By Kathleen Sloan
There were two Truth or Consequences city meetings this week that were off-center, but related to the Hot Springs Land Development’s plan to build a travel center at Interstate 25’s Exit 83.
The first was the Planning & Zoning Commission meeting on Tuesday, April 3. The agenda said it was an action item, but the commission changed it to “presentation.”
HSLD CEO Greg Neal gave the presentation.
At the beginning of the presentation, a commissioner asked City Manager Juan Fuentes if the airport runway had in fact been shortened 1,400 feet. This is Runway 11-29, a dirt runway that is about 5,000 feet long. Without this runway being shortened, the travel center would be within a protected airport zone, making the project dead on arrival because of height and population restrictions.
Fuentes answered, “Yes. Direction was given to make application to the FAA. The city commission has given staff permission to submit necessary documents. The paperwork has been prepared by engineers, and it is coming when the lease is approved.”
It therefore appears that once again, the city has skipped several due process steps that would sound the public’s desires before changing land use.
The shortening of the runway should have gone to public hearing. The acceptance of a $550,000 grant from FAA to pave a taxiway at the airport should have gone to public hearing. Whether the people want to lease about 20 acres of city land to make HSLD’s travel center possible should go to public hearing.
Instead, secondary-after-the-fact issues will be heard and perhaps passed as ordinances. This is similar to the city’s handling of the solid waste collection center. That project was never passed as an ordinance. The bond issue to finance the project was passed as an ordinance. Whether the people want a solid waste collection center and whether they want it located on Michigan Avenue is decided for them. And what they will pay in monthly bills to build and run that facility is still shrouded in mystery, but they will pay the dictated price.
The people will have a hearing on the capital improvements plan to the airport. It was presented at the last Airport Advisory Board meeting, held Wednesday, March 22. That meeting was a special meeting that was supposedly physically posted at various places, but the media was not notified and no press or public attended.
That same airport capital improvements plan was presented to the city commission at their last meeting, held Tuesday, March 22. The city commission agreed to have a public hearing on it, but have not set a date yet.
But this secondary, ancillary issue has mostly been decided already. The people don’t get to decide where the FAA funding goes. It has already been decided that the $550,000 grant will go to paving a taxiway. The city commission passed that measure about two months ago. There may be a possibility of getting New Mexico Department of Transportation Airport Division grant money, which is a 50/50 match. Repairing and/or replacing three fuel tanks is on the capital improvements plan for 2012. The estimate for two tanks is $250,000.
At the March 22 Airport Advisory Board meeting, a new overlay zone for the airport was also presented. WH Pacific’s Mark Huntzinger spoke. That firm has been the city’s on-call engineer for airport needs for many years.
This new overlay zone is a secondary, but necessary step to make the HSLD travel center successful. Not just HSLD, but any development on the north end of town in the future will be unhampered by this new overlay zone. It does away with population restrictions and loosens height restrictions.
At the Airport Advisory Board meeting on Wednesday, April 3, Huntzinger did not give his overlay zone presentation again; however the ordinance he drafted based on the March 22 presentation, was up for discussion. The board asked no questions.
Planning & Zoning Commissioner Joey Perry was invited to the meeting, since she drafted the overlay zone that was adopted in 2007. Perry did the work for free for the city. She was an airport planner for San Diego. She noted that this new version “is very complex,” and similar to those written “for big airports with very developed areas.”
Perry said this ordinance would “make it difficult for developers to know what’s going on,” and therefore, by extension, would be confusing to the public.
This ordinance, however, will now go to the Planning & Zoning Commission for public hearing and then on to the city commission.
But if the HSLD travel center lease and the shortening of the runway do not go to public hearing, limiting public input to the complexities of an overlay zone will quell comment on those land use issues.
HSLD CEO Greg Neal said he would hold a public hearing on his travel center. It is unknown if this will be under city auspices, making public comment part of the public record. If Neal holds a public hearing, it will have little legal weight.
The central and larger issues involving the airport and the travel center were expressed by Planning & Zoning Commissioner January Roberts and resident Hans Townsend, who owns the Desert View Inn.
Roberts questioned if the FAA would not shut down Runway 11-29 because of lights at the travel center, just south of the runway. She also asked, “What will this do to downtown?”
Townsend said he operated a Holiday Inn in Tucumcari in the 1990s. “They had a population of 15,000, and now there are 5,000,” he said. The town had a travel center at one highway exit and his hotel with restaurant at another exit. “Nobody went to town,” he said.
Townsend also noted that the Spaceport Welcome Center will likely be placed at Interstate 25’s Exit 79, further driving development north, allowing the downtown to be circumvented.
Although Planning & Zoning Commissioner Lee Forestner and Billy Howell as well as HSLD CEO Greg Neal all said the travel center would not compete with those who go to the hot springs, Townsend challenged that assumption.
“Show me an example where downtowns haven’t been affected” by developments at the farther reaches of city limits, said Townsend. “It’s happened everywhere.”
City Manager Juan Fuentes, in a phone call Thursday, April 5, confirmed that only the airport overlay zone will be passed by ordinance. An ordinance requires two-week publication, made available at the City Clerk’s Office. Then a public hearing is scheduled, usually during a regular city commission meeting.
Fuentes said public comment will be allowed when items come up on the agenda. The shortening of the runway, the repair of the fuel tanks will be such agenda items, said Fuentes. Asked if the airport capital improvements projects with be passed by ordinance or will allow public comment, Fuentes said, “I’m not sure.”