These are just some of the events and issues that made headlines in the Valencia County News-Bulletin in 2022

Big Hole Fire

April showers were absent this year with spring sweeping in with two large wildfires. The first, the Big Hole Fire, began on Monday, April 11, and scorched nearly 900 acres.

Pushed by high winds, the fire started west of the Rio Grande and within minutes of fire crews being dispatched, jumped to the east side, running north. Heavy smoke on N.M. 47 resulted in the highway being closed from Rio Communities north to Tomé Hill Road late Monday afternoon into the evening, but as the winds calmed, the highway and the river bridge between Rio Communities and Belen were reopened that evening. In total, one home was destroyed and 18 outbuildings were damaged.

Due to the ongoing drought, severe fire danger and lack of fire fighting resources throughout the state and county, a 30-day ban on open burning was issued for all jurisdictions in the county.

With the Big Hole Fire at 87 percent contained, by noon on April 20, heavy plumes of smoke rose from the bosque in the southern part of Jarales. The bosque was on fire again. The Simona Fire started near Jarales Road and St. Thomas Road, west of the river, and was held to 165 acres.


Smith, Giron reinstated to LLS board

Bryan Smith and Eloy Giron

An emergency expedited hearing on May 19, confirmed previously suspended Los Lunas Board of Education members Eloy Giron, District 2, and Bryan Smith, District 4, be reinstated to their elected seats after a procedural error.

A district court judge ruled the  New Mexico state statute the New Mexico Public Education Department used to indefinitely — and later permanently — suspend the entire of the Los Lunas Board of Education was not contrary to the New Mexico Constitution.

However, since the secretary of education failed to consult with the New Mexico Public Education Commission and the “decision of the Public Education Department is not supported by substantial evidence as to appellants …” both Smith and Giron were reinstated to the board.


Former LLS BOE member charged; later dismissed

In early April, the New Mexico Attorney General’s office filed two misdemeanor counts against former Los Lunas Schools Board of Education member Steven Otero for violation of ethical principles of public service.

Steven Otero

Otero was charged with two counts of violation of ethical principles of public service, a misdemeanor.

He was accused of having committed retaliatory and hostile acts toward LLS employees.

The charges were ultimately dismissed after an October decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court in an unrelated case.

The state Supreme Court ruled parts of the Government Conduct Act are ethical principles public officials should follow, rather than criminal statutes. The charges brought against Otero were based on alleged violations of the Government Conduct Act.



Sheriff’s candidacy challenged

The question of where a candidate for Valencia County Sheriff lived was brought into court in March, with Michael Candelaria, the now former chairman of the Republican Party of Valencia County, claiming Democrat Rodney Jones “is simply not a resident of Valencia County.”

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Rodney Jones, the Democrat June primary candidate for Valencia County sheriff, and his attorney, Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, listen to District Court Judge James Lawrence Sanchez during a hearing Monday. The judge dismissed a petition brought against Jones challenging his residency and therefore his ability to run for the office.

Candelaria claimed Jones lives in Bernalillo County

A 13th judicial court judge ruled Jones could remain on the ballot. Candelaria appealed the decision to the New Mexico Supreme Court, which upheld the district court decision.

Ultimately, Jones lost his bid for the sheriff’s seat to incumbent Republican Denise Vigil, 14,730 to 10,297.


Oil and gas regulations altered in Valencia County

At its May 4 meeting, the board of county commissioners approved a natural resource overlay zone ordinance, which seemed to ease requirements for oil and natural gas drilling in the unincorporated parts of the county.

While the ordinance was approved, the method of public notification and legal advertising the county used didn’t meet the letter of the law or its own ordinances.

In June, the commissioners voted to properly publish the notification and repeal the ordinance. That publication set the stage for a special public hearing in July for the NROZ.

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Duana Draszkiewicz, a member of Valencia Water Watchers, was one of more than 30 people who spoke out against the natural resource overlay zone in Valencia County. The ordinance passed on a 3-2 vote and will be used in the unincorporated areas to explore and extract natural resources such as gravel, aggregate, oil and natural gas.

After more than seven hours of testimony, in a post-midnight vote the commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the NROZ, although with considerable amendments to the original proposal.

