After nearly two years of work, Valencia County has a new comprehensive plan, which will guide the goals, priorities and plans for future development in the unincorporated areas.

Valencia County Community Development Director Nancy Gonzales said updating the plan had been a No. 1 priority for the commission and county manager for some time. The plan, which was last updated in 2005, was approved unanimously by the Valencia County commissioners at their Feb. 2 meeting.

“There have been a lot of changes (since 2005) and the county continues to change, hopefully for the better,” Gonzales told the commissioners. “I think this gives planning and zoning a good direction, a good footing to where we’re heading. This is a living document that we should revisit, ideally every two years or more often.

Commission Chairman Gerard Saiz said the comprehensive plan was a “very important guiding document” for the county, thanking Gonzales for accepting the challenge.

In an interview after the plan was approved, Gonzales said the document serves as a policy guide for the county, outlining goals and priorities for development, and providing analysis of existing conditions and forecasting needs based on current trends.

“This works hand-in-hand with the (county’s) zoning code. Any zoning decisions have to be made in consideration of this plan,” she said. “They work together. It’s important to have this as a guidebook.”

The comprehensive plan approved by the commission technically only applies to the unincorporated areas of the county, Gonzales said, but it still takes into consideration trends in incorporated areas.

“The respondents to our community survey were from both incorporated and unincorporated areas,” she said.

There were 450 people who responded to the community survey, which might seem small compared to the county’s total population of more than 76,000 people, but is a better response than in the past, the director said.

The responses from those 450 provided some interesting, rather contradictory priorities, Gonzales noted.

“It was interesting to find about 70 percent of those who responded identified the county’s rural character and small-town feel as what they liked most about Valencia County. But more than 60 percent wanted to see growth in services such as retail, small businesses and restaurants,” she said. “That very much identifies the tension in Valencia County. People want and need growth, want to create more employment opportunities and improve infrastructure, but want to preserve what we already have here.”

While gathering demographic information for the plan, the county’s aging population was again emphasized, projecting by 2040 about 22 percent of the county’s population will be senior citizens.

Currently only 6 percent of the county’s housing stock is multi-family units compared to the state at 18.7 percent, which can limit multi-generational residents and people’s ability to “age in place,” Gonzales said.

“Right now, county ordinances only allow one primary residence per parcel, regardless of size. Even simple things like a guest house or what are often called mother-in-law quarters are difficult to have,” she said. “People can get conditional approval, but getting that isn’t simple without some kind of medical need. This is an issue the plan has identified we will have sooner rather than later, which gives us a chance to amend the ordinances to make things simpler.”

The plan also identified existing and future priority growth areas, which can give county administrators and the commission a way to manage growth and balance the needs for additional housing and retail with the desire to keep the agricultural character of the county.

Gonzales said the areas identified, such as the county’s east side, made sense because there was already budding growth or anticipated growth in those areas.

Existing priority growth areas are the area of El Cerro Mission Road and Manzano Expressway and the area in the vicinity of the Rio Grande Industrial Park on N.M. 304 south of the city of Rio Communities and the BNSF rail corridor.

Future areas include the Rio Del Oro Loop and Manzano Expressway area near Las Maravillas and the village of Los Lunas’s west mesa area, south of N.M. 6 and west of Interstate 25.

Priority growth corridors identified in the plan include the north Manzano Expressway corridor from El Cerro Mission Boulevard to Meadow Lake Road, Meadow Lake Road east of Los Lunas, and the Morris Road corridor between I-25 and N.M. 47.

“These areas help us focus and localize development. A lot of planning in the county was not done with long-term plans in place,” Gonzales said. “Putting these areas in place help sustain the existing residents and encourage responsible growth. Even if the population doesn’t increase, we still have a lack of services such as groceries, retail and medical in parts of the county.”

Aaron Sussman, the contracted project manager for the plan update, also identified the tension between the desire for a rural lifestyle and that of more services as one of the challenges the county needed to address.

“There is a lot of pride in the county’s culture and history, it’s rural heritage, farming, the greenbelt, railroad and (The University of New Mexico-Valencia campus),” Sussman said. “There’s the desire to preserve the rural nature but also the desire for more services and job opportunities.”

While gathering information for the plan update, Sussman found three-quarters of employed county residents — about 20,000 people — leave the county to work elsewhere.

He advised the plan showed a need to update the county’s zoning code to be more flexible, particularly in priority growth areas.

“That could promote a variety of housing types particularly in light of the increased senior population,” he said.

Always a challenge, transportation was also addressed in the plan, with Sussman recommending prioritized maintenance in addition to targeted roadway improvements.

“One option is to invest in recreation facilities and multi-modal transportation options,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot about the desire to add recreation opportunities. There may be a way to combine that with a way to get round the county and address two issues at once.”

He also advised the county to at least explore the idea of creating a formal parks and recreation department, as well as invest in community facilities, such as senior and community centers. Conservation of open space and natural resources, and the promotion of water conservation were also identified as priorities by residents, Sussman said.

Many of the priority growth areas are seeing some economic development, he said.

“Coordinate with Los Lunas and Belen to recruit businesses,” Sussman said. “Continue to partner with UNM-Valencia and the Small Business Development Center, encourage new business development in the priority growth areas.”

Valencia County Comprehensive Plan (2022)

Valencia County Comprehensive Plan (2022)

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.