Bridging her day job with volunteer work: or, being a professional planner on the local planning commission in Santa Fe, the City Different..........
by Angela Bordegaray
As a water planner for New Mexico, I have had the privilege to serve my hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico on the city’s planning commission for the past four years. At first, I appreciated the opportunity to think about land use and urban design issues again, after working in the water planning world for several years. It was not very long, however, that I found that my day job as a water planner and my volunteer work as a city planning commissioner sometimes converged.
My first subcommittee assignment as a new commissioner was… water! The City of Santa Fe was revising its extensive water conservation ordinances, and the Planning Commission was one of the review bodies it needed to clear on its way to city council.
As a member of the Water Subcommittee, I immersed myself in this effort and learned how the local water conservation ordinances are applied. This was a valuable perspective to gain, as a water planner at the state level. In New Mexico, water conservation efforts happen mainly on the local level, as land use decisions are made mainly by county and city zoning bodies. Santa Fe’s current Water Right Transfer Program requires land developers to bring valid water rights for projects in order to build. Water rights also can be banked, or marketed to developers. The city’s water conservation and drought management programs are extensive and comprehensive – arguably the best in the Southwest.
A few years back, the city had a very popular program that provided incentives to replace older and less water-efficient toilets, offering credits with proof of replacement. These “commode credits” were sought and bought by those who needed them to get building permits. The need to update the ordinances came about, in part, due to the success of the toilet retrofit program – it was so successful there were fewer and fewer water-hogging toilets to switch out! The city has achieved low per capita water production statistics that are among the lowest in New Mexico and the Southwest.
More recently, my water work came into play in my commissioner role, as a newly-appointed member of the Summary Committee which considers routine land use matters. While considering a proposal for a lot-split where there was an existing water well, we encountered interesting jurisdictional and policy issues.
The city requires connection to water and sewer prior to any new construction if located within 300 feet of existing water infrastructure. The practice has been to require hooking up to the water system and capping the well. However, in New Mexico the State Engineer is required to issue permits for domestic wells. Because of the potential negative long-term effect on aquifers (and impairment of senior water rights holders), there have been continued attempts to repeal this law. The City of Santa Fe, with its power to protect public health, safety, and welfare, (and its interest in protecting the aquifer) has the right to require that new construction within city limits connect to existing water and wastewater infrastructure, and has, in practice, done so for years.
In this particular lot-split case, the question for the Summary Subcommittee was whether in requiring new construction to connect to the city water system, the owner would have to cap the well. What about the existing house and guesthouse currently relying on the well? Would they too have to be connected to city water service in the event of new construction on the property?
Well permits are issued by the State Engineer. Requiring the property owner to abandon a well is debatably outside the city’s jurisdiction. However, the city has the power and responsibility to promote orderly development that uses its financial and natural resources efficiently; and thus, can require that new construction be hooked up to existing services. We just needed to know how far the city can go in protecting the resource. The subcommittee postponed this lot split case pending additional information regarding the city’s authority and practice regarding infrastructure.
These kinds of real-world policy issues make being on the planning commission an important and worthwhile endeavor. I have mostly grown up in Santa Fe, so being able to apply my professional training and practical planning experience while serving on my hometown planning commission is gratifying.
Angela Schackel Bordegaray landed in Santa Fe at age 10, after moving around with her military family. She attended the University of New Mexico for a B.A. in Political Science and Latin American Affairs and earned her Master of Science in Community and Regional Planning at the University of Texas at Austin. She has worked in redevelopment, historical preservation, and now, water planning. Santa Fe is still her home. She works for the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, Office of the State Engineer as the Senior Water Planner managing both the state and regional water planning programs.
Published in the February/March 2012 The Western Planner