I recently tried to remember the city planning directors that I have known. I lost count after a dozen and surely missed a few. The one that stands out for me, and perhaps the most unknown, is Sandra Aguilar. She saved the Santa Fe homebuilding industry.
Appointed under the administration of Larry Delgado in 2002, she was also fired by the same administration two years later. But not before having imagined the means to avoid a moratorium on construction based on the availability of water.
University of California, Berkeley trained in environmental architecture, but born and raised in northern New Mexico, she brought an analytical mind to the land use department. She also had little patience for the politics of the day and ran into powerful city councilors with differing views on how water and growth would determine our future.
At the time, the city was still trying to manage the water company purchased from the Public Service Company of New Mexico in 1995. PNM had no incentive to conserve water – the scarier it was, the more it could charge. . The city also recently spent $ 1 million to buy 10,000 low-flow toilets and gave them away – first come, first served. The donation of toilets has had a dramatic effect on the overall demand for water; thousands of acre-feet of water have been saved.
Following a drought and a housing boom in the late 1990s, a building moratorium was threatened. Then-city councilor Patti Bushee offered what appeared to be a compromise. His plan was an annual allocation of water for growth. His annual requirement calculation of 112 acre-feet was based on Santa Fe with an average of 600 new homes per year, with each acre-foot sufficient for 5.3 homes, which new home construction statistics support.
The problem was that once 600 units were approved, it was over until the following year. Worse yet, each year would roll back to the previous year to determine if there was really enough new water from rain and snow to provide an additional 112 acre-feet. It wasn’t exactly a moratorium, but a metric had been established to trigger one in the future. The near future – like the following year.
Aguilar had a different idea. In contact with graduate friends working as planners in San Luis Obispo, Calif., She visited them to explore the mandatory toilet replacement policy they had recently instituted. The light bulb went out and she brought a plan back to Santa Fe.
Working with city attorney Anne Lovely, town planner Gregg Smith, and city councilors David Coss, Rebecca Wurzburger and Matthew Ortiz, she designed the toilet retrofit program that dumped saved water into the another creation that she facilitated: the city’s water bank. Builders had to buy, and still have to, buy loans from the bank to get a permit to build a house.
At the time, most builders were in favor of the Bushee plan, as it appeared to be overturning moratorium requests. Plus, upgrading the washroom to get building permits was a pain in the neck and added a few thousand dollars to the cost of new homes. Boy, were we wrong.
Begging 112 acre-feet every year, with no guarantee that it would come, was a pipe dream. Had this miraculously prevailed, we would now have added almost 2,000 acre-feet to our current aggregate demand. Instead, we have grown and our aggregate demand is 2,000 acre-feet less than when the water supply was modernized and put in place.
Aguilar found herself on the wrong side of the powerful advisers, but her ideas won. The builders and the community owe him a debt of gratitude. May good policies always prevail over political complacency.
Kim Shanahan was a Santa Fe
green builder since 1986 and a sustainability consultant since 2019. Contact him at [email protected]