A public opinion survey on villagers’ attitudes regarding secondary dwellings, also known as “casitas,” is now under way. The survey form is available at the Village of Corrales website, or in paper form inside the front door of the Village Office. The Village Council and Planning and Zoning Commission are expected to hold a joint work-study session on casitas this month or next. After receiving a letter from Corraleños in August 2020 expressing concerns about the construction of casitas, the Planning and Zoning Commission began an ongoing review of existing ordinances. (See Corrales Comment’s Vol.XXXIX No.12 September 5, 2020 “West Ella ‘Casita’ Scrutinized,”)
Two P&Z subcommittees and the commission as a whole have been working to gather information and research on the secondary dwelling units that exist here. P&Z Administrator Laurie Stout, who steers the project, has defined a casita as “a structure used for human habitation that is separate from the primary dwelling unit on a lot,” at least for the purposes of this exploration.
At a January 26, 2021 session, the Village Council voted five-to-one to impose a 180-day moratorium on permits to build secondary dwellings on lots and on applications to operate short-term rental. The council noted that “the size of accessory structures is virtually unregulated, sometimes resulting in what appears to be two homes on one lot,” and that such residences “are being utilized for the commercial purpose of providing short-term rental accommodations.”
It was noted that “the proliferation of loosely-regulated accessory structures being used as short- and long-term rentals has the potential for far-reaching deleterious effects on the village, including negatively impacting neighborhoods with greater numbers of vehicles and persons not previously present and increasing the effective density above that permitted or intended in the A-1 an A-2 zoning districts.”
Stout clarified March 12 that “the applications for short-term rentals that we are unable to process are those in accessory structures only. Short-term rental permit applications that are all or part of the dwelling unit on a lot may still be accepted and forwarded to the Planning and Zoning Commission for consideration.” Now a comprehensive report, along with research material is available via the Village website, and an executive summary about the project is offered below. “For this review the commission identified the following essential question: What requirements, if any, should the Village of Corrales place on the construction and use of casitas?
Two committees of P&Z commissioners were formed in September 2020, one to review the existing ordinances related to casitas as well as relevant ordinances from surrounding communities and the other to gather information regarding the environmental impacts of increased population density, primarily regarding water and wastewater. What follows is an attempt to frame the issue and share the findings of the commission to date.
Our Rural Atmosphere
There has been a long-standing desire of Corraleños to maintain a rural agricultural atmosphere in the village. The most recent Comprehensive Land Use Plan for the Village of Corrales (2009) states that “The Village requirement that single residential units be located on one- or two-acre lots was established just after incorporation in 1971 with the purpose of maintaining Corrales’ rural atmosphere (p. 24).”
The ordinance language governing permissive uses in Zone A-1 Rural Agricultural and A-2 supports this goal:
• Section 18-28 (a) states “Any use not classified as a permissive use or a use by review within a particular zone is hereby prohibited from that zone.”
• Section 18-33(1) Purposes and intents. The purpose of this zone is to maintain a rural and open space character of lands within the Village with low density residential and agricultural development.
• Section 18-33(2) Permissive uses. (a/b/c) One single-family dwelling unit/manufactured house/mobile home unit per lot.
• Section 18-33(2) Permissive uses. (f) Accessory uses and structures. (According to the definition of accessory uses and structures (18-29), this “means uses and structures which are clearly incidental and subordinate to principal uses and structures located on the same property.”)
• Section 18-33(3) Density. The maximum density shall be limited to one dwelling unit per net acre.
(Note that these regulations are for Zone A-1 but they are similar in most regards to the regulations for Zone A-2.)
However, casitas existed in Corrales prior to incorporation of the Village in 1971. Since incorporation, some accessory structures, e.g. studios or stables, have been converted to casitas and casitas have at times been built without the knowledge or permission of the P&Z Department. There may have been uneven enforcement of the ordinances. On top of that, some ordinance language seems to muddy the waters, creating a challenge for our Planning & Zoning Department.
A Lack of Clarity
There is no mention of casitas in our ordinances. In Section 18-29 a dwelling unit is defined as “… any building or part of a building intended for human occupancy and containing one or more connected rooms and a single kitchen, designed for one family for living and sleeping purposes.”
The conjunction, and, is a concern; an accessory structure with connecting rooms and no kitchen is technically and legally not a dwelling unit. The definition of a kitchen states “The presence of a range or oven, or utility connections suitable for servicing a range or oven, shall be considered as establishing a kitchen.” Thus an accessory structure with no plumbing or wiring for a range or oven is, technically and legally, not a dwelling unit and so is allowed as an accessory structure. Thus it appears there is a lack of clarity in the language of the permissive uses.
