RIO COMMUNITIES — Three much-debated zone changes were approved by the Rio Communities Council at a special meeting in the early morning hours of Wednesday, April 17. 

The final vote on the three requests came shortly after midnight after councilors heard from more than a dozen residents and spent a little more than two hours in executive session discussing the applications on Tuesday night. The meeting was a continuation of an April 1 public hearing on the zone change requests. 

The requests came from Playa Vista Group, which is comprised of property owners Cibola Land Corporation, Abo Viejo Investments and Felipe Sanchez, which have 60, 30 and 10 percent ownership interest, respectively. At just more than 330 acres total, the vacant land on the southern edge of the city of Rio Communities has been zoned planned development since the city incorporated a decade ago. 

The most controversial request was for a zone change to business manufacturing of 268 acres between N.M. 47 and 304. That was approved on a 3-2 vote, with Councilors Matthew Marquez and Tom Nelson voting against the request, and Councilors Lawrence Gordon and Art Apodaca voting in favor. Mayor Joshua Ramsell broke the tie, voting in favor of the request. 

Marquez said he was voting no “because of the overwhelming input from the city’s residents and the lack of information from Yates and the Playa group.” 

Cibola is headed by oil and gas producer Harvey Yates Jr. Cibola and Yates had brought an almost identical request to the city in 2023, asking for Industrial 3 and Commercial 3 on the properties.  

After multiple public hearings, with standing-room only crowds, Yates withdrew his application. Since then, the city has reworked it’s zoning code to eliminate heavy industrial and instead created a business manufacturing zone, which allows for a wide variety of light manufacturing, assembly, commercial processing, storage, packaging, compounding and wholesaling as well as distribution operations. 

The two other requests were for 39 acres abutting N.M. 304 and 24 acres on N.M. 47 (Rio Communities Boulevard) to be rezoned to C-2. 

Both those requests were approved on 4-0 votes. Before voting on the property located on N.M. 47, Councilor Marquez said, “I’m not happy with where it’s at, but yes.” 

In addition to the public hearing before the city council, the zone change requests were also the subject of two open forums with the city’s planning and zoning commission on Jan. 11 and Feb. 1. At its March 7 meeting, the planning and zoning commission voted unanimously to recommend the application move on to the council without offering a recommendation for approval or denial.  

Regardless of how the planning and zoning commission voted, the requests would have gone forward to the city council for public hearing since only it has the authority to grant zone changes. 

Will Gleason, an urban planner and partner with Dekker Perich Sabatini, represented Playa at the April 16 continuation of the public hearing. 

“We believe the land is positioned very well for rezoning,” Gleason said. “I think the success of Arcosa (a wind tower manufacturer located to the south of the property) and the activity in the middle Rio Grande region could be a resurgence that could benefit Rio Communities.” 

Gleason told the councilors Playa wasn’t proposing “old school” manufacturing activities for the business manufacturing zone, such as smelting steel and activities that would result in the emission of toxic chemicals. 

“All the activities are intended to be performed in enclosed spaces with minimum impact to areas outside the property,” he said. “Any projects that come in will have to go through a separate site design review with (Rio Communities Planning and Zoning Commission).” 

Unlike previous forums and hearings, some residents spoke in favor of the project last week. 

Marita Wilson said she was sure the founding members of the community envisioned a city that would develop into a thriving community, with parks and walking paths. 

“That vision never happened and it won’t unless you allow businesses to provide the desperately needed tax base,” Wilson said. “In the eight years I’ve lived in Rio Communities, the only new developments and improvements I’ve seen for my tax dollars are a one-room library with no librarian, a makerspace that is seldom used, a part-time police force and improvements to city hall.  

“Coming into town, you are greeted by vacant buildings covered with graffiti,” she said. “… city services cost money and you cannot write a grant for everything we need.” 

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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.