Developers and Landowners Should Take a Page From the Past by Estevan Arellano

Balancing the preservation of water rights, development of farm land, sustainable profits from homegrown agricultural operations, and enhancing the regional food “shed” requires wisdom and innovation 

If Río Arriba County can have its agricultural lands and water rights remain intact before any new developments are approved, it will not only help prevent sprawl in rural areas; ultimately, it will positively impact the more urban areas as well, such as the city of Española, making Río Arriba a more sustainable county.

But while at least one county commissioner may be on board, real estate agents and some landowners don’t endorse such a plan. One of the problems seems to be that the county has not been able to sell the idea to the public. By being able to save agricultural land and water rights, the realtors might be able to make more of a profit on the land they have on the market, and the same for the private owners, who would see their property values go up.

A perfect example is the community of Apodaca within the Embudo land grant, where in 1974 the Bureau of Land Management declared that all the houses above the acequia were trespassing on government land and that the property owners were squatters. As a result of this government intervention, people started building on agricultural land. Today some of the beautiful agricultural lands are full of mobile homes; the agricultural land is mostly gone – and with it, the water rights.

Under the proposed regulations, development on agricultural land would be limited to 30 percent of a given property, leaving the remaining 70 percent for agricultural use.

It appears that what the county is doing is taking a page from the past, the 1681 Laws of the Indies and the 1789 Plan de Pitic. In fact, the Town of Taos was developed following the Plan of Pitic, and today, Taos County seems to be in the same quandary as Río Arriba County, with two commissioners supporting such regulations, two opposed, and one, a contractor, who hasn’t publicly committed either way.

According to the Río Arriba County Planning and Zoning Department, the proposed regulations would restrict development on irrigated lands, floodplains and headwater zones above 8,500-ft. elevation, known as “critical management areas.” This would insure that water rights remain in the county, preferably within local acequias that have the water rights. Another idea the county is floating is the development of a water bank, similar to what the acequias can also implement.

A notice posted in the county’s website refers to the proposed ordinance as the Irrigated Agricultural Overlay Zoning  District (IAZOD – Ordinance No. 2011-07: Section 5.4 (D)(3). The plat delineates designated IAOZD land-use areas shown as 1) an area up to 30 percent developable land and 2) an area of at least 70 percent irrigated land.

It further stipulates the developable area can remain as irrigated land until such time as development occurs on all or part of the developable area. This type of development is similar to the typical community during the Spanish Colonial era; again Apodaca comes to mind, as does Cordova, Ranchos de Taos and Costilla, where the houses are “clustered” along the the hillside or plazuelas and the agricultural lands are left undisturbed by development from the acequia to the river.

And if for some reason people had to build on the agricultural lands, known as suertes, they were built on the least suitable land, usually a site with rocks, gravel or very sandy; land not suitable for growing crops or orchards. Today, the opposite is taking place as houses are built on the most fertile land in the middle of the property, that then require a road to get to the house. By the time the house is complete with garage and shed, an acre or more has been wasted, and with it the water rights are lost, since that land will no longer be used for agricultural purposes.

Both realtors and private owners should embrace this type of ordinance because, as Río Arriba County Commission Chairman Felipe Martinez said to the Río Grande Sun, “If we have the ability to protect agricultural land for people and developers, it will become more expensive.” Robin Collier of Cultural Energy told me the same thing the other day in Taos, that if realtors would understand the proposed ordinances, they would realize they could sell the land for a higher price.

All that’s needed is to “revision” the design of future housing, which now encourages sprawl, by looking at the layout of communities based on historical models throughout northern New Mexico. All people have to do is look around and learn from the layout of the old plazas. Another model that can be adopted in terms of making the communities more pedestrian-friendly and interactive is the Slow Cities idea, similar to the Slow Food movement. Slow Cities hasn’t yet achieved the traction of its sister idea.

In terms of self-sufficiency with regard to food, New Mexico should take a cue from Florida, where last year its legislature passed a bill in support of “Cottage Foods,” which allows people who don’t make more than $15,000 a year from what they sell to be able to make some foods without the use of a commercial kitchen.

This in turn would help the economic developement in rural areas where it is most needed, by allowing the local farmers markets like the one in Dixon to sell homemade tortillas, jellies and jams, local honey, cookies and other items, thereby expanding what’s available for consumers. The more items there are available for sale, the more people will be attracted, and the local farmers markets will expand.

Ideas abound. All we have to do is open our eyes and look around us, and even take the time to look over the old ordinances, such as those of King Felipe II from 1573, which were the model for the Laws of the Indies. What we take from these is how eco-friendly 16th-century Spain was, and that we can still learn from them in the 21st century.


Juan Estevan Arellano is a reseacher focusing on traditional agriculture and irrigation. He is the translator-editor of the book Ancient Agriculture. He and his wife, Elena, raise heirloom fruit and vegetables in the Embudo area along the Rio Grande.

Image courtesy of Seth Roffman

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