Town Planning and Zoning: the Presence of Absence

By: Bill Whaley
8 July, 2016

A Cultural Report on the Culture of Taos government

Long and Boring, like a P&Z Meeting

Sure, on the evening of July 6, 2016, the Town of Taos regular meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission was held. There were five items on the agenda. One item passed: a permit for a small business (hair removal and personal products) located in a longtime commercial building in a residential area on Camino de la Placita, north of the Valverde, Placita, Lund intersection. Only Chairman Jim Pollard voted “no” because he said he owns a residential property in the area (south, near the fire house) and doesn’t like commercial encroachment. No conflict of interest there!

A private party, who wants to build a couple of houses or condos on Calle Cornelio in an obscure corner of the Town, was stymied by conflicting demands from the town, wherein the small development fell under subdivision regulations. The developer, a newcomer and residential home owner, was basically told that if he hooked up to Town water that the commission and staff might look the other way in terms of the requirements for “curb and gutter” along the graveled roads. In fact he was told to “call” his proposed private roads “driveways” in order to accommodate the code. He and his partner appeared dazed and confused by past and present experience, wherein conflicting directions are exemplary of the “Taos Lesson.”

Most of the audience members attended the meeting to discuss a PUD (Planned Unit Development) for a proposed four-story Holiday Inn, located next to the Hampton Inn by a developer and to comment on the “Taos Historic Plaza Cultural Landscape Report.

Caveat: An item concerning the extension of the Historic Overlay Zone to include the areas on both sides of Highway 68 from Quesnel to Siler and Los Pandos was continued to a special meeting set for the following week. Why does the Town Council, per Mr. Bellis, want to change the zoning for this area? One can only speculate that he plans on bringing the Historic Preservation Commission into the decision-making mix in order to better control the outcome of planning this area. The Council formerly turned down the new Smith’s store, a back-door deal set up by the Town’s executive staff and the realtor representing the behemoth in the same area.

The P&Zers, an independent body, turned down a request for a variance from the code for the developer’s four story hotel at a height of over fifty feet. P&Zers claimed the code did not permit the height variance, despite the Town attorney Floyd Lopez’s interpretations to the contrary.

 

Reportedly, the developer has purchased the moribund Don Fernando Inn (a former and second disenfranchised Holiday Inn that succeeded the first disenfranchised Holiday Inn where the Quality Inn is today). Perhaps the developer believes “the third time is the charm.”

For sure the developer will appeal the P&Z decision, rejecting the request for a variance and ask the Town Council for permission, a council sensitive to Manager Bellis’s vision of development.

During the entire evening Mr. Bellis hovered over the proceedings like a Mother Hen. But his long-flowing red-haired locks reminded one more of George Armstrong Custer, a Custer whose potbelly betrays a distinct appetite for craft beer. Notes and whispers passed back and forth between Bellis and his proxy, Planning Director Louis Feinberg, whose bedside manner is as clumsy as his own presentation of the Plaza Cultural Report, which the P&Zers had just received but had little time to read what with 159 pages of photos, history, options, and sources.

By the time the “Taos Historic Plaza” came up for discussion at 9:30 pm, the exhausted P&Zers decided to reschedule the hearing for the public at a later time. Most of the interested members of the audience, except for a few die-hards, had drifted away from a meeting that had begun at 6 pm.

Members of the community in general are most worried about the alleged “restoration” of the Plaza under section 4-15, called “Treatment.” Herein the authors and town planners, including the council, are considering the removal of the Bataan War Memorial and the statue of Padre Martinez to the hinterlands. While Mr. Feinberg said that a decision had not been made to move the controversial “Memorial” and the “Padre,” he did say the people would decide, which is code for the Manager, Mayor, and Council, a group, due to a number of deceptive “movidas” since their inauguration back in March of 2014, nobody trusts.

(The Town reminds one of the Board of Trustees and CEO at Kit Carson Coop.)

