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County approves public land zoning change; Officials decide on polling places and eliminate Dunken polling location

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"Ultimately it is a county decision and is not something that we get to implement," said Chuck Schmidt, Roswell field manager with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, who was asked Thursday morning by a member of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners to comment on a change to the county zoning ordinance that will subject federal, state, county and city land to the same review process as private land. Commissioners voted to remove exemptions for public lands. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Public lands under the jurisdiction of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners now will be subject to the same zoning regulations for land use as privately owned property following a vote Thursday morning.

In other action, the board also approved 2018 voting center locations that will not provide for a polling site near Dunken in the southwest portion of the county.

The five commissioners voted to approve an amendment to county zoning ordinances to bring public lands under the same review processes as private land. Their decision was unanimous although they had been presented a letter from the head of the New Mexico State Land Office asking them to reject the change.

The amendment will require property owned by the federal government, the state government, the county and cities to undergo the same review as privately owned property when it comes to proposed uses of land.

“The New Mexico courts have made it clear that counties and municipalities have no jurisdiction to regulate the use of state trust lands unless specifically granted that authority by the state Legislature,” stated Commissioner of Public Lands Aubrey Dunn in a letter dated Sept. 25 sent to all the commissioners.

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The letter states that two court cases were decided in favor of the Land Office when counties sought to assert jurisdiction over activities on state trust lands, which the agency contends are distinct from public lands.

A State Land Office employee was in the audience but chose not to speak, telling commissioners that the letter provided the office’s viewpoint.

Assistant Commissioner for Communication Kristin Haase said the county amendment will probably not determine state trust land decisions in the future.

“Regardless of what the ordinance says, the courts have made it clear that the county cannot regulate the use of state trust lands,” she said. “Thus, the action taken by the Board of County Commissioners should have no effect on the use of state trust lands, except to the extent that the Commissioner of Public Lands determines that requiring lessees to comply is in the best interest of the trust.”

Lawyer Bob Carroll of Roswell asked a question about whether the amendment would pre-empt federal and state laws if those laws spelled out the intended uses of land.

“It seems to me that taking this out may not mean anything at all because, if the state or federal government wants to put a wind farm or a solar farm or whatever on federal or state land, I don’t see that the county is going to be able to stop them or would want to stop them,” he said. “I suppose I don’t think it has any effect at all, so I don’t necessarily object to it unless the intent of it is to have the county impose its rule over state and federal law.”

County Manager Stanton Riggs said the county will not have precedence over federal or state law. “I think the intent of this is, first, open communication,” he said, explaining that the county supports wind and solar farms or other projects in general and is not seeking to prohibit such projects. “We just want to make sure that the land owners know what is going on. We will go through the process and publicize it, and that way they can have a voice.”

Commission Chair Robert Corn added, “We are not going to stand in the way of an act of Congress or the state Legislature. Other than that, we think we have a say.”

Chuck Schmidt, Roswell field manager of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, asked by commissioners to comment, said he was neither for nor against the amendment.

“As we have been evaluating this — and I have been on the phone a time or two with Marlin (Chaves County Planning Director Marlin Johnson) on this — I think I see the intent,” he said. “Ultimately, it is a county decision and is not something that we get to implement. … So since we are basically talking about permitting, it is going to go back to the proponent, whether it is a new energy development, whether it be permitting a range land improvement, whatever might be, it is going to be back on the person that we are dealing with to come in and coordinate to make sure they are in compliance with county policy.”   

The county is also asking the Roswell-Chaves County Extraterritorial Zoning Authority, which will meet Oct. 26, to adopt a similar amendment for public lands under its jurisdiction, which typically involves land outside the city limits but within two miles of it. Both the Roswell-Chaves County Extraterritorial Zoning Commission and the Chaves County Planning and Zoning Commission previously have recommended approval of the amendment.

The commissioners also voted four to one to approve 13 “voting convenience centers” for 2018 primary and general elections. Commissioner T. Calder Ezzell Jr. opposed the motion.

While some changes in locations were made in the city of Roswell since the previous elections in 2016, the most significant difference is that there will be no voting site near Dunken in the southwest portion of the county.

“We do realize that people in that area love to have a polling place,” said County Clerk Dave Kunko, “but we have decided it is cost-prohibitive.”

He said that the cost of establishing a polling site in the area is estimated conservatively at $5,000, while mailing out ballots is only anticipated to cost about $700.

Dunken area residents also can vote at any of the 13 convenience centers in the county. Roswell will have 11 polling locations, and voting convenience centers will be in Dexter, Lake Arthur and Hagerman.

As the time of elections nears, voting locations will be publicized and listed online. The list is available now from the Chaves County Clerk’s Office.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.