Pajarito Mountain land transfer concerns are easy to resolve

 Aaron Zhu / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Aaron Zhu / CC-BY-SA 3.0

As many citizens are aware, the complete ownership of Pajarito Mountain is planned for transfer to a private company, Pajarito Recreation, LLC (PRLLC). This has been controversial due to concerns about public access for non-skiing activities and natural resource conservation, which we have previously expressed ourselves.

We emphasize that PCA strongly supports all the uses of the mountain, including specifically downhill skiing and mountain biking as well as hiking, running, cross-country skiing, etc. We are not opposed to a public-private arrangement, we agree that PRLLC seems like a reasonable partner, and we acknowledge the good faith of the ski club and everyone else involved.

Accordingly, we believe that the transfer should move ahead, but the County Council should insist on two simple conditions before approving public funding for the water pipeline upon which this transfer depends.

1. Strong legal protections for preserving public access.

While we’d prefer an independently managed conservation easement, we believe that deed covenants, as preferred by PRLLC, would be sufficient, provided they are strong. Our concern here is that the draft language published in the ski club memo has several big loopholes.

We encourage the ski club, PRLLC, and the county council to collect public comment on this language before finalizing it.

2. Standing for the entire community on zoning changes.

Another key protection for the mountain is the current W-2 “Recreation Wilderness District” zoning. A public process is required to change this zoning.

However, only people who live within 300 feet of a proposed zoning change have standing to testify about that change. Only the Forest Service and the county government own land within that distance of the Pajarito Mountain property. Citizens of the county would not have standing to testify for or against the change.

For a flagship resource like Pajarito Mountain, this implication is concerning to us, and we hope it can be mitigated.

We believe these conditions will not slow the transfer significantly, will have no effect on the viability of skiing on the mountain, and will go a long way to allay the concerns regarding non-skiing recreation and natural resources, thus preserving the mountain as a resource for all citizens.

Pajarito Mountain land privatization

 nsub1@flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

nsub1@flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There’s a new arrangement in the works that would completely privatize the mountain, contrary to citizens’ prior understanding. We are concerned about this. In addition to letters in the Post and Monitor written by PCA members, we sent the following letter to the County Council on October 2 (PDF version also available).

We will keep you updated on this issue. If you’re interested in helping out, please let us know.

Dear Dr. Izraelevitz and Councilors:

I write on behalf of the Pajarito Conservation Alliance, a non-profit community organization that supports the ecosystems and outdoor experience of the Pajarito Plateau.

We are concerned about the new arrangement for Pajarito Mountain that the Los Alamos Ski Club is pursuing with help from the county.

As you know, the original proposal was to transfer ownership of the ski area to the public, and a private company would operate it. This never happened, and now the club has voted to transfer ownership directly to this private company. The deal also includes public funding from the county for a water pipeline, which must be approved by you.

We believe this poses an unacceptable risk that the public will lose access to the mountain. We write to urge you not to approve this funding, because the contract does not adequately protect the public interest and has not received appropriate public input.

The community is assured that the ski area will be “Open and Available to the Public” (quotes are from the ski club’s memo to its membership), except under six exceptions, including “for health and safety reasons, as determined to be appropriate by [the private company] in its sole discretion”, “as may be required by [the company’s] liability insurance carrier”, and “to otherwise facilitate Ski Area business”. These are massive loopholes. Private companies routinely hire smart people full-time to defeat such protections; the above would not be much of a challenge.

Also, we are assured that the company’s “record” is “currently” aligned with the public interest. But companies get sold and leadership turns over; these changes are not a “sale of the property” that would give the county “first right of refusal to acquire the Ski Area”. Private companies are always under pressure to increase profits; will this pressure reliably align with the public interest? We find it very unlikely. Public/private partnership contracts must be written assuming that the company is unfriendly, even if that is not currently the case.

Bottom line: We believe the mountain will be closed to public access as soon as the company decides to do so.

We remind the Council what happened with the old Smith’s. At the time, councilors assured us repeatedly that Kroger’s incentives were aligned with ours and the space would definitely be occupied promptly. We were told Kroger was friendly and they didn’t want it empty either. But these guarantees did not make it into the contract, so now we have an empty building rotting away with no end in sight. As you see in the recent editorial pages, citizens are not happy.

We realize that there are no easy answers here, and we acknowledge and appreciate the hard work of the ski club and others. We worry about the future of local skiing too. However, the right answer is not to transfer ownership of Pajarito Mountain to a private, for-profit entity. This isn’t the only way to keep skiing in Los Alamos. We need a deal with strong, perpetual public access protections, whether or not skiing is a going concern. The current proposal is a bad deal and must be renegotiated.

The Ski Club can do what it likes with its land, but the county doesn’t have to go along with it. We have two requests for you.

First, please vote no when the public money comes to the council.

Second, most citizens are under the impression that Pajarito Mountain will be or already has been transferred to the public. The new, very different proposal deserves a serious effort to gather the public input and feedback that is appropriate for a decision of this magnitude and public interest.