To wit, here’s the language in the Cultural Report at 4-15, 1: “Small Scale Features.”

“Potentially relocate, in collaboration with the community, non-contributing features with special significance including the War Memorial(s) and the Padre Martinez statue. If the War Memorial is removed, replace the flagpoles, since a flagpole occurred historically within the Plaza.

“If the War Memorial is retained, consider modifying its visual presence by removing adjacent walls and steps, and allowing for circulation around the memorial. If the Padre Martinez statue is retained, consider resetting the statue on a new plinth that is compatible with the historic setting.”

We’re all for restoring and redesigning the Plaza but the use of the “subjunctive” or verbs referring to opinion, belief, purpose, intention, or desire, accompanied by forms of “to be” or “is” in the above description “is” not reassuring. It “is” not the people but the Council that decides, a group that has demonstrated a cavalier attitude toward its own “quaint ordinances” and the customs of the community. Beware the use of “if” always a sign of the subjunctive and or conditional tense: a weasel word.

Surely customary building heights of 27 feet will be the next casualty of the Council in its lust for tax income.

The “Cultural Landscape Report” is truly a wonderful work of research, photos, and ideas aimed at restoration. I can’t vouch for all the historic sources but it is an excellent document though the document also presents preconceived notions and biased thinking in two respects.

The authors of the report and staff as well as the Manager, Mayor, and Council, and many of the attendees at the public discussion seem insensitive to the majority culture i.e. Hispanic as well as the historic sacrifices made by Taos Veterans.

By virtue of considering the removal of the sacrosanct Memorial or suggesting the possibility of removing a statue commemorating Taos’s and perhaps New Mexico’s most famous Hispanic icon, the educator, Padre Martinez, they have demonstrated how tone-deaf they are to the community at large.

The subtitle above, “the presence of absence,” implies that there is a much larger public, who cares much more about the “memorial” and the “Padre” than is reflected in attendance at public meetings. When you have a Town Administration that no longer represents La Gente, you can assume these representatives don’t know their constituents very well and are out-of-touch with community customs.

 

The Town administration would do well to remember the 1847 Bent event. If the Mayor wants a second term he will not allow the Memorial or the Padre to be moved. Still the partisans must continue to lobby the administration and Town Council otherwise you might find the “intentions” above transformed into facts.

At the end of P&Z meeting, Bellis tried to answer the P&Z Commissions questions about the Cultural Landscape Report, which Pollard said was a vital a document, like “Vision 2020” in terms of the Public’s right to be involved. But he also said the P&Zers had no real authority or mandate to review such a report. Bellis made much of Town government’s new attitude toward “transparency” and holding public meetings.

Though Barrone, Hahn, and Cantu ran for office and were elected in March of 2014 on the issue of transparency, Bellis had other ideas: the less public participation the better. Even as the Town brags about the rise in gross receipts and Lodger’s taxes, they passed a new GRT to sustain their vision of an expanded work force. Just about each month the Council waives the rule against “nepotism” and hires another “primo” (in order to build a political base among employees?). The mayor’s free breakfasts, pig roasts, and the portrayal of Santa Claus hardly mask the persona of this ambitious politician.

Councilor Cantu has warned the community about the machinations of Taos’s back-door power couple, Bellis, the manager, and Spray, his special friend, now a historic preservation commissioner. The historic culture of the community, no matter how sacred, is not safe from either Mayor Barrone’s bumbling or the dueling Bellis-Spray cabal. Councilor Hahn himself has said he wants to close the Plaza to vehicular traffic, a slap at the Norteno’s passion for “cruising.” None of the above except Cantu are “from here” as Taosenos say.

If we don’t pay attention to Cultural sensitivity we shall always live in the house that Cindy and Rick have built in the mind of the Mayor and Council. I fear we are living there now.

Caveat: The report recognizes the importance of “Kit Carson” and the “flagpole” but not “Bataan” or the good Padre. Go figure.

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