County Council Chair Randall Ryti Issues State Of The County Annual Report

Los Alamos County Council Chair Randall Ryti/Photo by Maire O’Neill/

Los Alamos County Council

In January 2022, the Los Alamos County Council identified seven strategic priorities; these were subsequently adopted on February 1, 2022, as outlined in the County’s 2022 Strategic Leadership Plan. These priorities address issues important to the community that the Council agrees to focus and make progress on in the coming year; they represent multiyear challenges that require crosscutting engagement and support. Additionally, progress in these areas will help enable the broader set of County investments, initiatives, and day-to-day operations currently underway. 

For each of these priorities, concrete actions were identified and implemented. This report provides examples of progress in these areas and serves as a starting point for identifying focus areas for the coming year, pending broader discussion between the community, County staff, and Council. 

In addition to progress on the Council strategic priorities, it is important to note some other significant events that impacted our community.   First, in April and May the Cerro Pelado fire burned more than 45,000 acres of forest that threatened Los Alamos County’s southeastern border. Relationships with our Federal, state and local partners kept the community informed through daily press releases and weekly hybrid community briefings. The county also evacuated the Sombrillo and Aspen Ridge population, relocated large animals to shelters in other counties and prepared the community for a potential evacuation. Thanks to the exemplary leadership of our emergency responders and emergency management team, the fire was contained, and the community suffered minimal damage. 

Second, responding to the January Omicron COVID-19 surge that crippled businesses’ staffing levels when testing resources were scarce, Los Alamos County stepped in.  The County Manager distributed the county’s supply of at-home rapid tests free to the businesses and the County’s Emergency Manager coordinated with the State of New Mexico to administer two drive-through events to deliver free at-home rapid tests to residents. She also arranged to bring a second PCR testing organization into the county to expand testing services to the White Rock population. Throughout the year, Los Alamos County COVID-19 data was analyzed by an epidemiologist and featured in a Community COVID e-newsletter to inform the public on trends, recommendations on vaccines, testing, and therapeutics. Los Alamos joined the CDC’s National Wastewater Surveillance Program (testing wastewater samples to identify the COVID viral loads). In addition, the County coordinated six vaccine/booster clinics, (including vaccines for children 6 months and older and Omicron boosters for everyone 12 years and older) and conducted two virtual community briefings in June and July with various key community members from public schools, the Los Alamos Medical Center, the Senior Centers, and the Children’s Clinic.

Third, inflation has impacted Los Alamos County as it has residents personally and entities and peoples nationally and globally. Inflation has impacted project costs and the ability to recruit and retain employees. There are also continuing supply chain disruptions that have led to project delays. To help support staff recruiting and retention, Council supported and ultimately approved changes to both union and non-union compensation packages.

On a positive note, Los Alamos was named for the third year in a row, the healthiest community in the nation by U.S. World and News Reports. This intrigued the interest of several news outlets leading to interviews with the U.S. World and News, the BBC and our local KOB news channel. 

And in February, filming in Los Alamos got underway for a new movie “Oppenheimer,” featuring Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey, Jr. and directed by Christopher Nolan.  The movie is scheduled to be released in July 2023 and County staff are already planning Project Oppenheimer  to mark the occasion.

The seven strategic priorities and progress made in 2022 are summarized below.

  • Enhancing communication. Enhancing communication to better inform and engage the public on County matters and to better interface with regional, state, and national entities.

With the success of hybrid meetings in 2021, such meetings continued in 2022. Board, commission, and task force meetings are now generally in hybrid format as they broaden the public engagement to everyone with an Internet connection or phone line and are especially convenient for busy families.

Town hall meetings were to be resumed using either hybrid or remote formats to discuss issues coming to Council. Council agreed to schedule town halls regularly in 2022, with topics to be determined. One town hall, hosted by the Council was held in mid-January 2022 to considered the vacant building registration ordinance. In addition, multiple hybrid public meetings were held to brief the community on the Cerro Pelado fire, the state of the pandemic, chapter 16 development code drafts, feedback on an integrated master plan, site selection for a tennis complex, Pueblo Canyon conceptual plans, golf course design options, and broadband.  In person only public meetings included listening sessions for the Racial Equity and Inclusivity Task Force, and the White Rock Metropolitan Redevelopment Area plan.

To provide information to the community and hear from citizens, Councilors wrote letters to the editor regarding current topics of interest and were available for one-on-one discussions at the farmer’s market. Councilors read emails from the public, letters to the editor, and posts on social media. Community surveys were also conducted for the nuisance code, community broadband services and needs, Community Services Department operations, and the biennial Community Survey was started at the end of 2022.

The Public Information Officer, Ms. Julie Williams-Hill, presented a revised communications and engagement plan to Council in March and finalized and implemented it in June 2022. She is also working closely with the county’s Information Management division to update the county’s website. Ms. Danielle Duran is the Intergovernmental Affairs Manager and is tasked to strengthen communications and interactions with local, state, and Federal government agencies.   

