Road Block

A pack of 'Chicanos, Marines and hippies' steps into the path of New Mexico's sprawl machine

  • FRACTURED LAND: From the top of Tome Hill, Las Maravillassubdivision glows far out in the former Tome Land Grant, called Riodel Oro by developers

    J.T. Thomas
  • Map of Tome, New Mexico

    Diane Sylvain
  • IN THE PATH OF PROGRESS: A four-lane highway would havecut across irrigation ditches like this one near Tome

    Greg Hanscom
  • ISLAND LIVING: Las Maravillas Subdivision sits in themiddle of 60,000 to 70,000 undeveloped lots

    J.T. Thomas

TOME, N.M. - It's late October, and the forest that lines the Rio Grande is lit up like a river of gold. Huddled next to the river is Tome, a haphazard village full of clutter and contradiction. Aging adobe houses and double-wide trailers are scattered along dirt lanes. Dogs sleep in the streets. Grand old cottonwood trees line irrigation ditches and alfalfa fields.

The unincorporated town's 1,500 mostly Hispanic residents, like the trees, are rooted and headstrong. They cuss like sailors. They go to church every Sunday. They grouse about neighbors and nurse family grudges for generations. And they're damn proud of their town and its history.

Each spring, people come from all over - some walking 30 miles from Albuquerque - to gather on Good Friday atop Tome Hill, which rises above the town. In September, folks flock to the plaza for the Fiesta of Tome, where there is dancing, vendors sell roasted chilies, and the Knights of Columbus grill hamburgers. The fiesta, and the adobe chapel that stands next to the plaza, date back to the days of the conquistadores, who in the 16th and 17th centuries followed the Camino Real north along the Rio Grande from Mexico and claimed this land for Spain.

"The old Catholic Church is still the heart of this community," says Ray Garcia, the mustachioed president of the Historic Tome Adelino Neighborhood Association, as he wheels his old Ford farm truck along a dusty ditch road. "This place is different. It's special," he says. "There's still a community here."

Tome has remained in a community eddy in large part because of the Rio Grande. The river shields the village from the growth visible to the west, just across the water, in the town of Los Lunas. There, chain stores and mobile home dealerships line a business loop off Interstate 25, that whisks residents quickly north to Albuquerque. North and south of Tome, where bridges cross the river, trailer parks and retirement communities have rushed in.

It could happen in Tome, too. Above town, a parched gray mesa stretches east to the Manzano Mountains. Etched into the mesa like a sand painting is a massive web of roads. Already, the mesa holds about 600 houses, and someday, developers hope, the mesa, dubbed Rio del Oro or "River of Gold," could hold 60,000 to 70,000 homes.

To pave the way for that future and to ease traffic on existing bridges, the state highway department proposed a four-lane road from I-25, bridging the river, to the base of Rio del Oro. The problem was, Tome stood in the way, and many residents didn't take kindly to a highway plowing through their back fields, a highway they feared would turn Tome into another suburb of Albuquerque.

The fight against the bridge looked like a long shot. All along the old Camino Real, a new conquest is under way. Small towns are being swallowed by trendy enclaves like Taos and Santa Fe and the subdivided sprawl around Espanola, Albuquerque and Las Cruces. In a state increasingly ruled by real estate, hungry for federal highway funds and riding on loose land-use laws written in the 1920s, opposition to growth seems futile.

The Albuquerque area is being hit hard by this sprawl. The most recent census shows that the city proper is actually losing residents, while its outer suburbs continue to grow. Mayor Jim Baca and citizens' groups are fighting to slow peripheral growth and revive the city's downtown (HCN, 10/25/99: Monumental Chaos). But the state highway department continues to build roads to distant suburbs. In October, it proposed a giant beltway around Albuquerque.

"We're doing exactly what Houston, (Texas), did 20 years ago," says Ned Farquhar, executive director of the smart-growth group 1,000 Friends of New Mexico. He says Houston's beltway has made it the smoggiest city in the U.S., as suburbanites spend hours driving to and from work. "There's an old saying in this state that says, 'Anything that succeeds elsewhere is doomed to fail in New Mexico,' " he says. "It's as if the highway department has reversed that to say, 'Anything that fails elsewhere is destined to succeed in New Mexico.' "

Nevertheless, New Mexico is starting to talk about reining in growth, and the battle over the Tome bridge suggests that, with enough energy and passion, small towns may survive this suburban onslaught. The story of Tome and the planned bridge is hitched to a mess of New Mexico history. Give it a tug and that history emerges like a chrome-plated Studebaker from the bottom of a reservoir.

Subdivided Rio del Oro once belonged to the people of Tome. In 1793, the king of Spain gave settlers 47,000 acres of former Pueblo Indian territory, stretching from the Rio Grande east to the ridge of the Manzano Mountains. The grant contained everything the community would require: farmland and water along the riverbottoms, rangeland for cattle and sheep on the mesa, and timber on the mountainsides. A board of trustees managed the timber and assigned residents grazing rights on the common range.

In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo turned New Mexico over to the United States with a promise that the land grants would remain intact. But over the following century, Anglos found many ways to separate Hispanics from their land. Some were cheated or tricked, while others, such as the residents of Tome, succumbed to the prospect of big money.

In 1954, with the encouragement of the state, the Tome Land Grant's board of trustees incorporated, forming the Tome Land Improvement Co. Land-grant members became shareholders, a situation which kicked off years of bitter infighting, as they sued the company and one another over shares in the grant and the legality of the incorporation.

"It just shredded the community," says land grant member Tony Baca. "It's a wonder there wasn't brothers killing brothers."

In 1978, the New Mexico Supreme Court disbanded the Land Improvement Co., but while the dispute was caught up in the courts, the company had sold the land down the river. In 1968, shareholders had voted to sell the entire 47,000-acre Tome Land Grant. The buyer, Horizon Corp., a real estate giant involved in land speculation across the Sun Belt, paid $4.7 million. Much of that money went to lawyers; the rest was eventually distributed among more than 6,000 land-grant heirs.

"The courts were just sucking us dry," says Baca, who was among the 78 percent of shareholders who voted to sell the land. "What else do you do in that situation? You cut your losses and move on." Horizon didn't waste any time. It subdivided the mesa into thousands of quarter-acre parcels and sold them around the country, mainly in the damp Northeast, where people were easily romanced by the idea of a home in sunny Georgia O'Keeffe country.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which later investigated and prosecuted Horizon, the firm's salesmen held dinner parties where they showed clients charts of growth rates and investment returns. They entertained with films hosted by celebrities Merv Griffin and Leif Erickson, promoting subdivisions with names like "Whispering Ranch," "Enchanted Mesa" and "Paradise Hills." Diners were then pressured to buy land immediately, or miss out on the investment opportunity of a lifetime.

To sell land on Rio del Oro, Horizon representatives portrayed Albuquerque as "a city with a fence around it." Surrounded on three sides by Indian reservations, land grants and mountains, they said, the bustling city could only grow in one direction: south. Conveniently, a highway had been built to relieve the growth pressure, they said, and it led straight to Rio del Oro.

"If you had a piece of land right here - in the only direction this city could expand - right in the path of this stampede - would you feel you had a pretty good investment?" a training manual instructed them to ask. The same tactic was used to sell lots in Enchanted Mesa, northwest of Albuquerque.

Ninety-five percent of Horizon's investors bought the land sight unseen, according to the FTC. The few buyers who came to the Southwest before the scam caved in found a mess.

A story in a 1972 Seer's Journal, an underground weekly newspaper out of Albuquerque, told of Paul and Rita Gates, a retired Chicago couple who bought a model home from Horizon on Enchanted Mesa. The roof leaked, the heating didn't work and the septic tank caved in. Horizon refused to fix the problems.

George Pafundi and his wife moved out from New York, following promises of a 10 percent mortgage rate and a sales job with Horizon. The job evaporated and the interest rate on the house jumped to 30 percent.

Those who came to see their land on Rio del Oro found only a web of dusty roads, no water or sewer lines, no electricity, no easy living.

"Horizon's representations were fashioned out of exaggeration, innuendo, ambiguity, half-truths and the omission of material facts," the FTC wrote in 1981. "Horizon's lots were, in fact, bad investments with little or no potential for profit."

The FTC ordered Horizon to spend $45 million on promised improvements, return $14.5 million to investors and allow others a "cooling-off period" during which they could back out of deals with the company. By the mid-1980s, the FTC had all but shut down Horizon, which has since largely faded from New Mexico, along with companies such as Norin's Realty and AMREP that also sold subdivided land grants. The dream didn't die. Horizon had sold 75,000 parcels of land in Valencia County to about 30,000 people who wanted their investments to pay off. In the early 1980s, a group of property owners calling themselves the Valley Improvement Association - VIA - stepped into Horizon's shoes, promising to turn the mess on Rio del Oro into gold.

The man at the heart of the association is Bob Davey. The former Chicago journalist works in an airy office in a remodeled strip mall in Rio Communities, a former Horizon subdivision about ten miles south of Tome. Someday, said Davey in October, driving his two-toned Chevy king cab pickup out across the mesa, the sea of saltbush and sage above Tome will become a sea of rooftops, roads, parks, businesses and ball fields.

It's a vision that few believed in at first, he said, but over the last two decades, Davey has brought others on board with the patience of a missionary. Using annual dues paid by association members, VIA has financed wells and sewer lines, built parks and helped beef up the county sheriff's patrol and volunteer fire department. It has also asked contractors to abide by planning and zoning rules that have been created since the land was subdivided, even though their legal obligation to do so is questionable.

On Rio del Oro, the association donated land to the University of New Mexico for a Valencia County campus, which now serves 2,000 students. To house students and professors, the association bought up parcels of land large enough to build a small housing development called Pasitos del Cielo (Little Passages to the Sky) that sits just above the old Tome cemetery.

Farther out on the mesa, VIA has built several schools for county kids and a larger development called Las Maravillas (The Marigolds). Davey said the Manzano Expressway, connecting the mesa with the towns of Los Lunas and Belen, made the growth possible.

"The Manzano Expressway was a gravel road when we got here," he said. "We paved and improved it, and everybody ridiculed it as a road to nowhere. Now you drive the Manzano and you see churches and parks and homes."

But the parks and cookie-cutter homes are relegated to a few tiny islands. The rest of Rio del Oro is still ruled by saltbush, roadrunners and tarantulas. You can pick up a quarter-acre lot at a foreclosure sale for under $100. You'll pay a surveyor more than that to find the property for you.

Still, with easy access to I-25 across the Rio Grande, Rio del Oro could at last take off, said Davey. "I think we need a bridge."

Davey was delighted in 1998, when the New Mexico Legislature approved $24 million in bonds to build the bridge across the Rio Grande and a four-lane highway connecting Rio del Oro to I-25. A handful of developers on the east mesa had been toying with the idea for a decade. The final request had come from Valencia County, as well as the towns of Los Lunas and Belen, which bear the brunt of commuter traffic to and from developments on the mesa.

But few people understood what a bridge would mean for communities such as Tome along the east side of the river. The Legislature included bonds for the project in a bill that funded an overhaul of Albuquerque's Big-I Interchange before any studies had been completed.

"All along, I've been saying I want to be informed and we need a voice in this," said Valencia County Commissioner Alicia Aguilar in October, "but once the money is there, the wheels are rolling."

Tony Abbo with the New Mexico State Highway & Transportation Department explained that the bridge would ease traffic congestion on the Manzano Expressway, and get commuters quickly from Rio del Oro to jobs in Albuquerque and to the west side of the Rio Grande. According to agency statistics, Valencia County's population will skyrocket from 68,000 today to 123,000 by 2020, while traffic on existing bridges across the Rio Grande will double.

"This is not like New York, where people can live on top of each other in real condensed areas. In New Mexico, people like the rural lifestyle and living in suburban America," Abbo said.

Department District Engineer Steve Harris said people would move to the mesa with or without a new road. He pointed to Rio Rancho northwest of Albuquerque, home of Intel's microchip plant, which has boomed in recent years despite deepening traffic problems. "Rio Rancho is a good indication that don't build it and they'll still come," he said.

Harris acknowledged that a new highway would change the shape of growth on Rio del Oro, but said his agency had to deal with imminent traffic and safety problems. "Some people would like to see the highway department stop development, but that's not our role," he said.

The agency looked at alternatives to the bridge, said Abbo, such as expanding State Highway 47, which rolls down the east side of the river. But Highway 47 runs through the Isleta Pueblo, and the Indians refused to allow the expansion, he said. The state's right of eminent domain has no teeth on the sovereign reservation.

News of the bridge hit the streets when Parsons Brinkerhoff, an engineering firm, started doing traffic studies and searching for routes across the river. One of the seven routes it suggested ran right next to Tome's historic plaza.

Members of the Historic Tome Adelino Neighborhood Association were incensed. The group, which Ray Garcia calls "a loose affiliation of Chicanos, Marines and hippies," had formed in 1998 to fight a subdivision on Tome farmland. Growth was already leaking into Tome, said members. Now the highway department wanted to open the floodgates.

