Agency has allocated $10 million for wastewater treatment facilities in Doûa Ana County, but agency officials say even $10 million probably wouldn't get the job done. Ron Curry of New Mexico's Environment Department says the cost of installing wastewater treatment systems in the Mesquite colonia alone would be $3.6 million.

If the state and county prevail in the lawsuit, however, developers may have to pay a maximum of $5,000 in restitution to each lot owner. The court also has the power to impose even stiffer penalties.

The colonias lawsuits are still in the discovery phase, according to Doûa Ana County Attorney Kevin Elkins, but thus far the news is not good for residents. Judge Jerald A. Valentine has ruled in favor of the developers on portions of the case heard so far, and Dona Ana County recently dismissed six local defendants from the suit.

Meanwhile, after threatening a veto, Republican Gov. Gary Johnson signed into law April 7 an amendment to the New Mexico Subdivision Act that will close many of the opportunities for colonia formation. The measure says landowners can only avoid county review if they split their land once every five years, instead of the current four times every three years.

A last-minute concession to the real estate industry delays the bill's implementation until July of 1996, says Kay Roybal of the state attorney general's office. The time delay could set off a boom in subdivisions, she says, and some counties have contacted her office to ask about implementing subdivision moratoria until the law goes into effect.

For more information, contact the New Mexico attorney general's office at 505/827-6000.

The writer is a former land-use planner who now teaches at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico.