Suburbia blasts through a national monument

With a road headed its way, a new development takes root on Albuquerque’s West side

  • Although the roads within the new Volcano Heights subdivision are already laid out and paved, construction of the homes is on hold until a city moratorium expires next spring

    Singlei Agnew
 

One hundred and fifty thousand years ago, the Rio Grande rift rubbed its hands together, creating enough heat to spawn the five volcanoes that dominate the tall west side of Albuquerque. When they erupted, those volcanoes spat out a black shelf of rock that American Indians later adopted as a medium for storytelling, etching thousands of petroglyphs upon the basalt boulders.

Below that rocky escarpment, the city’s sprawl spreads like an exotic weed. Since Albuquerque sprouted from its humble beginnings in the wet embrace of the Rio Grande, this escarpment has held new development at bay.

But now, the Volcano Heights subdivision is headed for the escarpment. When the 3,000-acre area was first platted for development in the 1960s, Albuquerque’s taxpayers still subsidized developments in prime locations. But the city was reluctant to pay for Volcano Heights, largely because of the high cost of running utilities through volcanic basalt, and because no roads connected the area to Albuquerque.

That is, until last year, when voters agreed to extend two roads that would give Volcano Heights residents a straight shot to Albuquerque. One of the roads, Paseo del Norte, would pass through Petroglyph National Monument, which protects more than 25,000 examples of ancient American Indian rock art (HCN, 4/13/98: A road to ruins?).

"With the market banging on the door, it’s inevitable that the land will be developed," says Michael Cadigan, a city councilor whose district includes the subdivision. He does worry, however, that the new development, like others at the city’s edges, will force residents to drive to jobs and shopping centers elsewhere, further jamming roadways.

Last October, at Cadigan’s urging, the city council imposed a six-month moratorium on home-building in Volcano Heights so the city could organize a planning team. In January, property owners and developers, advocacy groups, neighborhood associations and government officials met to talk about land use, development style and transportation.

The committee laid out three scenarios. One of them assumes the area will include many houses and few jobs; another has modest retail services, walking trails, and encourages some protection of open space and petroglyphs. The third option would include a "downtown" area, employ about 30,000 people, and designate about 30 percent of the development as open space.

Still uncomfortable with the plans, in April, the council extended the moratorium for one more year.

Dolph Barnhouse, executive director of 1000 Friends of New Mexico, which advocates responsible growth, applauds the city’s "cautious" approach, and is optimistic that Volcano Heights will set a new example for the city. "It took 50 years to get here," he says. "We won’t turn it around overnight, but we’re heading in the right direction." Still, he says, there are currently no requirements for residents or developers to actually follow any plans the city might make for smart growth.

When the moratorium expires next April, Cadigan hopes to enact mandatory ordinances: In the past, he says, ordinances have used words like "should." Now, he says, "we’ll use words like ‘shall’ and ‘must.’ " Another option is to encourage developers to build according to the plan by giving them incentives, such as reductions in newly enacted "impact fees," which the city charges to pay for public parks, trails, and water and sewer mains.

Meanwhile, the city is still embroiled in a lawsuit with environmental, social justice and preservation groups over Paseo del Norte. The groups argue Albuquerque has ignored the National Historic Preservation Act, which would require the city to explore alternatives to extending a road through the national monument.

Assistant City Attorney Greg Smith disagrees. "We believe Albuquerque has complied (with the Act)," he says. "Extending Paseo is the only prudent and feasible alternative for the city."

The author is a former HCN intern.

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

CONTACT:

Dolph Barnhouse, Executive Director, 1000 Friends of New Mexico: 505-379-4897

Michael Cadigan, Albuquerque City Councilor for District 5: 505-768-3100

High Country News Classifieds
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.