"These people who move down here drive me crazy. They build a house and the first thing they do is put up floodlights," said writer Lisa Robert, who left her family farm near Albuquerque in the face of a similar wave of growth. "One of these days, you're going to read about some crazy old lady who took a .22 and went around some night shooting out lights."

"It's not just the bridge. It's a battle for community and culture," said Garcia. "I basically told the state highway department that if you come through there with bulldozers, we'll meet you tractor to tractor."

This stubborn, rural sense of self-preservation was backed by a certain degree of savvy. Garcia, who works for the Small Business Development Center at the Albuquerque Vocational Technical Institute, has a master's in business administration. Other association members are engineers, business owners and educators.

When the highway department settled on a route across the river and through farmland directly north of Tome Hill, just a half mile from the town plaza, signs went up: "No Puente, Ni Aqui, Ni Alla. No Bridge, Not Here, Not There, Not Anywhere." "No Bridge" bumper stickers appeared on farm trucks and cars. The neighborhood association started meeting each month and keeping members updated with e-mail. It teamed up with other neighborhood groups on both sides of the river under the name Valencia County Citizens for Responsible Growth.

"We're not going to make the mistakes of Southern California," said Janet Jarrett, a citizens' group member whose family dairy would have become roadside property if the bridge had gone in. "People should have the option to be a bedroom community or not. By building this kind of sprawl monstrosity, you're taking that choice away."

Wielding reams of traffic studies and statistics, the citizens' group took the issue to the Valencia County commission, and last fall, commissioners voted unanimously to oppose the bridge. Although nothing in New Mexico law says the highway department has to listen to counties, it was a strong statement. Hoping that opposition would die down, the highway department came back to the commission this September. Residents showed up en masse.

"We're this pack of honeybees just working away," said Garcia. "They broke our hive and we're mad as hell, just stinging everything that moves."

Once again, the commission voted unanimously: "No bridge."

"The commission felt that the highway department was cramming it down their throats," said commissioner Alicia Aguilar. "You can't just look at the bridge and say 'Build it and they will come.' Look at what happened in the past for lack of planning. Let's clean up our present before we leap into the future."

While New Mexico lags behind most of the West in terms of its land-use planning, in 1986, Valencia County developed a zoning ordinance that set aside areas for residential and commercial development and required developers to provide utilities and roads to new subdivisions. Revisions to the ordinance enacted last year, said county planner Steven Chavez, make it one of the strictest in the state.

"We're trying to preserve the agrarian community, the ruralness," said Chavez.

Valencia County can write whatever rules it wants, but the road to the future is being paved by state agencies that have no obligation to follow those rules, said Lora Lucero, vice president of the New Mexico chapter of the American Planning Association, a progressive community-planning group.

"The state highway department and local communities are not sitting at the same table," she said.

To make things worse, New Mexico's land-use laws are based on federal enabling laws written in the 1920s, she said. What reforms have been made came after the land speculation heyday of the 1950s and '60s, when Horizon, AMREP and other companies cut up the land with abandon. Today, statewide, 3 million lots sit awaiting homes and buildings, and any attempt to retract these antiquated subdivisions or force their developers to follow new rules would be treading on thin legal ice.

Working as a lobbyist for an array of smart-growth groups called the Coalition for a Livable Future, Lucero is pushing state legislators to draft a series of laws that would overhaul state planning rules. She would like the Legislature to create a state planning commission that would set statewide goals for protecting water and historic resources. At the same time, state agencies would have to work within local comprehensive plans.

"We need a balance between state guidance and keeping planning from the ground up," she said. "Local communities should have control of their futures."

Lucero would also like to see a "sunset provision," by which antiquated subdivisions would "evaporate" if they no longer fit into comprehensive plans developed by local communities.

The Legislature has been receptive. Last year, it created an interim land-use committee that will make recommendations to the Legislature, but progress has been slow, according to the committee chair, Sen. John Arthur Smith. Smith said tension between smart-growth advocates and developers makes land-use planning an "impossible issue." While he had hoped to have recommendations for the Legislature by January, he now thinks it will be 2002 before the committee finishes its work. Final legislation could be several years in the making.

But Lora Lucero predicts that if the Legislature doesn't act quickly, the people will drive growth reform using voter initiatives such as the ones that appeared on the ballots in Colorado and Arizona in November (HCN, 10/23/00: Colorad's growth amendment rouses voters).