Increasing the amount and types of housing options. Increasing the variety of housing options for all segments of the community, from affordable to missing middle to market rate, and pursuing new energy-efficient options and opportunities for utilizing vacant spaces in the Los Alamos townsite and the White Rock town center.

Information provided by the independent Housing Market Needs Analysis for the County (completed December 2019) estimated the immediate need for 1,310 units of rental housing and 379 units for homeownership, including a particularly acute shortage of housing for low- and middle-income households. This immediate need identified in the Market Needs Analysis is in addition to approximately 600 units currently under development; these include affordable housing, market rate apartments, townhomes, and unattached homes. 

Projects underway on formerly County-owned lands (all land transfers from the Department of Energy [DOE]):

  • Mirador Subdivision in White Rock. Phase 1 includes 161 units of market rate detached single family homes.  Additional permits were issued in 2022. The site plan for Phase 2, a mixed-use development (57 apartments and 11,000  square feet of commercial use space) was approved.
  • Canyon Walk Apartments. 70 multifamily units were constructed under the Low- Income Housing Tax Credit Program. Project was completed and 100% of the units were leased  in 2022. 
  • The Bluffs Apartment. Construction is nearing completion  for a senior housing rental development of 64 units under the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program with occupancy planned for 2023.
  • The Hill Apartments. Construction has started on 35th street (at the old LASO site) east of the hospital for 149 market-rate apartments with completion expected in 2023.

Significant projects underway or being planned on privately-owned lands are:

Arbolada on North Mesa: Preliminary subdivision plan a approved for 85 homes.

Ponderosa Estates Phase 3: Preliminary subdivision plan approved for 48 homes.

Homes at North Community (Arkansas Place): 44 market rate townhouses for purchase are under construction.

Mountainview: 15 market rate units (10 townhomes for purchase and 5 apartments)  – plan have been approved.

Cañada Bonita: Rezoning of the former Visiting Nurses property on Canyon Road for mixed use (~150 apartments and commercial space) was approved.

2201 Trinity (Century Bank mixed use) – includes a new Bank and Offices and 123 housing units – site plan has been submitted.  

A report is due in 2023 on the investigation of the Middle DP Road Site. This report will inform future development of infrastructure and utilization options for other land on DP Road previously transferred from DOE to the County. The County continues to prioritize the environmental cleanup by DOE of key land transfer parcels in addition to the other high-risk cleanup sites identified in the Consent Order.

The Los Alamos Public Schools and the County continued public engagement to identify options and important elements of a workforce housing development that would also provide a revenue stream for the Public Schools on their North Mesa property. This culminated in the Schools and the County signing a Memorandum of Agreement authorizing the County to spend up to $475,000 from a State Capital Outlay  grant to produce, with continued public input, a detailed conceptual site plan and financial

feasibility analysis for achieving both of these goals. The financial feasibility analysis has been completed and will be presented to the Los Alamos Public School Board and the County Council in 2023.

On October 29, 2021 Council passed Resolution No. 21-30, declaring the hotel structure, commonly referred to as “the Hilltop House,” located at 400 Trinity Drive, Los Alamos, a menace to the public comfort, health, peace, and safety and ordering removal of the hotel structure and associated ruins, rubbish, wreckage, and debris from Los Alamos County. Council directed the County Manager to obtain contract services to demolish this building. Demolition of the Hilltop House was completed in fall 2022. 

  • Protecting our environment and improving our open spaces, recreational, and cultural amenities. County open spaces and cultural attractions are greatly valued by the community and provide opportunities for recreational and economic growth; appropriately allocating resources to ensure their resiliency and sustainability is important to our citizens.

Progress to better maintain trails and other Community Services Department facilities was hampered by recruiting issues noted in the introduction. A contract to assist with trail maintenance was approved in December 2022. The Community Services Department public survey was completed in July and the results will be used to prioritize maintenance needs going forward. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) audit was

also completed, and this will also be used to help direct funding needed to address accessibility and inclusivity options for facility users.

Projects to improve or construct multiple recreational amenities continued in 2022. 

  • Leisure Lagoon. A new building addition to the Larry Walkup Aquatic Center, including a zero-entry pool, lazy river, spray features, and a slide. Construction was completed and the facility had a soft opening in December 2022.
  • Golf Course Site Development Improvements and Amenities. Options for this project were considered by Council in January 2022. In December, Council voted to direct funds for maintenance and improvements on the existing golf course footprint and to address driving range safety issues with administrative controls and potentially higher netting.

The County has been working with Los Alamos Public Schools on two joint recreation projects: including a multi-use gymnasium on the Middle School site on North Mesa, and a multi-use gymnasium at a school site in White Rock. Both of these projects have received State funding to support design work. 

