No-growthers gain strength in Albuquerque

  Albuquerque residents on Oct. 28 voted down a $52 million bond issue -- the only bond issue to fail out of 10 on the ballot, and the first one to fail since 1985. The vote grabbed headlines because it meant the temporary defeat of plans to extend roads through a national monument dedicated to petroglyphs -- rock art hundreds of years old.

Albuquerque has tried to build the two roads -- Paseo del Norte and Unser Boulevard -- for more than a decade, but so far the only result has been to stir up controversy. The most vocal supporters of the roads include the small minority of Albuquerque residents and their elected representatives whose shortest route to work is through the monument.

The most vocal opponents say the new roads would damage an outstanding area of Native American rock art, much of which has obvious sacred content. It would be easy to conclude that in voting down the bonds, Albuquerque citizens chose petroglyphs over roads.

Not exactly. The vote conceals a shift in local politics that, so far, has largely escaped attention. Since World War II, Albuquerque's fate has been steered by a "pro-growth" alliance of developers, builders and politicians. Their formula was almost magical: Developers bought cheap rural land; politicians used public funds to extend roads and other services to the land, making it valuable; developers and builders created thousands of single-family homes; politicians got a city worthy of their ambitions.

Not incidentally, the businessmen got rich while the politicians got their Life's blood -- campaign contributions. Meanwhile, the public backed the whole scheme with its votes; it was getting large but affordable homes on large but affordable lots and, not incidentally, jobs that went with building suburbs.

To everyone involved it was a "win-win" situation -- one repeated in cities throughout the West. Now, after years of easy success, the leaders of Albuquerque's pro-growth alliance seem frustrated over their inability to build two short segments of road. Some promoters even say they feel betrayed.

What they're failing to recognize is a new political fault line. Residents who live and work east of the monument are starting to see the City's expansion as a "win-lose" situation. To them, new suburbs mean more traffic, more smog, smaller shares of a limited water supply and a loss of the West's wide open spaces. It's difficult for them to see why they should help pay for this process.

Pockets of outrage over damage to the monument sealed the defeat of the bond issue. But neither side seems to understand how deep the fault line runs; how the real issue is the city's split between those who want to keep growing outward and those who want to focus growth on the city's current footprint.

On the same day that voters killed the road-bond issue, they voted in three new city council members and re-elected a fourth, resulting in a net tilt away from the council's former strong support for outward development. The outcome was a surprise, in part, because a developer-led PAC waged a high-profile campaign against candidates it didn't consider " pro-business." Yet the Political Action Committee failed in every race in which it intervened.

A few days after the road bond defeat and city council election, voters used a mail-in plebiscite to crush a proposal to combine Albuquerque and Bernalillo County. The proposed merger had been worked out in painful detail, including many public meetings, and was blessed by the city's traditional leadership.

Residents of rural Bernalillo County rejected the measure most strongly, fearing a loss of their way of life, but city dwellers also rejected the measure, apparently more concerned than excited by a vastly larger city. By itself, the road bond issue could be seen as a fluke, but when that vote is combined with the shift in city council membership and the failure of city-county unification, a new pattern emerges.

So far, leadership on the anti-sprawl side of the new fault line is grassroots and barely articulated, but that's also showing signs of change. In the 1990s, during an earlier attempt to build roads through Petroglyph National Monument, the most effective opponent was a college- age organizer who came across like some annoying remnant of the 9160s.

Today, that same individual heads a political consulting firm that was instrumental in the defeat of the road bonds and in several races for local public office. As Albuquerque's anti-sprawl leadership matures, the new political lineup is likely to become more active, and the battles over growth far more intense.

David Phillips is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is an archaeologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at