Possible acquisition of another conservation easement to save farmland is expected to be presented to the Village Council soon but probably not at its March 9 meeting. In an interview February 26, Village Administrator Ron Curry said the Village will have to move quickly to complete purchase of the easement under the timeline set by voters’ March 2018 approval of general obligation bond issuance. “We have almost $1.3 million in bonds for the conservation easement program, and those will expire in March 2022,” Curry explained. “But the process needs to begin this March as far as issuing the bonds because these things always take longer than people anticipate, expecially when they have to go through the N.M. Finance Authority.
“We’ve had a couple of meetings with the Farmland Preservation folks about this and we have another on March 1. What we don’t want to do is put the Village in a position where we lose that bond opportunity next March.” But Curry said March 1 that it was not clear that any of the options could be pursued at that point.
He said at least two property owners have expressed interest in the program in recent months. “We’re trying to work with the options that we have. “Our concern is that we want to issue the bonds for almost $1.3 million, but that will expire in March 2022.” Corrales voters approved $2.5 million in GO bonds to preserve farmland during the last municipal election; a little more than half remains after an easement was purchased on the Haslam farm in December 2020.
Hopes had been raised earlier this year that another easement was pending but that faded. And now, other options have apparently arisen. Minutes from the Farmland Preservation and Agricultural Commission’s January meeting indicated “An interested landowner has reopened conversations with Michael [Scisco, of Unique Places LLC who negotiates for the Village] regarding adding property to Village Conservation Easements.”
Corrales was the first municipality in New Mexico to start its own farmland preservation program to acquire real estate easements on private property to keep it in agriculture or as open space. Since the program began here in 2004, the Village has acquired such easements on more than 45 acres, although the very first easement was a completely private transaction when Jonathan Porter, son of famed photographer Elliot Porter, created it on six acres at the south end of the village in 2001 and donated it to the Taos Land Trust.
Back in 2004, while Village Council support for a municipal bond to finance farmland preservation seemed solid, councillors twice pulled back from passing a resolution setting up a bond election for it.
Sale of the Village’s general obligation bonds were to finance the community’s local match to use $1.1 million in a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant the previous year to purchase conservation easements on Corrales farmland. At the April 13, 2004 council meeting, then-Councillor Melanie Scholer again insisted that the proposal should not move forward without other bond questions being placed before voters at the same time.
Scholer said repeatedly she did not want Corrales voters to be presented with the farmland preservation bond without considering other funding needs. A consensus was voiced that voters should be asked to approve municipal bonds to raise at least $1 million, and perhaps as much as $2.5 million, to use as matching funds for a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But councillors wanted to know precisely how much bonding capacity the Village of Corrales really had available before they committed to seeking bonds for the farmland preservation effort.
The Village Administrator at the time, Harry Staven, reported that Corrales’ bonding capacity stood at $7,946,764, while its outstanding general obligation bond debt was $195,000 although that was slated to be paid off by the end of 2004. Corrales voters approved their first set of municipal bond sales in the 1990s to raise local-match funds to build Loma Larga and to purchase land on which a new fire station would be built.
Shortly thereafter, Village officials approved the sale of other municipal bonds to buy the western half of Annette Jones’ pasture for a recreation center. Those were not property tax-based general obligation bonds, but rather were revenue bonds, secured by pledged gross receipts tax income. That second set of bonds is also nearly paid off in full.
Sayre Gerhart, Bonnie Gonzales and Taudy Smith had tried over the previous five years to prevent the farmland preservation effort from being entangled in the chronic power struggles and political clashes that plagued Village government in those years. While residents overwhelmingly supported bonding for farmland and open space preservation in a public opinion poll in November 2003, that enthusiasm was considered vulnerable to questions about other projects that could take millions of dollars as well.
But as of April 13 2004, the only bond proposal that had been drawn up read as follows: “Shall the Village of Corrales issue general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed $2,500,000 for the purpose of acquiring conservation easements or other property rights or interests for the preservation of farmland, open space, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities in the Village of Corrales? Such bonds shall be payable from the general (ad valorem) taxes levied on real property within the Village of Corrales. Such indebtedness shall be, until repaid, a general obligation of the Village of Corrales.”
Voters overwhelmingly approved the bond issuance in 2004. Public sentiment was still strong when another GO bond proposal for $2.5 million was presented in March 2018. Controversy arose again over the Farmland Commission’s recommendation that an easement should be acquired for acreage that was not visible from Corrales Road, or any other oft-used byway. Still, despite some suspicions and misgivings, the Village Council approved purchase of a conservation easement on 12 acres of farmland at its December 8, 2020 session. The vote was three-to-two to pay $960,000 for an easement on the Haslam farm between the Corrales Main Canal and the Corrales Lateral irrigation ditch at the end of Kings Lane. Councillors Stuart Murray and Kevin Lucero voted no, citing prospects that a more desirable tract might become available during the next six months.
That was almost certainly a reference to the long-discussed, and negotiated possibility that the Trosello tract farther north along the east side of Corrales Road might be saved from development as home sites. Murray, Lucero and several villagers had argued that the Village had negotiated an option to purchase the Haslam tract this past summer and still had six months remaining to exercise it. They argued there was no hurry to close on the Haslam land.
Former Village Councillor Fred Hashimoto urged a delay on the Haslam property. “Some very attractive proposals might pop up between now and June 1, and the council should not cave now to prematurely spend potential funds which might be used for a possibly more valuable proposal in the next coming months.” That reluctance drew sharp responses from then-Councillor Dave Dornburg and Mayor Jo Anne Roake. “I think it’s kind of folly to assume that another deal is going to come out of the woodwork at this day and age when property values in the village are only going up,” Dornburg said. “I think there has been enough man-hours and due diligence put into this process that the time has come to put it to a vote.
“There may always be another option down the road, but in my humble opinion, while I’m sure there are other pieces of property that people would rather have, this is the option we have and it meets the intent of conservation easement that we’re trying to protect.”
Mayor Roake was persuasive in arguing that waiting another six months on the Haslam option was not really an alternative, given the amount of time it had taken to get the Haslam option ready to execute. “Between getting our financing and getting the bonds issued and getting it approved through the N.M. Finance Authority and all the other gates that we have to go through actually does put the time limitations on this process. I want to address the idea that we can actually wait for months, because all of the pieces that you have voted for have gotten us to the point now where we are issuing the bonds, and that has to be done in a certain time frame… all of this was done based on two different appraisals and two different reviews by N.M. Taxation and Revenue, so I think that’s a false analogy.
“All of this work has taken place since July. It has taken a long time. It’s a lengthy and complex process,” the mayor stressed, making the point that the administration did not actually have another six months to exercise the Haslam option.
Before the vote was called, Councillor Dornburg made another plea for approval. “I think it’s a good idea today, it was a good idea six months ago and it will be a good idea six months from now. If we don’t think it’s a good idea, that’s a different conversation. But we have the will of the people for a bond to buy conservation easements. We have a great conservation property in front of us. If you like the property and think it meets the will of the people, either today or in June, the answer should probably be the same.”
The motion to purchase the Haslam conservation easement was approved. (See Corrales Comment Vol.XXXIX No. 17 November 21, 2020 “Haslam Easement May Be Approved By Council Dec.8.”) Corrales’ interest in preserving farmland dates back at least to its incorporation as a municipality in 1971. The first master plan produced for the new Village government in 1973 recommended techniques be explored to accomplish that. Successive planning documents and ordinances over the years have endorsed that goal. (See Corrales Comment Vol. II, No. 8, August 20, 1983 “Can Corrales Stay Farmland Forever? Yes, Say Planners, & Here’s How.”)