Council directed staff to evaluate two locations for enhanced tennis court facilities, with sufficient courts to host tournaments.

The County is in the process of completed an integrated master plan for Community Services programs and facilities which will be completed in 2023.

The County continued development of an updated and integrated trail and transportation strategy. This has included working with Los Alamos National Laboratory and their trails planning efforts as well as identifying key links with regional transportation to/from surrounding communities. While this effort is underway, the County has also been investing in existing trail and pathway facilities (see discussion under infrastructure).

The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) Dormitory on 17th Street was purchased by the County both to preserve this historic World War II building and to help create new opportunities for insights into the Manhattan Project. Council received a presentation on the historic status of the building and prioritized future use options based on community input. Another historic property, Baker House, was purchased by the County in late 2022 with a similar process envisioned to determine its future use.

In late 2021 Council directed staff to eliminate the use of glyphosate-based chemical pesticide controls. Council also adopted an integrated pest management as an overall County policy. Council approved staffing requests and funding for other treatment controls in the FY23 budget process.

Council approved the development of a Food Waste Composting program, to divert 1,500 tons of food waste and 3,000 tons of organic yard trimmings. The bear-resistant dumpster and roll-cart program is being implemented. The dumpsters have been distributed County-wide, and some retrofits are needed for accessibility. The roll-carts are being distributed in a phased manner with the areas with the most bear encounters prioritized. In keeping with the overarching goal to promote environmental sustainability, the Council adopted in March many of the recommendations in the Los Alamos Resiliency, Energy and Sustainability task force report. This included creating a new sustainability manager, which was recently filled by Angelica Gurule in November 2022. The County is performing a formal solicitation to select a vendor to conduct a Greenhouse Gas baseline analysis and develop a Climate Action Plan.

  • Enhancing support and opportunities for the local business environment. Appropriately supporting existing businesses, growing new small businesses, supporting technology start-ups and spin-offs, and identifying redevelopment opportunities as a part of these efforts.

For calendar year 2022:

  • Commercial Building Permits: 41
  • Residential Building Permits: 691
  • New Business Licenses: 164
  • An update and reconfiguration of the County development code that governs commercial, residential, and mixed-use development and redevelopment is another aspect of the Downtown Master Planning process. The code update was completed in December 2022 and will help the community achieve its downtown goals, will be easier to use and apply, and will support discussions with investors regarding the community’s development and use priorities for our downtown areas. An update to the County’s outdoor lighting ordinance, to incorporate guidance provided under the Dark Skies initiative, was also included as part of these efforts.  
  • A short-term rental housing ordinance continues to be under development. Council received a briefing on this issue at the October 26, 2021 work session.
  • The White Rock Metropolitan Redevelopment Area (MRA) was approved by Council on June 8, 2021, designating the boundaries of the MRA District and authorizing the development of an MRA Plan. The MRA Plan was approved on October 18, 2022. Projects consistent with the plan and the White Rock Town Center Master Plan can be considered by the County and the Council with public support utilizing tools to provide various incentives to revitalize and boost economic development in these areas.
  • The Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) project for the 20th Street hotel and conference center was terminated, based on the mutual consent of the developer (TNJLA LLC) and the County. The lots on 20th Street can now be considered for new economic development opportunities. 
  • Sales of County-owned land for economic development purposes:
  • 3661 and 3689 Trinity. Pet Pangea requested that their interest in these lots be terminated in favor of an option for land on 20th Street. When this deal is completed, the lots will be re-advertised for development.
  • 20th Street. Those lots still available in 2023 will be advertised for development.
  • Entrada. This land will be advertised in 2023 for development.
  • DP Road. This land will be advertised in 2023 for development.
  • Sombrillo Court. This land will be advertised in 2023 for development.
  • Corner of Diamond Drive and 37th Street. This single lot will be advertised in 2023 for development.
  • ARPA funding.  Utilizing $2 million received from the U.S. Government’s American Rescue Plan Act to provide COVID-19 relief, Los Alamos County rolled out a small business recovery program in September.  Applications were received from 55 of local businesses that were adversely impacted by the pandemic.  The County has distributed $225,000 in funds to date.
  • Supporting social services availability. Behavioral, mental, and physical health and social services are important for resiliency and quality of life; County support can help address needs for appropriate types and levels of services.
  • County Social Services continues in its new location on Diamond Drive, across from Los Alamos High School, for better coordination with the services provided at Health Commons by NM Department of Health and the County health services contractor. 
  • With funding approved for investigation and conceptual design of a Tween Center (grades 6-8), that complements the Teen Center and Youth Activity Centers, efforts focused on development of a Request for Proposals (RFP). The RFP would include evaluation of site locations close to the downtown amenities, building costs, and program development costs. Additional outreach to the community’s youth and other stakeholders is needed to move the project forward in 2023.
  • Members of the County Health Council, chartered at the end of 2019, met and proposed a process for developing a Comprehensive Health Plan to monitor health and health care, advise on policies that affect health care, facilitate communication, and identify resources to improve health, as required by NM Senate Memorial 44 and HB137. Council voted to move forward with the proposed approach at the December 14, 2021 meeting.
  • An Individual Assistance ARPA program was rolled out by the Social Services and Finance Divisions in mid-December to aid families experiencing food insecurity and difficulty paying rent, utilities and household expenses resulting from the pandemic. Eligible Los Alamos residents can receive up to $2,000. 