The overlay zone allows for the extraction of natural resources from a piece of property — everything from brackish water to gravel to oil and natural gas — without changing the underlying zoning.


Local Marine dies while training

U.S. Marine LCpl. Evan Strickland

After being stationed at Camp Pendleton in southern California for less than a month, U.S. Marine LCpl. Evan Strickland, of Peralta, embarked on his first and final flight as a full-fledged tiltrotor crew chief aboard the aircraft he always wanted to work on — an MV-22 Osprey.

That day, Wednesday, June 8, his dream came true, but the flight ended in tragedy when Strickland and four fellow Marines lost their lives during the routine training when the aircraft crashed.

A 2020 Valencia High School graduate, Stirckland had a love for the Osprey which started as a small child, his mother, Michelle, told the News-Bulletin.

When Strickland’s body was returned to New Mexico, residents of Peralta and Bosque Farms welcomed him home with a flag-lined route through town.


Buckland Pharmacy closes

The oldest locally-owned business in Valencia County — Buckland Pharmacy in Belen — closed its doors this year.

Richard Brower, the owner and pharmacist of Buckland Pharmacy, announced his retirement this year.

When Richard Brower, the owner and pharmacist, announced his decision to retire in November and to close Bucklands, many were shocked at the news and saddened the 118-year-old business would be no longer.

Long-time employees described how they were treated like family by Richard and his wife, Evelyn, during their time at the pharmacy, and community members recalled regular visits as children and adults.


Legislative cohort shake-up

Former Rep. Alonzo Baldonado

The first edition of the year caught readers up on a late-breaking bit of news from 2021 with the surprise resignation of New Mexico House of Representative Alonzo Baldonado.

The Republican, who was first elected to the District 8 seat in 2010, announced he was stepping down in the last week of December, less than a month before the 2022 legislative session.

“It’s been a good run,” Baldonado said at the time. “It’s time to pass the torch.”

Rep. Kelly Fajardo

That torch was handed off to Los Lunas Schools deputy superintendent Brian Baca. The Valencia County Commission appointed Baca, also a Republican, to the seat on Jan. 12. He took the office two days later, then jumped into the session on Jan. 18.

Valencia County lost two other long-term lawmakers this year. Rep. Kelly Fajardo, District 7, announced she wouldn’t be running for reelection shortly before the June primaries and District 50 Rep. Matthew McQueen lost his sliver of the county during the redistricting process.

Fajardo’s seat will be filled by Republican Tanya Mirabal Moya, a first-time candidate, starting in 2023.


Tomé map and patent  digitized, preserved

A significant piece of Valencia County history was preserved this year, with the map and patent confirming the town of Tomé Land Grant were digitized by the Center for Southwest Research with The University of New Mexico.

Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico
The map of the Tomé Claim was confirmed by the U.S. Surveyor General’s Office, Santa Fe, Oct. 31, 1860.

The documents, which date back to 1860, layout the boundaries of the land grant which was issued by the king of Spain in 1739 to a group of Spanish settlers from Albuquerque to establish a farming and ranching community in the heart of Valencia County.

The original documents were returned to the town and are safely in storage at the Tomé Land Grant Museum and Library. Replicas are on display at the museum, and the CSWR was allowed to make copies of the documents.


Water battle continues

In June, the Niagara Bottling Company again asked the village of Los Lunas to increase the amount of water the company can extract from the aquifer that sits below Valencia County and beyond.

Makayla Grijalva | News-Bulletin photo
Residents from across the county attended the Los Lunas Village Council meeting on June 23 to oppose an amended agreement with Niagara Bottling Co., which would allow an increase of its water usage to 700 acre feet per year. The discussion and vote will be considered at the council’s July 28 meeting.

In 2021, the company asked to more than double its water production from

285 acre feet per year to 650 acre feet per year after leasing water rights from PNM. Following backlash from the community, Niagara rescinded its request.

Niagara again secured the water rights from PNM, which has been leasing out part of its water rights since beginning the retirement of the generating station in San Juan County.

The village council ultimately voted to table the request until it could get more input from the village’s water consultants. While the request has made an appearance on draft agendas for council meetings a handful of times since then, the council has not taken it back up for consideration.

Valencia County residents including members of Valencia Water Watchers has been keeping a sharp eye on council agendas, anticipating the need to rally and protest the request.

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