Where the Rio Grande makes a bow-shaped bend in the middle of Albuquerque, New Mexico, lies a rare piece of wetland known as the San Antonio Oxbow. This 40-acre tract is maintained as a wildlife refuge by the city’s Open Space Division and contains “the last vestiges of marsh habitat in the Middle Rio Grande,” according to a 2012 study by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The San Antonio Oxbow wetland in Albuquerque, New Mexico, seen from the Rufus and Suzanne Poole property.

The Oxbow was initially stabilized and preserved in the 1970s through the efforts of attorney Rufus G. Poole, who owned the land bordering on and extending into this wetland.

The panoramic view of open marshland from here—with the Rio Grande beyond and the Sandia Mountains in the distance—has attracted plenty of residential development to this part of the city over the years. Today the tiered mesas on the west side of the river fairly bristle with houses.

And more are in the works. A site plan currently making its way through the city’s approval process would put 76 single-family houses on the 23-acre Poole property. The 6,000-square-foot main house at 5001 Namaste Road—designed by architect George Pearl, after whom the University of New Mexico Architecture School building is named—would be razed, along with 5,000 square feet of additional structures.

Residential development is already dense on the west side of the Rio Grande in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

A group of neighbors and experts who oppose the plan say demolition and construction activity on the property would undo a $25 million wetland restoration project completed by the Army Corps of Engineers here in 2012 and lead to the permanent destruction of the Oxbow.

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The site plan for the 76-home “Overlook at Oxbow” was proposed in early 2018 by Consensus Planning, Gamma Development and Abrazo Homes. In a statement provided to KRQE News, Consensus Planning described it as “a sustainable neighborhood development plan … that includes open space and homesites consistent with the neighborhood.” According to the developers, “The proposed project is permissive under the current zoning.” The Development Review Board (DRB) approved a variance request for the project on December 5.

But an appeal filed by the opposition group’s attorney on December 20 cites multiple failures on the part of the DRB to meet the requirements of the city’s Integrated Development Ordinance, which went into effect in May 2018 and includes new land use, zoning and planning regulations. According to Susan Chaudoir, PhD, lead organizer for the neighborhood group, the city still hasn’t set a hearing date for their appeal.

The San Antonio Oxbow wetland in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Seen from the Open Space outlook near the Poole property.

The Environmental Planning Commission is scheduled to review the proposed site plan at its February 14 meeting. Documents submitted to the EPC argue that the plan requires federal environmental impact and archaeological reviews and a permit from the EPA, and that until these requirements have been met, “the City possesses no legal right to grant the developer permission to fill and pave the Poole floodplain” or to redirect groundwater.

Citing the Army Corps of Engineers, these documents state that in diverting water away from the property, the proposed plan would conflict with federal laws regarding interference with the flow of surface waters into the Rio Grande along the edge of the Oxbow wetland. The Poole property includes features engineered in the 1970s by the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority to provide natural filtration for the surface water that enters the wetland and the river.

Migrating sandhill cranes roost along the edge of the wetland below the Poole property, which is directly across the river from the Rio Grande Nature Center. The endangered southwestern willow flycatcher nests here. The whole area has been designated “critical habitat” for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. The Central New Mexico Audubon Society has proposed that the Poole property be used for conservation; a CNMAS member produced this video about the site, highlighting some of the wildlife that depends on it.

The Pooles’ pueblo-style house, designed by architect George Pearl, is unobtrusive behind the trees and native plants of the Oxbow wetland.

Rufus Poole was an assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior when he and his wife, Suzanne Hanson Poole, moved to New Mexico in 1957. Poole helped the Taos Pueblo restore the sacred Blue Lake to tribal ownership, winning the very first case in which land was returned to Native American control. In gratitude, the Taos Pueblo made Poole an honorary member, and half his remains rest there.

The Pooles were cofounders of the Santa Fe Opera and founding donors of many other New Mexico arts and educational organizations. Suzanne Hanson Poole was “a tireless philanthropist,” says Chaudoir. In partnership with The Nature Conservancy and WildEarth Guardians, she also helped preserve several stretches of the Rio Grande. (How did an environmentalist’s own property end up so unprotected? A new will, signed just a few days before her death from cancer in 2012, reportedly superseded her previous wishes to share the property as a public amenity. Chaudoir and others describe the circumstances as mysterious at best.)

The Rufus and Suzanne Poole Property in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

By March 2013, the 23-acre homestead had been acquired by Daniels Family Properties LLC for about $2.5 million. Suzanne Poole’s estate was settled in 2017, at which point Daniels engaged Consensus Planning, Gamma Development and Abrazo Homes to produce the current site plan.

When the neighbors inquired last year about purchasing the property themselves, Abrazo quoted them a price of $12.1 million, says Chaudoir. As of January 18, Zillow reports a pending sale of 22.74 acres of “vacant land” at the site (to one of the developers, the neighborhood group assumes) for $4 million ($175,900 per acre). The neighbors fear the demolition phase could begin any day.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and New Mexico state senator Jacob Candelaria have both said they want to maintain the property as open space. In a text, Senator Candelaria has stated that he is willing “to make legislative capital appropriations to purchase some or all of [the] property.”

Chaudoir says this could be a good opportunity for a conservation investor.

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