Redevelopment Divisive: Mayor, Manager, and “You People”

By: Bill Whaley
13 March, 2016

(Editor’s Note: this piece is long but broken up by subheads. Read it and weep.)

On Thursday, March 17, Mayor Barrone and Manager Bellis will conduct a public hearing for the Town Council and interested citizens on a rezoning proposal for the redevelopment of the area south of the Plaza on the west side of the highway from McDonalds to Los Pandos Road, including a substantial portion of the Couse Pasture. The Council is expected to rule yea or nay or could continue the hearing and decision.

Background

Historically, Irving “Kibbey” Couse, son of E.I. Couse of the Taos Society of Artists, sought to expand on and cement his father’s legacy, working with his sisters Ginny and Elizabeth at the studio and home on Kit Carson Road. Though two of the siblings (Kibbey and Elizabeth and in-law, Ernie Levitt) have died Ginny carries on the vision of establishing a permanent legacy of the Couse-Sharp studios, residences, other buildings and the fabled Couse pasture, where artist Ed Sandoval pastures his horse.

Kibbey himself ran out of money and was forced to sell part of the pasture, which, apparently today is partly owned by a company with ties to the Town of Taos attorney, Floyd Lopez. According to Floyd, one of his aunts, an owner, who is still alive, donated money to his failed campaign for district judge. Floyd’s brother Owen, former director of the McCune Foundation, helped organize the bailout for Kibbey Couse in the 80s by forming a friendly group to buy the southern portion of the pasture.

The property, which was originally zoned residential agricultural at some point got rezoned R-14, increasing density from one house per acre to 14, contributing to a substantial increase in value. Several buyers tried to purchase the property but the deals fell through. The one-time vega-wetland has seen the water table drop due to theTown’s Well No. 5, drought, and other demands but estimates suggest water is about 12 feet from the surface. The Town has a history of shutting down acequias not just the Spring Ditch by La Bell Cleaners.

Smith’s “Agent”

Unlike 99% of the projects which have come before the Town or the County, when a private developer makes his or her pitch, the Mayor and Manager are acting as agents for the realtor/developer/owner just as they did for the expansion of the airport but this time on behalf of a private entity. The Mayor and Manager have been cultivating a relationship with Kroger-Smith’s since Barrone’s election in March of 2014. Smith’s apparently wants to move the store from its current location on the west side of the highway to the east side of the highway where they could build a “Smith’s Super Store.”

Discussions and scuttlebutt suggest the realignment of La Posta Road will be included in the project at the time the NMDOT fixes up the highway from the Canon by-pass to the Historic District, an $11 million project. La Posta road, next to the former and now-empty Scheid Motor company serves as an inner loop, providing access to a historic but modest Taos residential neighborhood, including the Rio Fernando Neighborhood Association itself, adjacent to the County Complex. The association was formed to preserve the area and protest the location of the jail when the County built the new Complex. Barrone was against the neighborhood, then, too.

There is no environmental study that considers the troublesome aspects of the high water table or effects on surrounding properties, the vega and wetland, consideration of open space, and the intentions of Vision 2020 to preserve, protect, and consider neighborhoods as well as the impact of commercial activity. The project might or might not be a good idea but the “developers,” the Mayor and Manager, have provided no “facts” and “projections” as would be required of a “private developer.”

Barrone and Bellis have not presented the citizens with a site plan, building envelope, landscape design, architectural concept, or details like height, square footage, conformity with historic building codes, traffic studies, etc. As everyone knows the Barrone-Bellis passion for garish lights on the Plaza is hardly promising in terms of decorating the  gateway to the historic district. Barrone is selling a “pig in a poke” to the residents.

Perverse Ethics

In an odd, maybe absurd interpretation of the “ethics code,” the Town attorney has forbidden two neophyte councilors from gathering information, reading or listening to the news, neighbors, pro and con supporters, etc.

(This is not a “criminal” case, at least not yet.)

Ironically, the attorney has discarded the notions of “conflict of interest” when it concerns himself and the Mayor or the Manager but he holds the Councilors to a higher standard. The voters elected the new councilors to represent them as informed leaders, not as two blind mice.

Since Lopez has admitted to his family ties, maybe it’s time for Barrone to recuse himself from voting on the project for which he has assumed the role of agent and developer. Bellis, by the way, should also say “yea or nay” to the rumors about his ties and extraordinary promotion of Taos Mesa Brewery to the disadvantage of other craft beer operators, a promotion he’s been working since he was at the County and for whom he ran interference in the historic district.

Legalities

Due to inexperience and poor leadership, the planning and executive departments in Town have in all likelihood violated rules and regs regarding “notice,” while using anachronistic documents as guides for the project. The research shows that the Town stands on very porous ground legally, which points will be revealed at the Thursday meeting this week. Given the number of attorneys involved in the opposition, you will hear the citizens speak and lay the ground-work for enduring appeals.

