Saving The Heart Of A Village

Date April 30, 2007 at 10:00 PM

Categories Health & Beauty

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Between the hubbub of Albuquerque's big-city attitude and the enthusiastic growth of Rio Rancho's sprawl, sits a rural oasis. In Corrales, abundant cottonwoods arch over bands of green and follow cattail-lined acequias. Horses flick their tails against buzzing flies in yards that seem to go on forever. Million-dollar mansions with intricate landscaping abut mobile homes where chickens cluck and peck-unaware of the pressures of development.

Corrales's pastoral beauty and its unobstructed views of the Sandia mountains are threatened. Its very essence depends on a mix of farmland, open space and residential use. Yet as the cities surrounding it grow, Corrales has had to face a new reality. The burgeoning populations to the small town's west and east mean increasing numbers of people want to live inside its bucolic boundaries. And where there are potential sales, there are developers more than happy to buy up the land and build.

This small community's story mirrors trends across the country. The outlook for much of our nation's most fertile land is disconcerting. While some agricultural companies are increasing acreage to grow commodities such as corn for high fructose corn syrup, family farmers are abandoning their fields in record numbers. Local food supply chains are endangered. There's also a strange, emerging disconnect between humans and their natural world that author Richard Louv has dubbed, "nature deficit disorder."€

According to a 2004 EPA report, close to 3,000 acres of farmland in the U.S. are converted to urbanization and development each day. Closer to home, the figures are just as disturbing. Scott Wilber, Executive Director of the New Mexico Land Conservancy, says, "50,000 acres of rural undeveloped land in New Mexico are being converted to growth and development each year."€

Is this just a normal progression? Should people accept it as the new reality? In Corrales, the answer to both questions is a resounding, "No!"€

Claudia Smith, former Corrales planning and zoning administrator and native of the community, has seen her village change over the decades. Her concerns lead her to a specialty in college in historic preservation planning at the UNM's School of Architecture. According to Smith, the key to effective preservation is simple. "You find the nugget that defines the place...and then hold onto it."€

The character of a place is influenced by its traditions in obvious and subtle ways. Smith is interested in how towns develop within the context of the environment in which they're located as well as the technologies available to the people at the time.

What makes agriculture so important to Corrales is that it's part of the village's original fabric. Smith notes that Corrales began as a second-tier Spanish colonial town-one without a plaza. She refers to these communities as cordillas-cords or strings. "The first thing the farmers did was to build a ditch. It followed the river, with the road up high, and that is what you'd notice first,"€ she says. You can tell you're in a cordilla town because it's got a windy, curvy quality to it-as if you're following a river, too.

In cordillas, family heirs split their property into "long lots"€ to make sure that each member always had ditch rights. "The families would cluster their houses away from the fields rather than lose the growing potential of the most fertile land,"€ Smith explains. As a result, the buildings were all knotted together at the far end of the property. A quick drive through Corrales poignantly illustrates this principle.

From its earliest days, the village has had a tradition of conserving its most precious land. "Passing the ditch down, along with the right to irrigate and the right to farm, has been going on for 200 years,"€ she says. For modern villagers, protecting these customs would be vital to maintaining the town's rural feel. "You're preserving a way of life that was valuable, but you're also preserving the development pattern that makes everything work,"€ she says. It's not that development is bad. But if a place is going to retain its cherished original core, it needs to honor its origins. "Preservation means you're not trying to force the buildings in the wrong place; you're not trying to put a peg into a square,"€ she says.

When Corrales incorporated in the 1970s, village residents knew they had something special. However, attempts to identify and protect that unique quality hadn't gained quite enough cohesion for action yet. While people sensed the town's agricultural heritage might contribute to that "nugget,"€ they hadn't committed to the concept.

By the mid 1980s, Corrales began to be a residential hot-spot. It attracted eager new homebuyers who wanted the beauty of the country along with the convenience of nearby urban centers. Property values skyrocketed. Farmers stopped farming. How could they justify earning pennies on the dollar when they could quadruple their income by selling to developers?

In response to this, village leaders created a trust whereby property owners could donate acreage. In doing so, they receive tax benefits. However, there was no mechanism for direct compensation. If you were a person who was land-rich and cash-poor, as are many family farmers, this wasn't much of an incentive.

By the beginning of the new millennium, land values in Corrales had escalated to about 35 percent annually. Prime farmland could be worth $350,000 to $450,000 an acre and farming was being priced out of the community. The very people who were maintaining the quality of life, the traditions of their forebears, were being punished for choosing to stay on their land.

Claudia Smith credits community activist Sayre Gerhart and preservation expert Mary Davis with identifying and defining the critical "nugget"€ Corrales needed to preserve family agriculture and long lots. But, by then, there was a big problem. If a developer could offer good money for this prime land, the village of Corrales needed to have a way to do the same thing or farming might be lost altogether.

"We weren't anti-development,"€ says Gerhart, who now serves on the village council. "We wanted to create options for landowners and were idealistic enough to want to create a program that would compete with development....We wanted to be a voice at the table."€

A key component of this plan became possible in 2000, when 83 percent of Corrales' residents approved general obligation bonds to form and support the Corrales Farmland Preservation Committee (CFPC) and its future projects. With monies from the bonds, as well as important federal grants, the village was able to partner with the New Mexico Land Conservancy to purchase conservation easements from landowners.

In these legal agreements, property owners promise to restrict the kind and amount of development that can occur on their property. These contracts are forever. Landowners' children and children's children must abide by the restrictions for use as well.

Since 2002, the CFPC has worked to secure grant money from federal, state and local sources in order to achieve its mission, "To preserve and protect the farmland, open space and viewsheds of the Village of Corrales...."€ With the assistance of the New Mexico Land Conservancy, the first purchases of conservation easements were completed in 2005 and totaled 28 acres of prime agricultural land.

In the last few years, the CFPC has been faced with a difficult challenge. While property values continue to increase, some major funding sources are drying up. It's taking longer to raise the money necessary to purchase the conservation easements. "This year, 2007, is a particularly good year to do it if tax deductions are your thing,"€ notes Wayne Kirkby, the current president of the CFPC. But, for farmers who want to be paid for the easements, the wait can take awhile. This requires patience on all sides.

Everyone interviewed for this article expressed the hope that New Mexico will begin to take more responsibility for its own destiny and growth through legislative action. "Every state that is successful with these kinds of programs is active in funding them,"€ says Claudia Smith. "The Southwest is kind of slow to get on board. We have this sense that the land is our commodity, that it will never dry up."€

But in the Southwest, this is a shortsighted perspective. Most of the land near rivers, the land used for family farms, is privately owned. Given our precarious water issues, it is also among the rarest and most valuable of our state's resources. And, often, these properties are the most beautiful. They're exactly the places that people want to buy up and live. The only problem is, once they're sold to development, they're gone.

"We're talking about where your food comes from,"€ says Sayre Gerhart. "If the long-term plan for New Mexico is to have all its food shipped in, then go ahead and build a house."€ However, with energy consumption becoming more of a financial and environmental issue, and with the security of our food sources becoming a more real concern, ignoring the loss of our state's prime farmland is a bad policy. "Growing locally and buying locally are nice sentiments, but the reality is that you have to have the land to do that,"€ says Gerhart. "Communities are going to have to step up. But don't punish the people who are growing your food. Commit to helping them."€

For more information and a list of current conservation easements go to: New Mexico Land Conservancy www.nmlandconservancy.org.

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