Both smart-growth initiatives bit the dust in the face of developer-funded ad campaigns (HCN, 11/20/00: In Arizona's growth fight, advertising defined reality), and this fall it didn't look as if Tome bridge opponents would fare any better.

Despite the "no" vote from the county commissioners, the highway department seemed undeterred. Tony Abbo said the villages of Bosque Farms and Los Lunas and the city of Belen, which sit to the north, west and south of Tome, respectively, had all given the department the nod to move ahead with the bridge.

"They (the commissioners) have a say," said Abbo. "But we can't just take the county by itself."

Unless bridge opponents tied the project up in the courts, he said, construction would begin within two years. "A good number of the property owners (whose land the new road would cross) are saying, 'Let's be done with this chapter. Buy us out. Let us move,' " he said.

But that wasn't the word that bubbled up to the state capital. In mid-October, Abbo and county planner Chavez were called to Santa Fe to speak to Sen. Smith's Interim Land Use Committee. After listening to the two sides of the story, Smith called the Valencia County Citizens for Responsible Growth before the full legislative finance committee. The group chartered a bus that carried 50 people 85 miles north to the capital for the meeting, where the finance committee listened, then recommended a meeting with Gov. Gary Johnson, R, who oversees the highway department.

The governor was cordial but cagey, according to Garcia. "He didn't say he would stop the bridge or anything," said Garcia.

The Valencia County Citizens for Responsible Growth were hopeful, but state officials were noncommittal. Even pro-planning officials, such as commissioner Alicia Aguilar, were balking at the thought of losing millions of dollars in highway money.

Then, on the day before Thanksgiving, state Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn announced that he had killed the project. The $24 million would go to another road.

While it was the first time in his six-year stint as highway secretary that he had sunk a project still in the preliminary study stage, Rahn said it didn't signal a major change in the way the department does business. Many highway projects meet resistance from citizens, he said. The breaking point for the Tome bridge was the opposition from the county commission.

"With divided local support, realistically, there's no point in us going forward," he said.

People on all sides of the issue seemed stunned.

"I'm disappointed," said Bob Davey, who got the news at home, as his son was arriving from college for the holiday. "I think all of us who were supporters have to share the blame for not getting the message across about what this project was about. All of us are going to have to sit down and ask, 'What does this mean?' "

Davey also predicted the decision wouldn't stop Rio del Oro. "This is another speed bump," he said. "I've been at this for 20-some years, and I'll be at it for a while longer."

Ray Garcia was out in the yard when the call came. "I'm spending the day working with my sons on their motorcycles, when my mom calls my wife and says, 'The bridge is dead,' " said an elated Garcia. "You've got to hand it to the highway department: They put up with a lot of loud mouths and they came to the right conclusion."

Davey had helped build support for the bridge on the state level, but to push through a controversial project like this one, he'll need momentum on the ground. Garcia and his allies have the grassroots support; their challenge is to put the rules in place to make their victory stick.

Both acknowledged that they had their work cut out for them.

"I don't know that I have a Plan B," said Davey.

Garcia said there's talk of incorporating as a town, so that Tome can write its own development rules, and forming a land trust to protect farm land. There's a movement afoot to build a community center. Members of the old Tome land grant are also planning a lawsuit to win back the land grant, or at least the money to start buying it back piecemeal.

"This fight has brought the community back together," said Garcia, looking out his office window at the pasture surrounding his house, the old cottonwood trees, and Los Lunas Hill across the Rio Grande. "We still have a lot of battles ahead of us, to protect our community and our culture. But as long as my brother and my sons want to raise their cattle and live here, we'll fight. I think this fight is forever."

Greg Hanscom is an associate editor at High Country News.

J.T. Thomas is a photographer and writer based in Paonia, Colorado. He is working on a documentary of Argentina's Rio Trocoman.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- 'Start letting mom pack that trunk'

- 'It's a clash of visions'

- 'The bridge is only part of the puzzle'

- 'No one is at the steering wheel'

This story was funded in part by the New Mexico Community Foundation.

You can contact ...

  • The New Mexico State Highway & Transportation Department, 505/827-5100;
  • The Historic Tome Adelino Neighborhood Association, P.O. Box 696, Tome, NM 87060;
  • 1,000 Friends of New Mexico, 505/848-8232;
  • Coalition for a Livable Future, 505/848-8232.
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