Planning and Zoning and the pursuit of happiness

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In matters of zoning, according to Socorro Mayor Ravi Bhasker, the city council should make every effort not to stand between citizens and their unalienable rights.

Bhasker made his comments on the role of government at the most recent city council meeting, after a protracted attempt to untangle the recommendations of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission on two zone change requests.

“We need to make sure we’re not standing in the way of people’s pursuit of happiness,” he said.

The first request, made by Jeanne Martinez, was for a change from commercial to residential zoning for her property at 101 Smith Road near the former drive-in movie theater. Planning and Zoning recommended in November that Martinez’s request be denied. The council considered that recommendation at its Nov. 21 meeting and ended up sending the matter back to Planning and Zoning for more testimony.

Planning and Zoning held a second hearing in December and sent the matter back up to the city council without a clear recommendation.

“The vote failed on a vote of 2-1, with one abstention,” Zoning Officer Mike Czosnek told the city council.

Before tackling Martinez’s request, the councilors reviewed the section of the city’s zoning ordinances that lists eight criteria that have to be considered when a zone change is requested.

“You’ll see there are eight things there that allow for a denial of zone change,” Bhasker said. “By looking at these minutes, I don’t know if P and Z actually went through these eight things.”

In addition to the minutes of the hearing, the council looked at a petition against the zone change request, filed with the city in December by eight adjoining property owners; their main concern was the possibility of a decline in the value of their real estate. There was also a letter provided by Martinez in response to the petition, from local realtor Betty Houston. Houston wrote that her opinion, shared by local appraiser Orban Winton, was that the proposed change was unlikely to affect property values in that area.

The minutes from the Planning and Zoning hearing showed a final result of one vote in favor of recommending Martinez’s request be approved and two votes against, with one commissioner abstaining and three commissioners absent.

The mayor expressed concerns about the abstention.

“To my mind, the person who abstained didn’t have a financial interest and that’s the only reason I know of to abstain,” Bhasker said.

Councilor Mike Olguin Jr. said it was confusing that the motion to approve was made based on criteria 1. Criteria 1 calls for a request to be denied if approving it would result in impairment of an “adequate supply of light and air to adjacent properties.”

City Clerk Pat Salome said after reviewing the minutes of the Planning and Zoning meeting with Czosnek, it appeared that there was “a little bit of misunderstanding” on the part of the commissioners.

“There’s got to be a reason given to deny it, otherwise it should be approved,” Salome said.

The council decided the matter with a roll call vote. Councilors Donald Monette and Gordy Hicks were not present. Councilors Nick Fleming, Mary Ann Chavez-Lopez and Olguin Jr. voted against the motion made by Councilor Peter Romero to approve the zone change request. Councilors Toby Jaramillo, Ernest Pargas and Romero voted in favor. The mayor broke the tie in favor of Martinez, and the zoning variance was approved.

Getting Hooked-Up

The second zoning issue was a request by Samantha Vivian-Gonzales to have a single-wide mobile home in a residential zone that calls for any mobile homes to meet minimum size requirements of 24 by 36 feet.

“In this case, you have a manufactured home in an area that has nothing but buildings,” Bhasker said.

Planning and Zoning voted unanimously to recommend approval, but the minutes of the hearing revealed a procedural misunderstanding similar to the one presented in Martinez’s case.

Olguin Jr. again pointed out the problem.

“The motion to approve was based on criteria 8,” he objected.

Criteria 8 has to do with maintaining the characteristics of an established and stable neighborhood, and failure to meet criteria 8 would be a reason to deny an application rather than approve it.

“I’m just going to have to start going to those meetings,” Bhasker said. “But the bottom line is, the buck stops with the city council.”

Czosnek told the council that when the home was set up at 103 Grant St. in late September, the owner was unaware of the zoning requirements.

According to the documents provided to the councilors, Vivian-Gonzales’ application for a zoning variance was dated Sept. 29 and received by the city on Sept. 30. In the space on the form labelled “Reason for Request” was written “I am moving a mobile home by my grandparents to take care of them.”

Romero asked if the home was fully hooked up to city utilities, raising a question about how that could be done without Czosnek’s approval. The standard operating procedure is for Czosnek to sign off on any requests to connect to water, gas and sewer, to ensure zoning code requirements are being met.

“How they got hooked up, I don’t know, because I never signed off on it,” Czosnek said.

Another question, raised by Jaramillo, was whether the ordinance is being applied consistently to all residents.

“I noticed there’s another single-wide mobile home right as you go up Evergreen,” Jaramillo said.

Czosnek said the problem is typically caused by people moving homes onto properties and starting to live in them before finding out they needed to apply for a zone change. Salome added that it puts the city in a difficult position, because as long as people have electricity, they can live for a while without city utilities.

“It’s easy for them to move in over the weekend and then it’s our job to tell them that they needed a permit,” Salome said. “Getting gas turned on would require a specific sign-off on our part, but there’s no ordinance right now that requires the co-op to check with us before providing electricity. If there was, we’d be in a less compromising position.”

The council voted unanimously to approve the zoning variance, but the discussion continued.

Getting the Lights On

Romero said people should know that they need to check local laws and ordinances, and Salome added that the companies that move mobile homes should also know.

“I really think if we had the ability to restrict their access to electricity, they’d have to come in early to find out what needs to happen,” Salome said.

The mayor then brought up Socorro Electric Cooperative’s franchise agreement, which he said has been lapsed for many years.

“They still pay the franchise fee, but we don’t have a contract,” Bhasker said. “Maybe we could put something in the franchise agreement.”

Another issue Bhasker said should be discussed when a new franchise contract is negotiated with the co-op is streetlights. The problem of non-working streetlights comes up frequently in city council meetings, and it’s considered a public safety issue.

Jaramillo said he’s noticed that there are six or seven lights out, coming into town from the south.

“Those lights have never been lit all at one time,” Bhasker said. “$75,000 per year is what we pay them, and we’d like to have them lit.”

Bhasker said non-working streetlights make a bad impression on travelers.

“It’s terrible to come into a town that has half their lights off,” he said.

 


-- Email the author at sbarteau@dchieftain.com.

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