Sheehey: The North Mesa Housing Project MOA

Los Alamos County Councilor

The Los Alamos County Council and School Board have held multiple well-attended public meetings to discuss possible housing development of 29 acres of school district-owned land on North Mesa east of Los Alamos Middle School. 

Substantial public input on proposed development concepts was received. The Council and School Board are now considering a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) authorizing the County to spend up to $475,000 from a state capital improvements grant to produce, with continued public input, a detailed conceptual site plan and financial feasibility analysis for such a development.

My family and I have enjoyed living on North Mesa for the last 26 years, not far from the proposed new site. It was a dream come true for me, on a Lab postdoc’s limited income, to be able to buy a modest home in the Broadview tract, the last local housing development of non-subsidized but affordable “starter homes”. 

Since then, developers have catered almost exclusively to higher-income Lab employees, frequently offering more square feet than many buyers needed, in order to maximize builder profit.

That may be what the free market dictates, but if we as a community want teachers and other middle-income people to be able to live here, the County and Schools will need to exercise the power we have, as owners of some of LA’s scarce available land, to meet this goal. Furthermore, because of the strict state limits on public school funding, the Schools need to generate additional revenue (ideally continuing revenue) from land they own.

Those two goals, “missing-middle” housing, and continuing income for the schools, are what the MOA is intended to bring closer. Achieving balance between both goals may not be easily done. The Schools would need to retain some ownership in any development, such as keeping the land on which housing would be built, in order to receive continuing land rental income and maintain control of prices and who gets to buy or rent housing there.

“Community land trusts” have been successful in meeting such goals. The details have to be worked out for each unique community situation, and this is what I hope the consultants hired under the MOA can help us put together. If and when the County and Schools find a plan that looks satisfactory, we will have to find agreeable development partners, which could lead to further negotiations.

I hope that development will not be markedly higher density than the surrounding neighborhood. That would mean smaller homes, townhomes or duplexes, and possibly condominiums similar in density to the adjacent existing affordable housing east of the acreage. If two or three-story buildings were included, they should not be directly across the street from existing neighborhoods.

Mature, healthy trees on the property should be retained as much as possible; the well-wooded northwest corner could be bought by the County (or traded for other County property) to preserve open space. The entire western edge of the property, adjacent to the Middle School, could be preserved as a wildlife corridor.

The MOA does not represent a “done deal” for development by any means. All it does is authorize an effort to find a plan for that property that will benefit the schools and the whole community.

Since my second term on County Council ends Dec. 31, I will not have a vote on whatever is finally proposed for North Mesa (except as another citizen). I urge my fellow Councilors, future Councilors, and the School Board to consider carefully what we do with this property. In particular, strict control of the development will be necessary to insure that school employees and other middle-income people benefit, while preserving the pleasant neighborhood of North Mesa.