  • Investing in infrastructure. Balancing maintenance of existing infrastructure with new investments in utilities, roads, trails, expanded transit options, facilities, and amenities; and promoting sustainable and resilient practices throughout the community, such as carbon-neutral electric generation.
  • A substantial portion of the County budget is dedicated to infrastructure improvements generally through the Public Works Department and the Department of Public Utilities (DPU). In FY2023 Capital Improvement Projects across all funds totaled roughly $66M that makes up about 24% of the County’s overall budget. 
  • An ordinance to make more funds available for utility infrastructure needs, by re-directing the annual profit transfer, was passed by Council in 2020. For the next three years, Council directed these funds (approximately $820,000 per year) to be reinvested to accelerate critical upgrades to water line infrastructure. An update to this ordinance was approved  in  2022 allowing for a five year window that  better aligns with the DPU  planning horizon. 
  • The San Juan Generating Station shut down on September 29th.  The County has partially replaced this production source with a mostly renewable purchased power agreement and is continuing to explore other options.  Continued County participation in the next phase of development of the Carbon Free Power Project was approved on July 27, 2021; the County’s investment is capped at $1.26 million. The project is due to be completed in 2030; (at a 2020 levelized cost of $58/ megawatt-hour). In combination with other investments/contracts, this participation will support achieving the 2040 Electric Production Carbon Neutral goal. There are off-ramp decisions coming to the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) and Council in early 2023.
  • Road improvement projects continued as planned in 2022 with the following projects in design and construction:
  • Reconstruction of Canyon Road with utility improvements.
  • Construction of Sherwood Boulevard drainage and road improvements (Grand Canyon Drive to Aztec Avenue).
  • Cumbres del Norte (North Mesa) Road and Utility Improvements project.
  • Design of Trinity Drive Safety and ADA Improvements (Oppenheimer to Knecht).
  • DP Road Phase 2 improvements – Roadway and utility plans were finalized in 2022. These plans will go out for bid in early 2023. This project will enhance economic opportunities on DP Road., while adding sidewalk and parking infrastructure.
  • The County has pushed hard with NMDOT and LANL for the project to widen and improve the Truck Route and New Mexico State Route 4 intersection. This project will add capacity and help reduce traffic congestion. Additionally, the project will provide an access into Tsankawi with a future parking lot off the highway to further improve safety at this intersection. Construction started in late 2022. A project to improve the safety of State Road 4, by adding shoulders to both sides of the road between this intersection and White Rock, has been initiated by NMDOT with an engineering study. The project is planned to start after the intersection project is completed.
  • The County continues to collaborate on and fund projects that improve vehicle traffic flows as well as pedestrian and bicycle connections and safety. 
  • Trinity Drive Pedestrian and ADA Improvements. Phase I improvements and repairs to sidewalks and curbs along Trinity Drive between Diamond Drive and Oppenheimer Drive, funded with a $250,000 state grant, are complete. Phase II of the improvements, Oppenheimer Drive to 15th Street, is anticipated to be funded for 2023/2024 construction. 
  • Urban Trail Corridor. Both phases of this multiuse path have been federally funded. Phase I will connect the Urban Trail to the Canyon Rim Trail at 20th Street and proceed through the Fuller Lodge lawn to Spruce Street. Phase II will pass through forested undeveloped landscape surrounding the Canyon Road tennis courts and terminate at the Aquatic and Nature Centers. NMDOT and environmental and cultural approvals, and engineering design started in 2021. Construction activities are anticipated in 2023.
  • Canyon Rim Trail Phase 3. The land acquisition process is underway with legal staff assisting with drafting the required documents to acquire the required land through easement. Final design efforts will commence once the easement acquisitions progress. Construction activities are anticipated in 2023.

    During the January 2023 County Council strategic planning session, the status of the identified seven strategic priorities will be reviewed. Council will consider whether these are still the most important priorities for the community, identify any new high-level actions needed to continue progress on the priorities, and determine whether additional priorities are needed. 

    The results of the discussions will be incorporated into the 2023 Strategic Leadership Plan and will be used to maintain focus on important issues and enable other ongoing initiatives important to the future of our community.