Pick any synonym of the word “old” and it likely has been used to describe the city’s general plan and land use code at recent Santa Fe Planning Commission meetings.
The general plan last was updated in 1999, when the city’s population was about 55,000, said Planning Commission Policy Subcommittee Chairwoman Pilar Faulkner. The 2020 census places that number around 95,000.
“We were a town, and we still have the culture of a town,” she said. “But we have the population of a city, and we need to think like a city to serve the expanding population and its needs.”
Planning commissioners have said in recent meetings it’s time to get the ball rolling to study updating the general plan, a long-range policy document that helps shape development and community design.
“What my experience has been is that the general plan wants us to look for certain kinds of projects,” Faulkner said. “It calls [on] us to look for certain kinds of projects, and the code has restrictions in it that [are] not in line with the newer general plan. The code has not been updated to match what the general plan’s intent is.”
Commissioners discussed the general plan and city land use code during a comment period at Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting.
Commissioner Dan Pava suggested sending a letter to City Hall expressing a need to expedite a general plan update.
“We do not live in 1995,” he said at the meeting. “It’s obvious these days with the kinds of issues that are facing us, the kinds of conversations we are having because of it and the kinds of issues with findings that are citing a 25-year-old comprehensive general plan.”
The issue is approaching “critical mass” and has passed the point of discussion about whether the plan “should” be updated, Faulkner said.
“The general plan and the code needs to be addressed very seriously,” she said. “This is a problem that is not going to go away.”
Homebuilders have also grown frustrated by the general plan and city code.
Prior to commissioner comments, the commission heard a proposal from PulteGroup. The national homebuilder plans to construct 88 duplex homes on 16.21 acres near Caja del Oro Grant Road. To do so, agents for PulteGroup requested a rezoning from a low density R-1 to a high density R-10, which would allow 10 dwelling units per acre.
Commissioner Dominic Sategna raised concern about the request, noting the applicants could have requested a medium zoning and still provide the same density of homes, according to their plan.
But James Siebert, of James W. Siebert and Associates, said the applicants had to reach for a higher zoning density because, based on the city’s code, yard setbacks in an R-5 zone effectively provide R-3 density.
“We are simply dealing with an antiquated code,” he told commissioners.
Commissioners acknowledged the city’s land use code was outdated but opted not to approve the project’s preliminary design pending further discussion about how the proposal matched the intent of the code and general plan.
Planning Commission Chairman Brian Gutierrez, the longest-serving commissioner, said in an interview Thursday the commission has been discussing updating the general plan since he took the seat almost 10 years ago.
Commissioner Jessica Lawrence said an updated general plan would give commissioners better, more recent documents to rely on when deciding land use cases.
“In my perspective,” she said, “it would be much better if that planning was updated more frequently.”
Mayor Alan Webber said a request for proposal for the first of three phases to update the land use code has been issued. He said the city is awaiting responses from consultants who would like to take on the project.
Last year, the city budgeted funding for a $200,000 growth management study to determine locations around the city that could handle significant growth. Webber said the Land Use Department is working on a request for proposal for the study to help research appropriate locations across the city for growth.
Pava, at Thursday’s meeting, said the study was a Band-Aid slapped on the larger problem.
“A comprehensive plan update is way out of date,” he said.
Housing advocates have noted a general plan update could help pave the way for more multi-family housing.
Daniel Werwath, acting executive director for the Santa Fe Community Housing Trust, said almost 50 percent of the city is currently zoned for one dwelling unit per acre.
“We have exempted something like 85 percent of the city from supporting affordable housing,” he said.
While Webber said the city has a responsibility to update the general plan, he did note that many of the themes outlined in the 23-year-old document are still relevant — concerns such as affordable housing, sustainable growth, public transportation and streamlining the planning and development review process.
“I think you always have to match the themes to the implementation,” he said.
Webber also said the city is working to fill vacancies in its Land Use Department, and that it’s vetting candidates for the city’s planning and land use director position.
Since Webber took office in 2018, the city has seen three land use directors come through City Hall: Carol Johnson, who resigned along with her husband in 2019 to care for an ailing family member; Eli Issacson, who left the city last year to take a job in Santa Barbara, Calif.; and current interim director Jason Kluck.
Kluck could not be reached for comment.
Faulkner acknowledged the city’s land use staff is already encumbered by normal day-to-day responsibilities, but she added the planning commission’s policy subcommittee was willing to help play a role.