The Culture Clash and the LUDC
Though the headlines in The Taos News said, “Taos County Commission kills land use code,” Chairman Joe Mike Duran was actually quoted as saying, “I think we need more time on this. I so move to drop all this, these land use regulations” and “This ain’t never going to pass the way we’re working now.” Residents can assume in all probability that commissioners will instruct the planning staff to edit the document and seek more response from the community in the future.
Land use policies always create controversy. Due to over-reaction, misinformation, and real points of disagreement, folks tend to use the language of exaggeration “us against them,” characterized by the sporting nature of the home team v. the visitors. When the historic homegrown culture confronts an invasive species—a species that both strengthens and weakens the identity of the local customs—a strong reaction can be expected.
More than six years ago, the committee appointed to rewrite the LUDC focused on translating planning jargon into plain English. The LUDC committee and commissioners at the time believed the document should protect the community from predatory and insensitive development while preserving the historical community customs. The issue of regulating agricultural practices—chickens, seasonal wood storage, vegetable growing—was presumed to be a continuing and grandfathered use. The code was aimed at complementing the subdivision regulations, which were aimed at regulating new development.
For commercial developers the original LUDC committee members wanted to create land zones for property owners–especially on highway corridors—where there was more certainty. The “Special Use” process is politicized and unwieldy. Currently, all vacant or residential property in the County–even property in commercial areas– is zoned “agricultural—residential.”
At some point the citizen’s LUDC committee approach was jettisoned in favor of policies and language promoted by itinerant professionals. As details of the LUDC became known and rumor joined the parade, the affected neighbors raised questions. The politicians panicked and the public process fell apart.
Newcomers, who move to Taos whether because of the natural beauty, enduring culture, or an idiosyncratic focus on creative freedom, generally organize their financial lives around a business or an investment in a house. Neighborhoods begin to form and swelter with conscious and unconscious expressions of status, class values, a passion for the view. Unregulated or seemingly arbitrary land use disturbs residents when, say, a cell phone tower, barking dog, rooster, or mobile home appears.
For the Native Taosenos, property is an extension of family—not strictly an investment. He or she is born into a way of life that values family and appears to be chaotic, idiosyncratic, and contradictory from the perspective of the outsider. In rural and agricultural communities, property and animals constitute a living, breathing, extension of the human being and family along with language and culture.
The seemingly impersonal single family architecture of the home on one to three acres, 360 degree views, and spartan landscape of Blueberry Hill, say, couldn’t contrast more with the hospitable organic adobe or evolving add-ons of houses in historical and high density neighborhoods, crowded with old cars or remnants of orchards, a chicken shack or shed with an acequia running underneath a fence built by grandfather to keep his brother’s cows from wandering into the vegetable patch. Or maybe grandpa built a fence so he wouldn’t see his neighbors going to the outhouse across the way in Valdez.
Different cultures have different points of view. They consider the vewscape more or less valuable depending…on so many cultural variables.
When the cultures clash, say up in El Salto or even down in the patchwork areas of Upper Las Colonias, long-held assumptions become conscious and create tension on both sides of the road or across the fence. A vacant piece of property next to a Santa Fe style house in a subdivision development area might have been held in reserve by a father and mother in hopes that a son or daughter will return to Taos. Or perhaps Mom and Dad held onto a piece of property place so they can resume the traditions of a loose rural lifestyle in their retirement. Boarded up houses in the County are frequently waiting for their native sons and daughters to return. The spirit is dormant—not dead.
The past informs the present
In the Town of Taos, developers and politicians have quashed and/or tried to kill off agriculture and acequia life. The practice of farming and growing vegetables and raising animals might fade but the dormant spirit haunts the present. Whether it’s in Upper Las Colonias or Des Montes or Arroyo Hondo, those who occupy the land but ignore the spirit will one day find the ghost of Amarante Cordova or Joe Mondragon (Milagro Beanfield War) confronting them with a shovel or ancient six-shooter in hand. The parcientes on the Spring Ditch might fade away but they will never disappear. Ask the developers who have stepped into the mine fields of the Spring Ditch or Autumn Acres.
Indeed, the public planning process, just like ballot box democracy, is not just about those who show up. They also serve who sleep. And those who work in offices and living rooms, also discuss the issues on the telephone or at the check-out line in the grocery store. A sudden rise in the public temperature does not occur in a vacuum. You must listen to La Gente with both ears–even at the cemetery.
Social and Natural Time
Human society evolves ever so slowly, a reflection in part of the natural world and natural order. We are tied inextricably to the land regardless of our practice. Developers may ignore historic uses and the descendants of farmers may have forgotten where to find the headgates. But you only need peer up at the sky or look down in the Gorge at the river to be reminded of the watersheds: Agua es vida.
You can look down into the Rio Grande Gorge and see geologic time—millions of years—slowly unwinding along the cliffs. The indigenous creatures have been around a few hundred thousand years. At Taos Pueblo one is reminded of 12,000 years of anthropological time. The European invaders–ancestors of the Hispanic community–arrived less than five hundred years ago. The Americans arrived in the mid 19th Century, the artists at the turn of the 20th Century, and the hippies forty-five years ago. The new wave of second homers began settling here during the last two decades.
The planning process in Taos County has been going on with increasing intensity since statehood for one hundred years. Taos Pueblo fought a political battle for 75 years to retrieve Blue Lake from the federal government. Given the natural and cultural forces at work in greater Taos, the six-year LUDC process seems like a blip on the radar.