Big themes shaping the U.S-Mexico border are in the news — immigration, NAFTA, the border wall, and the so-called drug war. Largely flying under the radar are the day-to-day concerns facing millions of borderlanders from two nations in places like Sunland Park.
Where are the good-paying jobs? Is the community water supply affordable and safe to drink? What about flood control, traffic, roads and neighborhood security? Are the schools good? Will a pack of stray dogs maul our playing children? Do local governments give a hoot about us?
Wrestling with seemingly local issues, last week’s session of the Sunland Park City Council provided a broader portrait of a border society in transition and some of the early 21st Century choices communities must make in a context of tight-fisted state spending, federal funding policies, capital investment priorities, real estate market forces, lifestyle trends, and shifting regional and global environments.
Crammed into the small city council chambers and spilling into the hallway, dozens of concerned local residents turned out for the Nov. 7 meeting to hear about and debate ambitious economic development projects, flood mitigation, animal control, housing subdivisions and more.
Falling on the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, according to the Gregorian calendar, what proved to be a marathon meeting did not culminate in the storming of the local Winter Palace. Nonetheless, it was certainly one for the historic books in terms of public engagement, impassioned commentaries, legal pot shots and running out the clock.
“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” Andres Peña told city councilors of achieving his dream of buying his own home. “It’s my own little tranquility out there.”
Santa Teresa area resident and Sunland Park property owner Orlando Cervantes assessed the progress of the New Mexico border city of more than 16,500 people since the so-called Sunland Park scandals of 2011-12.
“There have been some good things happening but there are still things that need to be done,” Cervantes said, adding that hiring a new city manager, securing strong leadership and reviewing the controversial Santa del Sol housing development are “paramount” needs.
In August, the Sunland Park City Council voted 4-1 to fire City Manager Bob Gallagher; his job is currently filled by acting City Manager Julian Ruybalid while the hiring process for a permanent city manager moves forward.
Five of Sunland Park’s city councilors were present for last week’s session — Olga Nuñez, Carolina Renteria, Donald McBride, Ken Giove and Francisco Jayme. Daniel de los Santos did not attend.
Mayor Javier Perea moderated the evening’s packed agenda, getting the ball rolling by having each of the councilors affirm he or she didn’t have a conflict of interest with any item on the agenda. Befitting a bilingual community, translation devices were available for monolingual Spanish or English speakers.
Riverwalks, roads and recognitions
In a plan reminiscent of former Sunland Park Mayor Ruben Nuñez’s San Antonio Riverwalk-like development strategy, city contractors Wilson and Company unveiled what’s called the Sunland Park Drive Project: Gateway to the Entertainment Business District.
The plan involves expanding Sunland Park Drive, a primary road connecting with neighboring El Paso, Texas, to Anapra Road near the Mexican border. The idea is to move light industrial activity to an international border zone, open a crossing with Mexico, expand parks, schools, recreation trails, ensure wheel chair accessibility, and situate an envisioned entertainment district at Racetrack Drive near the Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino.
Presented by Wilson and Company’s Mario Infante, the overview of a future Sunland Park drew questions from city councilors about costs, time lines and amenities. If Sunland Park applies for and receives a preliminary federal grant for 2017-2018, construction could be underway by mid-2019, Infante projected. The total price tag? An estimated $11-14 million, with 85 percent federal funding and 15 percent local matching, he said.
Sunland Park Community Development Director Hector Rangel said the development goal is to create a community where people can walk to services, dining and entertainment.
Part of the city council meeting was devoted to viewing a video depicting how an innovative road construction technique called “lithification” was recently employed on Santa Teresita Road, transforming dirt into pavement, cutting the work schedule down from five weeks to three and costing $600,000 instead of an original estimate of $1.7 million, according to both Mayor Perea and Rangel.
Prior to the recent paving, crews attempted to repair the road for the past two years but it “kept falling apart,” Rangel elaborated, blaming the setbacks on a difficult soil composition and a high saline water table.
