Wetland habitat threatened by new housing growth in Albuquerque

Where the Rio Grande makes an arcuate curve in the middle of Albuquerque, New Mexico, lies a rare stretch of wetland known as the San Antonio Oxbow. This 40-hectare area is maintained by the city’s Open Space Division as a nature reserve and, according to a 2012 study by the Army Corps of Engineers, contains “the last remnants of the swampy habitat of the central Rio Grande”.

Photo credit: Bob Eggers, CondensedLight.com

The Oxbow was originally stabilized and maintained in the 1970s through the efforts of Attorney Rufus G. Poole who owned the land that borders and extends into this wetland.

The panoramic view of open marshland from here – with the Rio Grande behind it and the Sandia Mountains in the distance – has attracted a lot of residential development to this part of the city over the years. Today the tiered mesas on the west side of the river are teeming with houses.

And more are in the works. A site plan currently in the city’s approval process would place 76 single-family homes on the 23-acre Poole property. The 6,000 square foot main house at 5001 Namaste Road, designed by the architect George Pearl after whom the University of New Mexico School of Architecture building is named, would be demolished along with 5,000 square feet of additional structures.

Photo credit: Bob Eggers, CondensedLight.com

A group of resisting neighbors and experts say demolition and construction on the property would undo a $ 25 million wetland restoration project completed by the Army Corps of Engineers here in 2012 lead to permanent destruction of the Oxbow.

The site plan for the 76 house “Overlook at Oxbow” was proposed by Consensus Planning, Gamma Development and Abrazo Homes in early 2018. In a statement to KRQE News, Consensus Planning described this as “a plan for sustainable neighborhood development … that includes open spaces and neighborhood-conforming residential areas”. According to the developers, “the proposed project is permitted under the current zoning”. The Development Review Board (DRB) approved a deviation request for the project on December 5th.

In an appeal filed on December 20 by the opposition group’s lawyer, however, it is pointed out that the DRB has repeatedly violated the requirements of the city’s Integrated Development Ordinance, which came into force in May 2018 and contains new regulations for land use, zoning and planning. The city has not yet set a date for her appeal to be heard, according to Susan Chaudoir, PhD, lead organizer of the neighborhood group.

Photo credit: Bob Eggers, CondensedLight.com

The Environmental Planning Commission is expected to review the proposed site plan at its February 14 meeting. Documents submitted to the EPC state that the plan requires federal environmental impacts and archaeological reviews, as well as approval from the EPA, and that until these requirements are met, the city has no legal right to give the developer permission to fill the pool and pave floodplains “Or to divert the groundwater.

Citing the Army Corps of Engineers, these documents state that the proposed plan for diverting water from the property would be contrary to federal laws regarding disrupting surface water flow into the Rio Grande on the edge of the Oxbow wetland. The Poole property includes features developed in the 1970s by the Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Protection Agency in Albuquerque to naturally filter surface water entering the wetland and river.

Wandering cranes migrate on the edge of the wetland below the Poole property, which is directly across from the Rio Grande Nature Center. The endangered southwestern willow flycatcher nests here. The entire area has been designated as a “critical habitat” for the endangered silver minnow of the Rio Grande. The Central New Mexico Audubon Society has proposed that the Poole property be used for conservation purposes. A CNMAS member produced this video through the website highlighting some of the wildlife that is dependent on it.

Photo credit: Bob Eggers, CondensedLight.com

Rufus Poole was Assistant Secretary of the Home Office when he and his wife, Suzanne Hanson Poole, moved to New Mexico in 1957. Poole helped the Taos Pueblo regain tribal ownership of the sacred Blue Lake and won the very first case in which the land was returned to Native American control. In gratitude, the Taos made Pueblo Poole an honorary member, and half of his remains rest there.

The Pooles co-founded the Santa Fe Opera and founding donors to many other arts and education organizations in New Mexico. Suzanne Hanson Poole was “a tireless philanthropist,” says Chaudoir. Working with The Nature Conservancy and WildEarth Guardians, she also helped conserve several sections of the Rio Grande. (How did an environmentalists own property in the end so unprotected? A new will signed a few days before her death from cancer in 2012 is believed to have replaced her earlier desire to share the property as a public facility. Chaudoir and others describe the circumstances as mysterious at best.)

Photo credit: Bob Eggers, CondensedLight.com

By March 2013, Daniels Family Properties LLC had acquired the 23-acre homestead for around $ 2.5 million. Suzanne Poole’s property was settled in 2017. At that time, Daniels commissioned Consensus Planning, Gamma Development and Abrazo Homes with the creation of the current site plan.

When neighbors inquired about buying the property last year, Abrazo gave them a price of $ 12.1 million, Chaudoir says. As of January 18, Zillow reports an impending sale of 22.74 acres of “empty land” on site (to one of the developers, according to the neighborhood group) for $ 4 million ($ 175,900 per acre). The neighbors fear that the demolition phase could begin any day.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and New Mexico State Senator Jacob Candelaria have both announced their intention to keep the property open. At a recent City Hall meeting, Senator Candelaria said he was ready to “provide legislative capital to purchase some or all of them [the] Property.”

Chaudoir says this could be a good opportunity for a conservation investor.

Photo credit: Bob Eggers, CondensedLight.com

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