One of the activists believes common sense, transparency and patience will substitute as an antidote to battles in court. But the realists are preparing for the worst. Flavio says, “they’ll do what they want, neighbors be dammed.”

Anti-Neighborhood Bias

Despite claims about the project creating an entry to the “historic district,” the promoters and developers or mayor and manager presented “nothing” in the way of design mock-ups to the community. Just as Barrone has dismissed the neighborhood activists as “you people,” so Bellis has referred to them as “rich white people.” Bellis likes to disparage traditional  tourists as “blue hairs.” Red heads are prone to jealousy.

Contrary to Bellis’s claims Montoya St. is a modest residential street, part of an old town neighborhood that includes Burch, Liebert, Dolan, Vigil, Ortiz, Los Pandos, etc. Old and new families live adjacent to the Wurlitzer Foundation. In recent years there has been some gentrification but it has been gradual and fits in with the historic community. Residents can also access homes from Kit Carson/Canon/Highway 64. The charm of the neighborhood is typically Taos: funk and fine craftsmanship side by side all within walking distance from Town.

The new people, held in contempt by Bellis and Barrone, typify the longtime visitor who starts as a tourist, visits repeatedly, buys property, and eventually resettles in Taos. Barrone and Bellis aren’t from Taos either. Nor do the Mayor and Manager live in the town.

Grocery Store Fantasies

Bellis, the soothsayer, claims a Big Box grocery store will be “a fabulous gateway,” and “destination experience for locals and visitors,” while generating “GRT” though there is no sales tax on groceries. Both he and Barrone, apparently claim they are going to build a “Convention Center and Parking Structure” as well as a new multi-story downtown hotel on the old Smith’s site or “somewhere.” They provide no evidence of financing, plans, site plans, etc., just assertions, capped by the attitude: “trust us.”

Taos worked the convention circuit for years and failed, gave away its convention facility to UNM and was told repeatedly by the film and convention interests that Taos cost too much: too isolated, too far away from the main transportation hubs in New Mexico.

Competition

While Bellis and Barrone dream, hotels close and storefronts continue to darken. Now they would threaten thriving grocery stores, including Cid’s hometown market, which has already been subject to Smith predatory spies. The Town competes with the private sector concert business (choosing who to support) while it also reduces the traffic of Plaza merchants for events, which helps merchants on Bent St and at the Dunn House, whose shops remain open and benefit from events like Farmer’s Market that has a negative impact on the traditional Plaza shops.

Empty Buildings

What happens to all the old buildings when you build new businesses: see Applebees, Don Fernando Hotel, empty shops in the historic district, the fading Kachina Lodge, and other motels which have turned to weekly and monthly rentals.

When you put all your promotional dollars into the recreational demographics and don’t fund the historic art and culture retail merchants, which appeal to the other demographic, a biased policy turns into empty storefronts. “Brick and mortar” merchants, who pay rent and taxes year round deserve consideration, as does Cid, or Albertsons, or Super Save, stores which have been in business for years.

Who will Bellis and Barrone target next?

Bait and Switch

Dan Barrone used to be a nuts and bolts work-gloves kind of guy. He cooperated with community and did good work at the County. We thought he was a fair man. But when he arrived at town hall and began drinking the Bellis kool-ade, he began to support a procurement code cover-up for violators and became enthralled with photo ops as the main thrust of his mission.

The neighborhood activists say the Mayor has grown red-faced and short-tempered when challenged. He is being challenged not only by a traditional neighborhood but by a neighborhood where a lot of semi-retired professionals, including a number of attorneys, happen to live.

At the neighborhood meeting of the Rio Fernando Association I saw a lot of one-time Barrone supporters, long-time residents, advocating for a transparent planning process. This ain’t about “rich white people” but it is about fair and forthright government.

The Bellis LUDC got ripped at the County by Hispanic neighborhood activists, “poor brown people,” because the planning regs he promoted contained a bias against traditional culture: limiting chickens, pigs, goats, vegetable plots, and mobile homes.  Bellis as we know is  “A One-Eyed Jack.”

Politically speaking the municipal election in two years could be bloody. Younger and newer community members, supported by locals, are emerging as a force, a force for fair dealing. Meanwhile, the town council could save itself from divisiveness by slowing down, drinking the coffee instead of the kool-ade, and discussing the issues, patiently, with the opposition.

If not, all the fun will move on to district court. I’m sure my Native Hispanic friends will enjoy the fracas, a fracas consisting mostly of Gringos going head to head. Perhaps we can learn something from the experience of our more traditional politicos. Maybe so, maybe no.

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