“Why aren’t Santa Teresita residents here?” questioned Councilor Renteria, saying she knew some residents who were content with the road project’s outcome but still wished to hear their opinions vented because of the previous bad road conditions they encountered.
In a meeting that lingered into the night (the reporter had to leave while the session continued at 10 p.m. after more than three hours), other items that were addressed included flood mitigation in the low-lying Anapra neighborhood, recognition of the finance department for winning a best practice award, and the approval of a $100,000 legal services contract to Holt Mynatt Martinez P.C., a Las Cruces-based firm which currently represents the city of Sunland Park in litigation.
Councilor McBride asked why Holt and partners were the solo applicants for the contract. Sunland Park Purchasing Agent Martin Grajeda responded that others had indeed expressed preliminary interest but did not follow up with bids. Grajeda promised he would send a complete list of the interested but non-acting bidders to all the city council members.
The Battle of Valencia Hills
By far, the biggest display of political fireworks erupted over a proposed ordinance rezoning the Valencia Hills area from single-family residential to multi-family residential, a change that would allow a new 200-unit apartment complex.
Consuming a good part of the meeting, the proposal drew public comments from 16 speakers, with 14 of them adamantly opposed to a zoning change.
The critics represented newer homeowners, many previously from El Paso, who voiced deep concerns about possible crime and vandalism, traffic troubles, lower property values, and dangers to their children. They contended homeowners had not been properly notified of the proposed zoning ordinance change. Decrying the “anxiety among us,” one man slammed the city government for relying on Facebook to publicize meetings and urged a better method of communications.
Valencia Hills residents asserted a big apartment complex would disrupt an existing, close-knit community of family homeowners and threaten their New Mexico dream, as one speaker put it.
“We never received that (notification) letter they sent out last time,” said Janet Sanchez, who described herself as a first-time home owner. “We don’t know who’s going to live (in the apartments). We don’t know who’s going to come in and out… everybody disagrees with these rearrangements. I’m sure nobody would want apartments put in next to them.”
Added Carmen Zamarron, “Our main concern is our home value, our security. We bought our house to live comfortable, to have good neighbors, which we do now.”
Bemoaning the “insane” traffic of El Paso, Lisa Adame painted a picture of her piece of paradise in New Mexico: “It’s a small community. We all say hi to everyone…We want to maintain the beauty in that community.”
Introducing himself as the president of the Villa Valencia Homeowners Association, Raul Telles countered that Valencia Hills critics exhibited nimbyism, and studies dispelled the strident criticisms flung of apartment-driven lower property values. Tellez offered an intriguing explanation for accounts of delinquent behavior in existing local apartment complexes.
“A lot of the crimes that have been happening in Villa Valencia are, unfortunately, self-inflicted gunshot wounds,” he said.
Addressing the city council for the second time in the evening, Orlando Cervantes drew applause when he cautioned against flippant rezoning and warned against government intervention in the real estate market, arguing that it wasn’t the function of government to increase or depreciate land values. “That’s for the market to dictate,” he said.
Among the prominent southern New Mexico chile pepper growers and processors who rode the crest during the great boom of the 1980s and 1990s, Cervantes is the father of state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, who is vying for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in next year’s election.
Seated attentively, the developer of the controversial, planned Valencia Hills apartment complex, Russell Hanson, answered questions from city councilors. Geared exclusively for affluent residents, the HUD loan guaranteed apartments would cost more than $20 million to build, the El Paso-based developer estimated, and take into account traffic studies. Suiting an upscale style, the complex will feature a fitness center and a swimming pool, Hanson added.
“We believe there is a market need for this project,” he said. “We would not be spending $20-25 million if it wasn’t a go.” Further, his company was invited to build at the location in question by a Sunland Park city official, Hanson said, a remark which later prompted a jab by Cervantes that such a project origin was improper “if not illegal.”
Hanson contradicted a statement by Rangel that the land at stake had been originally zoned for multi-family and then switched to single residential by the same developer who is now favoring a reversion back to multi-family. “I don’t recall that taking place,” a visibly surprised Hanson replied.