Sincerely,

/s/ Reid Priedhorsky

Reid Priedhorsky
Secretary, Pajarito Conservation Alliance

Carrie Walker, newest Utilities Board member

 Dr. Carrie Walker, appointed to the Board of Public Utilities in July 2017.   Photo credit: Henrik Sandin

Dr. Carrie Walker, appointed to the Board of Public Utilities in July 2017.

Photo credit: Henrik Sandin

This blog post also ran in the Daily Post on July 30 and the Monitor on August 4.

From time to time, we publish opinion columns on conservation issues of interest to the citizens of Los Alamos, White Rock, and surrounding communities. This column is an interview with Dr. Carrie Walker, who joined the Board of Public Utilities on July 1. Because the BPU controls county policy on issues such as water & energy conservation and climate change, and it manages infrastructure throughout our open space, we are excited to see a young, ambitious progressive like Dr. Walker joining the board.

This interview was conducted by e-mail. It reflects Dr. Walker’s opinions, not necessarily those of the board.

Can you give us a brief biography?

I’m originally from Oxford, Mississippi, a small college town. I have a Ph.D. in physics from North Carolina State University. I started coming out to Los Alamos regularly as a graduate student to do experiments at the accelerator facility. I finally moved out here for good about six years ago, and I now live here with my husband, Bryan, and our son, Ethan.

Why did you apply for the Board of Public Utilities?

I got interested in the work of the board when I first read that the county had adopted the goal of being a carbon neutral electricity provider by 2040. I thought to myself that it would be great to be a part of making that happen. I believe we are really fortunate to have county-owned utilities, and we have a responsibility to manage those resources wisely. 

What do you think makes Los Alamos special?

People here are passionate: passionate about science, the outdoors, history, and especially their community. I spent several years constantly moving around from place to place, and I can say that no other town I’ve lived in has had such a great sense of community. The natural beauty of the outdoors here is also pretty fantastic!

What do you think the BPU and DPU are doing well?

I think the DPU has made great progress over the last several years in making their services much more reliable. I remember what power outages in the summer used to be like even just five years ago. I am also impressed that the board and the DPU have been aggressive in starting their strategic planning for the carbon neutral 2040 goal. It’s a very exciting time for the utilities.

What opportunities for more clean energy do you see for Los Alamos?

We have a number of options available to us that the DPU has started exploring. Each option comes with its own advantages and challenges. We already get hydro power from both Abiquiu and El Vado, and we can continue to try and maximize on those sources in the future. Building more solar capacity along with storage is one very attractive option, though it will require us to find suitable land for it, which isn’t trivial. And the county has also shown interest in a small modular nuclear reactor project, in which the plant would be located elsewhere, and we would own a share of it.  

What do you hope the BPU will be like once your five years of service are complete?

I hope that the utilities will have a clearer vision of what a carbon neutral portfolio looks like for Los Alamos County. I’d also really like to see White Rock have a new wastewater treatment plant. 

Is there anything else you’d like citizens of Los Alamos and White Rock to know about you or your plans as you begin your term?

The county’s carbon neutrality goal is an ambitious one, and it will require that the board and the DPU communicate well with the public and get feedback at every step of the process. So I hope to hear a lot more from residents about what kind of energy future they want to see for Los Alamos.

The Utilities Board needs you!

The Los Alamos County Board of Public Utilities (BPU) is looking for a new board member; applications are due April 10.

Who is selected is important because the BPU controls county policy for energy, water, and wastewater, which impacts many conservation issues, most notably climate change. Further, the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) manages infrastructure throughout county open space and reports to the BPU, so this board has an outsize impact on open space as well.

Water plan update: Better; problems remain

The county is in the midst of updating its Long Range Water Supply Plan. The goal of this plan is to analyze water demand for the county, including LANL, and lay out options for meeting that demand, with a planning horizon of 40 years.

In our view, the second draft is better but still has several important problems. Factors which favor development of San Juan-Chama water are well-represented, but factors which don’t are included only briefly or declared out of scope. For example, a key scenario is that the county might choose to supply LANL without LANL contributing any of its water rights; this scenario isn’t justified and seems implausible to us. On the other hand, the draft is dismissive of scenarios such as conservation reducing demand, return flows being credited (treated wastewater and re-injection of decontaminated water), and groundwater contamination addressed with upstream wells or treatment. The draft also ignores environmental, historic, and quality of life issues that may affect development of San Juan-Chama water in White Rock Canyon.

We argue that all significant, credible factors deserve a careful, open-minded treatment. We have asked the DPU to revise the plan again to address these issues.

Solar power for your house no matter where you live

Many of us here at Pajarito Conservation Alliance are interested in solar power for our homes but can’t install panels on our own property, for reasons including insufficient roof space, too much shade, or being renters. You may have the same problem.

One solution is something called a community solar garden. The idea is simple: instead of buying or leasing solar panels on your own property, you buy or lease them somewhere else. This brings other benefits as well, such as economy of scale and avoiding possibly-major electrical upgrades on your house.

You can help, but you must act by January 8!