By Ryan Lowery, For the Corrales Comment

Elections are decided by voters, but two mayoral candidates in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque agree that it was a 12-acre plot of land — and what’s being built on it — that cost the incumbent mayor the seat he’s held for more than five years and paved the way for a new mayor to take office in January.

Donald Lopez has served as mayor of Los Ranchos since May of 2018, following a more than two-decade career as a member of the village’s board of trustees. But last week, Lopez earned the least number of votes — just 13% of the overall total — in a four-way race for mayor of the village.

Meanwhile, village critic Joe Craig was elected mayor, garnering 35% of the vote. Gilbert Benavides finished second with 31% and George Radnovich finished third with 21%.

In the trustee race, Jennifer M. Kueffer topped contenders with 1,168 votes, or 45%, and Franklin D. Reinow collected 916 votes, or 37%. They won seats as trustees, while Shelleen Ann Smith was shut out, picking up 470 votes, or 18%.

Throughout the mayoral campaign, the candidates disagreed on plenty of topics, but both Lopez and Craig now agree that the future of 12 acres of land on the southwest corner of Fourth Street and Osuna Road weighed heavily on the minds of residents, and that development of the land was consequent incentive for voters to seek a change in leadership.

Under current plans, the land is slated to contain a combination of high-density affordable housing and commercial and retail space. It’s all part of a massive development project by Palindrome Communities LLC, a company headquartered in Portland, Oregon.

Supporters of the project have for years hoped Palindrome would bring affordable housing to the village, more employment options and revenue in the form of gross receipts taxes; however Mayor-elect Craig, who’s currently president of an organization that is challenging the project in court, fears the developer isn’t holding to the original agreement made with the village.

“We are not against affordable housing, but this was supposed to be a village center that would generate gross receipts tax for the Village of Los Ranchos,” he said. “If they won’t work with us, we could shut it down.”

Outgoing Mayor Lopez said he heard from a vociferous minority who oppose the project, and some who oppose affordable housing in the village altogether, and he feels those opponents of the project were successful in convincing others that he was to blame for it.

“I think that resonated with many residents who basically said, ‘Well, Mayor Lopez was the mayor and he let that project go forward, we don’t want him anymore because he made a big mistake,’” he said. “Well, I don’t think I made a mistake because the bottom line is there is no affordable housing in Los Ranchos.”

Lopez said that for many years, village residents have worried about growth and the village losing its rural feel, and those fears were stoked long before Palindrome. It began, he said, when a developer purchased 9 acres along Guadalupe Trail and Chavez Road and then proposed building what is known as a residential cluster development, something many people in the area opposed.

“I think that was like a match thrown on a pool of gasoline,” he said. “It started this problem that I ended up facing.”

Craig said he’s not opposed to the Palindrome project, but he would like the developer to be more mindful of things like increased traffic and the noise generated by having more vehicles in the area, as well as the change in acoustics that the new structure — one that is taller than any other in the village — will bring.

The project, officially titled Trailhead at Chamizal, is slated to be completed in three phases, with construction on phase one already underway. The plan for the first phase is to build a 204-unit multifamily affordable housing complex, 20 micro-retail spaces and a public outdoor dining area.

One of Craig’s main concerns about the project is where those who live, work and shop at the new center will park their vehicles. It’s a problem he said the developer has yet to offer a solution to.

“We’ve tried to talk to them. They’re not bending at all,” Craig said.

Through his role as president of Friends of Los Ranchos, Craig has had a number of disagreements with Palindrome, and those disagreements have led to the organization asking a Bernalillo County District Court judge to intervene. The case is scheduled to be heard in November of next year. Three other complaints filed by the Friends of Los Ranchos are open in District Court as well.

Craig said he will step down as president of Friends of Los Ranchos to avoid a conflict of interest as mayor, but said someone else will take the role and continue the court battles against Palindrome.

Lopez said that while the Palindrome project greatly contributed to his loss in this election, taking blame comes with the office.

“When you’re the mayor, sometimes you get praise for doing the right thing. But many times, you get the blame because people don’t like what you did,” he said. “It kind of comes down to that.”

Lopez said he’s proud of many things he did while he was in office though. For instance, he was instrumental in the village’s acquisition of a nearly 25-acre piece of land and the historic home of balloon pilot Maxie Anderson. The land will now remain undeveloped and will act as open space for the village.

Lopez said that at the top of his list of accomplishments is the revitalization of Fourth Street, a multi-phase project that included new roadway configurations, pedestrian pathways, parking improvements and new landscaping.

“It is the most beautiful roadway in New Mexico,” Lopez said. “We still have 1.6 miles of Fourth Street to build … Had I been reelected, hopefully I would have completed that, but I’m not going to get that chance now.”

Though he may be leaving office sooner than he’d like, Lopez offered congratulations to Craig and said he has no plans to run for any other elected office. Instead, he plans to return to working as a civil engineering consultant, something he’s done for 49 years.

“I have won nine out of 11 elections. I never lost a trustee election … I’m a two-term mayor. So I haven’t done that bad,” he said with a chuckle. “I first became a trustee in 1992. I served as a trustee for 26 years. In ’96, I became mayor pro tem, and in 2018, the mayor. If you add it all up, it’s 31 years and six months. That’s long enough.”

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