Rangel quickly apologized, explaining that he had “assumed” Hanson was the same owner during the first multi-family zoning designation — when in fact he wasn’t.
Rangel made additional comments that favored Hanson’s case. He said a real estate sign had been up for years at the site in contention, and zeroed in on New Mexico state legal technicalities which the city official insisted do not require that all the people potentially impacted by a zoning change receive notification, only those living within 100 feet of an affected area (excluding roadways) and selected at random.
In compliance with the City of Sunland Park’s legal duty, Rangel told councilors he had delivered them packets containing 35 certified letters sent to residents of the targeted zone.
A representative of Holt, Mynatt Martinez then informed city councilors that they could vote yes on rezoning, considering that it appeared all the legal notification requirements were met. He cautioned that an abstention could be counted as a “no” vote.
Councilor Nuñez asked Hanson what a negative vote would signify for the apartment project.
“It would be dead,” he intoned.
Tension rose in the council chambers as the discussion tapered off and headed for a vote. Judging by the looks on city councilors’ faces, the decision facing them was a tough one. At the end of the roll call, Councilors Giove, Nuñez and McBride voted in favor of the ordinance, Jayme against it and Renteria abstained. With no majority of the six councilors, one vote short due to Daniel De los Santos’ absence, the proposed rezoning ordinance failed. Looking disgusted, Hanson threw up his hands and stalked out of the room. Critics breathed a sigh of relief.
But the Valencia Hills residents’ victory could be short-lived.
“(Rezoning) will come back,” Councilor Giove predicted later in the week. “I think the developer did the right things. It was the second or third meeting on this. He stated that he would put in high-end apartments… and I’m good with that.”
For his part, Hanson was subsequently unavailable for comment. Looking back at the city council session, which he said didn’t finish until 11:30 pm, Giove voiced frustration at the meeting process, the pace of progress in reforming city government and problems in overhauling aging infrastructure.
“We have too much on our plate. We’re trying to recover from 15 years of neglect,” Giove said.
The first-term councilman, who is still considering whether to run for reelection in 2018, contended that numerous deficiencies, obstacles and challenges confront the municipal administration, including the desirability of renegotiating garbage disposal and utility contracts; new management changes in the long-running campaign to secure a local border crossing with Mexico; lack of professional expertise in some key positions; insufficient state government financial assistance; competition over the tight municipal budget; and a need for independent oversight.
On the other hand, Giove had positive words for regular educational workshops attended by city council members on planning, zoning and other issues. “We should be having a hell of lot more if we’re going to get these things,” he said. “That requires organization and staff that are competent.”
An unsung town hero is recognized
Councilors at the Nov. 7 meeting also spent considerable time discussing animal control in Sunland Park and the city’s inadequate facility to house captured creatures. They approved a $30,000 allocation to improve the animal control program after hearing about the expense in time and money driving animals to the bigger Doña Ana County facility in Las Cruces.
The proposed budget item sparked a larger conversation. Though in support of the requested funding, Rangel warned councilors “this is a Band Aid solution” to a problem that demands a long-term cure — like an ordinance mandating dog licensing, microchips and vaccinations. In response to a question from Councilor Jayme, Rangel said it would take about six months to have such an ordinance before city councilors.
Councilor Nuñez steered the conversation to the working conditions of the city’s dog-catcher, Mr. Chaparro. “I commend him,” she declared, adding she was worried about his health and safety. “Does he have a shower?” Nuñez asked. Provoking chuckles, Rangel agreed that Mr. Chaparro needs shower access, recalling a time when the animal control officer was sprayed by a skunk and physically exuded evidence of the encounter for three days.
Dressed in work garb, Mr. Chaparro graciously accepted the compliments, but stressing he could not do his job completely alone, he thanked the fire department and other city staff for pitching in. “We’re a team,” he said.
Ironically, after this reporter left the meeting and was driving outside the racetrack and casino, a naughty little Chihuahua was running loose along the road, perhaps taking advantage of the absence of city officials still immersed in their long meeting to make mischief.
Kent Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region.