Villagers rebel against sprawl

Farmers and environmentalists team up along the Rio Grande

  • IN THE WAY OF PROGRESS: Wheat fields on the Jarratts' dairy farm, along the Rio Grande floodplain, that the village of Los Lunas hopes to condemn for the expansion of a wastewater treatment plant

    Janet Jarratt

LOS LUNAS, N.M. — In January 2001, 80-year-old Raymond Jarratt and his wife, Fenella, opened a letter from the Village of Los Lunas, informing them that the town would soon survey, appraise and buy 18 acres of their dairy farm. The village needed their land, the letter stated, so it could expand its wastewater treatment plant to comply with new regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Raymond Jarratt responded by asking village officials what the new EPA rules were, and what other locations were being considered. But, he says, his questions have never been answered.

Village administrator Phillip Jaramillo simply reiterates that the Jarratts’ farmland is needed. In recent decades, this once-rural village has transformed into a growing bedroom community for Albuquerque. Between 1970 and 2000, the population here increased more than tenfold, from 973 to 10,034. To make room for roads and services for this growing population, says Jaramillo, Los Lunas occasionally needs to buy private property.

“In most cases, when we send an offer, people take it,” says Jaramillo, who has overseen the village government for 16 years. “It’s not something you pick and choose, and say, ‘We are going to pick on this poor little farmer.’ Our decision was made for what is best for 10,000 people.”

But critics claim this decision was made for the good of one man, Louis Huning, who has been mayor of Los Lunas since 1982, and is also the village’s largest developer. The controversy has energized a diverse alliance of residents — one that’s been effective in blocking sprawl before.

A gritty grassroots activist

This isn’t the first time the Jarratts have faced the possibility of losing their farmland to development. Between 1998 and 2000, the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department considered blading a road across the farm to build a four-lane bridge over the Rio Grande. The bridge would have connected I-25 to land where a developer is eager to build subdivisions. But it was shot down after a drawn-out fight from local residents (HCN, 12/4/2000: Road Block).

One of the main movers in that early fight was the Jarratts’ daughter, Janet, a staunch Republican with unending energy for research. Janet Jarratt, like her parents and two children, relies solely on the dairy for her income. But in her spare time, she also serves as president of Valencia County Citizens for Responsible Growth. “If (city managers) had some imagination,” she says, “the city could grow and still keep the character that makes us all want to live here in the first place.”

Jarratt enlisted the help of a wetlands scientist to develop her own alternative to the village’s wastewater treatment plant. The plan would expand treatment facilities on 30 acres of fallow state land visible from the Jarratts’ farm, where man-made wetlands would serve as a part of the filtering system. Jarratt says the plan would not only take care of the village’s wastewater — it would attract birds and bird-watchers, who would bring money to the community.

Her proposal was supported by the New Mexico state Legislature in 2002, which voted unanimously to offer the property to Los Lunas for a lease of $1 per year. Jarratt also gathered letters of support from groups ranging from the Sierra Club to the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.

In response, Los Lunas made a brief investigation of the state lands alternative, but quickly — without any formal gathering of public opinion — ruled it out, continuing with plans to condemn the Jarratts’ property.

A developer’s dream

On behalf of the Jarratts, a coalition of farm and environmental groups has taken to the courts. The coalition sued to halt the village’s plans on the grounds that the wastewater treatment plant expansion would be a public nuisance. The suit also charges that the plan would violate the Endangered Species Act by polluting the Rio Grande; a federal restoration project for the endangered silvery minnow is one mile downstream from where Los Lunas plans to eventually quadruple the amount of effluent pumped into the river.

But the village is moving forward, with a developer at the helm. Mayor Huning is behind a string of recent subdivisions and big-box stores strung along the Interstate 25 exit. He also owns rangeland near the interstate, where he envisions a subdivision, built around a new golf course, that would nearly double the population of Los Lunas. Dubbed “Huning Ranch,” the land was recently annexed by the village. The state has built a new road, which now dead-ends at the property. But before the mayor can build the subdivision, Los Lunas will need a larger wastewater treatment plant.

Huning refused to comment on the subject, but village administrator Jaramillo says that existing subdivisions and “normal, everyday growth” — not the mayor’s dreams — are driving the new wastewater plant. “Huning Ranch is there waiting,” he says, “but it is not one of the pressing needs for expanding the treatment plant.”

But Los Lunas has a long fight ahead if it thinks it’s going to condemn the Jarratts’ farm, according to Deb Hibbard, Middle Rio Grande Project Coordinator for river advocacy group Rio Grande Restoration: “Here, along the Middle Rio Grande, two groups traditionally pitted against each other — farmers and environmentalists — are beginning to recognize more common ground,” she says, “and it sends chills down the spines of developers.”

The author writes from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

You can contact ...

      Valencia County Citizens for Responsible Growth, P.O. Box 368, Los Lunas, NM 87031;
      New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, 505/532-4700;
      Rio Grande Restoration, 505/266-3609,;
      - Village of Los Lunas, P.O. Box 1209, Los Lunas, NM 87031, 505/865-9689.
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