Los Ranchos election is showdown on village's future

Oct. 29—A furor stirred up by residents' distress over high-density development projects in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque appears headed to a showdown at the ballot box.

For nearly a year and a half the controversy over construction projects in the Fourth Street and Osuna Road area has rocked the village, which was incorporated in 1958 for the purpose of retaining a rural and agricultural lifestyle.

There have been testy village meetings laced with anguished and agitated public comment. Charges of public business conducted behind closed doors have been levied against the mayor, board of trustees and village officials.

There have been complaints, appeals and lawsuits. Sign-carrying protesters converged on the groundbreaking ceremony for one of the controversial projects, demonstrating vividly that some residents feel betrayed by a village administration that supports projects they feel are poised to erode a lifestyle they cherish.

But nothing has been resolved and very little rolled back. Three of the four projects that touched off the conflict are either being built or are slated for construction.

So, it comes down to an election already underway with early voting. On the line are not only the position of mayor and two of the four board of trustee seats, but the character of the village in years to come. More development or more open space?

"The election means the direction the village is going to take over the long haul," said Robert Chavez, 73, a lifelong village resident and one of the organizers of Keep Los Ranchos Rural.

"The direction could be a slowdown of all the existing projects that are slated for the village so we can get more resident input and see what the villagers want to see done. Or it could mean a continuation of projects on the slate. And there are a lot of them."

Los Ranchos has a population of 6,000. Its boundaries go roughly from north of Ortega to south of Montaño and from Rio Grande on the west to beyond Fourth on the east. Chavez said the village's residents are engaged in this election.

"There are a lot of people helping the campaigns of the candidate they have picked," he said. "A lot of money is being spent."

Who's running?

Three of four candidates for mayor are part of the village administration that has been taking heat because of development projects underway or approved for construction. These are incumbent mayor Donald T. Lopez and village trustees Gilbert Benavides and George Radnovich.

The fourth candidate is Joe Craig, president of the Friends of Los Ranchos and one of the most vocal critics of the current administration.

Friends of Los Ranchos has filed lawsuits against the village, charging violations of the open-meetings act and unwarranted condemnation of village property in order to sell it to a developer for a few dollars. One of the suits is still pending.

Benavides and Radnovich's trustee seats are not at stake in this election, so they can retain their trustee positions if they fail in their bid for mayor.

The two trustee positions up for election belong to Sandra Pacheco and, until recently, Allen Lewis. Neither is in the race. Sandra Pacheco chose not to seek reelection and Allen Lewis resigned his seat.

Candidates for the two trustee positions are Jennifer Kueffer, who owns an insurance brokerage business, Frank Reinow, a consultant for business and government organizations who has served on the faculties of the University of New Mexico and New Mexico Tech, and Shelleen Smith, who works in public and government relations and is a member of the Los Ranchos Planning and Zoning Commission.

Reinow, who has lived in Los Ranchos for 34 years, and Kueffer, who grew up in the Matthew Meadows area and attended Valley High School, are running on a "keep Los Ranchos rural" platform. Smith, who moved to New Mexico from Wyoming and has lived in Los Ranchos for three years, says she likes agriculture, is a consensus builder and favors tackling problems head-on.

Changes on the horizon

Whoever is elected to the mayor and trustee positions, will be charged with dealing with the aftermath of issues that surfaced during the summer of 2022 when villagers realized several high-density construction projects were in the works at or in the vicinity of Fourth and Osuna.

The projects were —

The Palindrome development on the southeast corner of Fourth and Osuna, which is projected to feature a three-story, 204-unit affordable housing complex; a three-story hotel; a specialty grocery store and up to 60 houses.Nijmegen Plaza Development, a 12-unit residential project at Fourth and Willow, just south of the Palindrome project.Sandia View Development, apartment units on Sandia View, just west of Fourth Street and the Palindrome project.Chavez-Guadalupe Trail Cluster Development, 21 homes on 9.26 acres at the southwest corner of Chavez and Guadalupe Trail.

Mayor Lopez has defended the developments, saying they will bring in new, younger residents who will boost the village's economy.

Resident complaints, however, resulted in a moratorium on higher density developments in C-1 (retail commercial) zones, which ended plans for the Sandia View Development.

But construction of Palindrome's affordable housing units is well underway and a constant reminder that change is coming to Los Ranchos.

Ground has not been broken on the Nijmegen Plaza Development or the Chavez-Guadalupe Trail Cluster project, but that's coming, too. Trustees did reject the 21-house proposal for the latter, and plans now call for 16 homes.

Forum voices

The League of Women Voters hosted separate forums for mayoral and trustee candidates at the village offices earlier this month.

During the mayoral forum, Benavides, a Los Ranchos resident for 38 years and an engineer who worked for Sandia National Laboratories, said he did not need a master plan to know that traffic is a problem in the village. He said he would work to improve Fourth Street all the way to Ortega. "I want to make the village a fun place with music and art," he said.

Regarding affordable housing, Benavides said it was not the village's job to provide that for Albuquerque, but he would like to see young people in Los Ranchos and feels there may be room to build smaller affordable-housing apartments.

Craig, a consultant, said he has a history of advocating for open space and led the drive to acquire the land that is now the village's Agri-Nature Center, whose purpose is the preservation of the village's agricultural heritage and agricultural education.

Craig said he supports a code of ethics for the village and term limits for elected officials. He favors businesses over building more housing.

"We need to preserve and keep open space," he said. "We need to talk and listen to our people. We are not paying attention to our businesses. We have to promote our businesses."

Lopez, a long-time village resident and an engineer by trade, has been Los Ranchos mayor since 2018 and prior to that was elected a village trustee seven times. He pointed to his experience. "I saw the Montaño Bridge fight," he said.

And despite his backing of the projects in the Fourth and Osuna area, Lopez expressed support for open space and the preservation of the village's agricultural legacy.

"We need an emphasis on agriculture to maintain our agricultural lifestyle for future generations," he said, noting the role played by the Agri-Nature Center.

Lopez said he was proud of the village's September acquisition of 23 acres of land and a historic home that had belonged to acclaimed balloonist Maxie L. Anderson and his wife. Plans call for that property to be preserved as open space.

Radnovich, a village resident since 1998, is a landscape architect. He served on the Los Ranchos Planning and Zoning Commission and was elected village trustee in 2021. He addressed and denied charges that he is an agent for the developers of the Palindrome project.

"It's been very difficult the past few years being accused of working with Palindrome against village values," he said. "I don't think I did anything unethical. I did work on the Palindrome project. I did the landscape architecture. I'm not a developer."

He said he wanted to get the village moving in a positive direction again.

"The village needs a lot of healing," he said. ""I'm a good listener, and I'm also a visionary. We are at a crossroads in who we want to be. We need a comprehensive plan for growth — or no growth."