Developer seeks to resurrect large housing project amid tighter water supply

·7 min read

Sep. 28—Campbell Farming Corp. wants to revise a two-decade-old master plan to allow for piecemeal development of its 8,000 acres in the Edgewood area, and it hopes to tap a different water source than the two basins where new commercial wells have been banned.

The proposed Campbell Ranch development, with two golf courses in the initial plans, has long been contentious, drawing fierce opposition from nearby communities whose residents say a project of this scale would strain the eastern Sandia Mountains' limited water supply, escalate traffic and cause crowding that would ruin the area's bucolic serenity.

Critics' main concern is the plan, first crafted at the beginning of what's become a 20-year drought, calls for eventually building 4,000 homes in an area that, similar to the rest of New Mexico, faces diminishing water resources amid a warmer, drier climate.

"They want to put too much in there," said Mark Emery, president of the Sandia Knowles Neighborhood Association. "There's not enough water to do what they want to do."

A key change to the plan calls for Campbell to carve out parcels larger than 50 acres and sell them to developers without having to make infrastructure improvements first, said Tim Dvorak, Edgewood's interim planning and zoning administrator.

A developer who buys a parcel would have to meet all of the town's codes for subdivisions, such as traffic, drainage, water availability and waste disposal, Dvorak added.

The town's Planning and Zoning Commission on Tuesday will discuss this and other proposed changes to the 2002 Campbell Ranch master plan for the mammoth development that would extend into Santa Fe, Bernalillo and Sandoval counties but mainly would fall under Edgewood's jurisdiction because the town has annexed most of the land.

Another significant change would remove one of the two proposed golf courses from the plan — and maybe the second one, too — as part of a new vision to create more green spaces, common areas, buffers and greater setbacks from the highway while conserving as much water as possible, said James Burns, Campbell's program manager.

More of the houses would be clustered to preserve native vegetation and allow for more trails in the watershed, Burns said.

"The changes in the master plan are understanding and taking into consideration the fact that this is a ... piece-by-piece project, making the development sort of a smaller footprint and longer term," Burns said. "This is not going to happen overnight."

Selling off smaller chunks would be more affordable for local developers and would make it easier to set prices and design standards for lots, he said.

It also would enable a variety of companies to bring their own styles and concepts, leading to a more diverse development, he said. Despite this incremental approach, Campbell still hopes to eventually see 4,000 homes at the site, although there's no timeline for the full build-out, Burns said.

In fact, it's uncertain when the initial goal of 150 to 180 homes will materialize.

In the larger plan, most lots will range from a half-acre to 1.5 acres, Burns said. Some lots will be considerably larger, and several hundred will be smaller, at a third of an acre.

Water supply uncertain

The modified master plan also signals the company has found a way to bypass a legal hurdle on supplying water to the development.

In 2018, a Bernalillo County judge denied Campbell's application to pump groundwater for the project from the nearby Sandia Basin, saying the proposal failed to consider climate change and was not in line with the state's water conservation efforts.

Campbell had sought to pull 350 acre-feet of water a year from the basin. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to submerge a football field in a foot of water.

In December, the Office of the State Engineer closed Sandia Basin and part of the Rio Grande Basin to new commercial wells. Sandia's aquifer showed water levels falling an average of 2 1/2 feet per year, a volume engineers deemed severe.

The ban on new wells reinforced the judge's decision and underscored area residents' concerns that regional groundwater was too depleted to support gigantic projects like Campbell Ranch.

Burns said Campbell has appealed the judge's ruling and noted the state engineer's decision to suspend new wells in the Sandia and Rio Grande basins might not stand indefinitely.

In the meantime, the company probably will turn to a local utility for water, Burns said, adding there are no written agreements yet with any providers.

Epcor Water and the Entranoso Water and Wastewater Association are the main suppliers in the area. Entranosa, the larger of the two, draws water from the Estancia Basin and pipes it more than 25 miles to its service area, where the water is placed in tanks to dispense to customers.

Entranosa CEO Jack Crider said the talks with Campbell so far have been about supplying a couple hundred homes with water, yet some people act as though the full build-out is around the corner.

"You should not blow it out of proportion here and think they're charging down the road with 4,000 homes," Crider said.

When asked how many homes the Entranosa system could supply, Crider didn't give a specific number but said it could handle a lot, as long as developers paid what they owed.

They must pay for pipelines, storage and pumps, and must prove they have the water rights for the quantity they're requested, Crider said. "Our policy requires the developers to pay their own way."

And after developers fund and install the improvements to deliver their water, they must transfer those upgrades to Entranosa.

Emery said he doubts the Estancia Basin could support anything close to 4,000 homes, as it's already under strain from the area's growth and the prolonged drought.

Anyone building a home must show there's enough water to support that dwelling for 75 years, an increasingly difficult task that seems impossible to do with thousands of homes, he said.

"Who knows what's going to happen with climate change," Emery said. "It's already much less water out here than we used to get. So the water tables aren't recharging. And people are moving out here daily, building new homes."

Deep pockets

Another community advocate questioned how Edgewood would handle that much growth and deliver vital services such as police, fire protection and emergency medical care.

"How can they provide these services in the future?" said Mark Moll, a board member for the San Pedro Creek Homeowners Association.

Moll said one of the project's phases would have a direct impact on where he lives. It would bring more people and traffic, and possibly lead to more stores to accommodate the larger population, he said.

His association doesn't object to reasonable development, but that is not what 4,000 half-acre lots are, he added. "It sucks huge amounts of water."

In her 2018 ruling against the project's water plan, the Bernalillo County judge said the volume of groundwater Campbell sought would infringe on others' water rights.

Burns noted the Campbell family bought the land in 1937 along with accompanying water rights. That makes Campbell the biggest landowner and water rights holder in the area, he said.

Emery argued, however, there's enough water for cattle on the ranch but not for thousands of households.

His neighborhood group is part of a coalition that has wrangled with the company in court for more than a decade on issues such as water. He estimates they have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees and expert witnesses, and have relied on fundraising efforts to cover the costs.

"We've been suing them for years and years," Emery said. "We keep winning, and they keep coming back. They have deep pockets."

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