Is There A Problem with Casitas?
There are several reasons why property owners might want to build a casita. They might want a place for elderly parents or other family members to live. They might want a place for a personal assistant or other employee to live; this could be important for elderly or disabled residents. They might want a place for guests to stay. They might want to generate short-term rental income.
But there are downsides that arise when residents build and occupy accessory dwellings. These are primarily related to increased population density. First, there is the matter of the rural agricultural environment that Corraleños desire. More buildings mean less open land, plain and simple. There is also the matter of traffic —greater density means more people driving on roads, many of which are unpaved, contributing to wear and tear, increased maintenance and increased dust and noise. And then there is the matter of our water. “Drinking your neighbors’ sewage”
While Corrales is blessed with a robust aquifer, it does not have a municipal water system or wastewater treatment facility. We all have domestic wells and nearly all of us have septic systems. In places the water table is very shallow, necessitating the use of mounded septic systems and advanced treatment systems. This is a matter of serious concern. As noted by Dennis McQuillan, Liquid Waste Program Manager of the New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED) in the report, Groundwater Contamination by Septic Tank Effluents (2006), people living in areas with domestic wells and a high density of septic systems risk “Drinking your neighbors’ sewage.”
This is not really news for Corrales. In 2005 McQuillan prepared a report, Groundwater Quality in Corrales. He noted —and this was 15 years ago— that “Corrales was selected for a hydrogeologic investigation because of the large number of small lots (less than 3/4 acre) developed with on-site wells and septic systems.” The first line of the abstract reads, “Septic tank effluents have adversely impacted ground-water quality in the Village of Corrales.”
He notes that “… there have been many historic reports by well users in the area of water quality problems such as high iron and the presence of hydrogen sulfide gas.” While some of these pollutants occur naturally in the inner Rio Grande Valley, much of it can be attributed to bacteria that are feeding on organic waste and using oxygen from naturally-occurring iron and sulfur oxides due to low free oxygen levels in the soil. This results in rusty toilet bowls and a rotten egg smell, not to mention possible negative effects on our health. Nitrate levels are also high, particularly in the areas west of the main canal. As our population grows and the population density increases, the pollutant load in our groundwater can only increase.
Corrales is currently the only local municipality that relies primarily on septic systems for liquid waste disposal. All of the others (Albuquerque, Los Ranchos, Rio Rancho, Bernalillo) have wastewater treatment systems. The Village has taken some measures to address the wastewater issue by installing a liquids-only wastewater effluent pipeline that accepts effluent from individual septic tanks located along Corrales Road and conveys it to a treatment plant in Albuquerque. There are plans to expand this pipeline to other areas, but this is a limited solution.
What Are the Options?
Any potential regulations regarding casitas must hinge on the protection of groundwater quality. Given the importance of limiting groundwater contamination, the P&Z has identified three options for Corraleños to consider regarding casitas.
• We could ban future construction of casitas.
• We could allow the future construction of casitas subject to limitations imposed by state or local environmental law. By state statute §22.214.171.1241(E) NMAC a one-acre lot, for example, is allowed a septic system design flow rate of not more than 500 gallons per day. This correlates with a design flow rate for a five-bedroom dwelling or a two-bedroom primary dwelling with a one-bedroom casita (§126.96.36.199(P)(1) NMAC). Larger lots are allowed more bedrooms in accordance with the statutes.
• We could allow the future construction of casitas only if they are connected to an off-site wastewater treatment system.
It is important to note that only the third option addresses the ongoing contamination of our groundwater. The other two have the potential to reduce but not eliminate future increases in groundwater pollution. In the coming months the commission will be seeking input from Corraleños via a survey and public meetings. We will use that input to develop recommendations to the Village Council for possible changes to the ordinances to best reflect our community’s needs and desires.
We encourage members of the community to review the supporting documents compiled by the commission. These can be found on the Village website, corrales-nm.org, then “I’m Looking For,” then Key Documents Directory, then Casitas Executive Summary and Supporting Documents. It also is available on the website home page, Latest News tab, same link title. We look forward to your input and a robust discussion.”
Among the questions in the survey are those seeking attitudes about casitas are around the following topics:
• Should the Village limit the size of new casitas to a certain percentage of the size of the primary residence?
• Should the Village limit te total number of bedrooms in all dwellings on a lot, including casitas?
• Should the Village allow new casitas only on lots that are one acre or larger?
Respondants are asked to indicate the degree to which they agree or disagree. In another section of the survey, respondents are asked how concerned they are about topics such as groundwater quality, population density and noise that might be associated with casitas.