Aztec will unveil draft update to comprehensive plan during June 3 meeting

Process began nearly a year ago and will conclude in late June

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
The specifics of an update to the Aztec comprehensive plan will be presented during a public meeting this week, with the document focusing on the city's efforts to carve a niche for itself in San Juan County's outdoor recreation economy.
  • The Albuquerque-based firm Consensus Planning was hired by the city to help produce the new plan.
  • This will be the first update to Aztec's comprehensive plan in nearly 20 years.
  • A public meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 3 at the Hub, 119 S. Church Ave. in Aztec.

FARMINGTON — A common criticism of comprehensive plan updates is that, while a good deal of time and resources are put into developing them, they too often wind up on a shelf somewhere, gathering dust.

That's according to John Shepard, a senior planner at Consensus Planning, an Albuquerque-based firm that specializes in city planning, urban design and landscape architecture.

Shepard's firm is helping city officials update Aztec's comprehensive plan — producing a document that is intended to guide the town's development for the next 20 years. He said a critical element in that process is attracting public buy-in to ensure that the update isn't cast aside and forgotten nearly as quickly as it is finished.

"A comprehensive plan is not regulatory, it's a statement of how the community wants to grow for the next 20 years and how do we get there," he said.

With that thought in mind, Aztec city planners and members of the Consensus Planning staff will hold a public meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 3 outside the Hub, 119 S. Church Ave. in Aztec, to present their draft comprehensive plan.

The meeting will serve as the final chance for the public to offer its input on the plan's specifics before it advances to the Aztec City Commission for approval later in June.

The plan covers such issues as land use, economic development, housing and neighborhoods, infrastructure, transportation, parks and recreation, public services and facilities, and hazard mitigation.

Development of the comprehensive plan update began in June 2020 and has involved two previous public meetings, both held virtually, and several meetings of a steering committee made up of approximately a dozen residents.

Steven Saavedra, Aztec's community development director, hopes to see a sizable crowd at Thursday's meeting and wants city residents to feel a sense of ownership in the plan.

"It's only good, like anything else, like how you apply it and how you use it," he said, explaining how implementation of the plan's specifics will be very important.

Saavedra said he hopes to see the plan update become a "living document," one that is flexible enough to be adapted to whatever changes come Aztec's way over the next two decades. But, he noted, no document can foresee the future.

"This document is largely black and white, and we live in a world of color," he said.

No pause for the pandemic

Aztec last updated its comprehensive plan in 2002, meaning the adoption of the new plan will come just short of the 20th anniversary of the creation of the old one. The city received a $500,000 grant from the New Mexico Finance Authority to cover the costs of the process.

The role of facilities such as the Aztec Family Center in the city's future are addressed in the draft version of a comprehensive plan update that will be unveiled to Aztec residents this week.

That funding has helped keep costs to the City of Aztec at a minimum. But restrictions on how long the money would be available forced the city to continue with the process of updating the plan in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The City of Farmington, which also is updating its comprehensive plan, decided to suspend work on the project several months ago because it could not hold in-person public meetings to solicit response. Aztec did not have that luxury, Saavedra said, because the NMFA grant required that the money be spent within a certain time.

Nevertheless, both he and Shepard said they are pleased with the level of public engagement they have seen in the process so far. The city has held two virtual meetings that were open to the public, and the steering committee has met on a regular basis to provide guidance.

"The first meeting, I was very impressed," Saavedra said of the level of participation. "And this was when virtual meetings were new."

Shepard said he believes the draft version of the plan that will be presented this week accurately reflects the desires of most residents.

"I believe we got good community feedback," he said. "We're always looking for ways to have greater public participation."

Shepard said the virtual meetings have had advantages and disadvantages. Younger families with children, who often find it difficult to carve out time to attend evening meetings, were provided with a practical alternative through the virtual setting.

The same went for older residents, he said, who might have been especially hesitant to gather in public over the last year due to the pandemic.

But the situation had its drawbacks, too, he noted, especially for residents who are not computer literate or who lack good, reliable internet service.

But both hailed the work of the steering committee.

"We had a very active steering committee," Shepard said. "It was very engaged."

An update to the Aztec comprehensive plan that will be discussed during a public meeting this week examines how the city's assets, such as this stretch of the Animas River, can be leveraged to the town's advantage.

He said one of the more common themes expressed by residents was a desire to have Aztec carve out its own niche among efforts by various local governments to rebrand San Juan County as an outdoor recreation destination. He said that could take the shape of a "creative economy" that complements the area's outdoors offerings rather than one that is directly a part of them.

Aztec comprehensive plan:Residents identify outdoor recreation as important component

"What we heard from Aztec residents was the idea of not jumping on that trend, it's that Aztec has found its place and what it can offer people not just locally, but within New Mexico and the Southwest as a whole," Shepard said.

Saavedra cited the work Aztec has done on developing an outdoor recreation manufacturing and retail facility as evidence that the city already is moving in that direction. He said the city has received $500,000 in capital outlay funding from the state as seed money for that project.

"That's a concrete example of how the city is trying to take to the next level and put it together," he said.

"We've had a few difficult years"

The development of a new long-range plan is something Aztec badly needs, Saavedra said, noting that fate has not been kind to the community over the recent past.

"With respect to Aztec, we've had a few difficult years," he said. "There was the (Aztec High School) shooting, the economic woes and even some political issues."

The role of Aztec's historic neighborhoods in the city's future is examined in a draft version of an update to the town's comprehensive plan.

Saavedra, who has worked for the city for five years, said he did not mean any disrespect toward those who fashioned the city's last comprehensive plan. But he said few of its goals appear to have been implemented, largely because of unforeseen economic changes that rendered it largely irrelevant.

He hopes this update fares better over the long run and said he senses a good deal of optimism among residents, despite the travails of the past.

"I hope we can look back at this plan in 20 years and say we managed to achieve most of our goals," he said.

Shepard, who used to live in San Juan County, said he is impressed by the degree of public activism he sees in Aztec, and he believes the large amount of public land that exists within the city's limits give it an advantage over other communities of similar size.

"The question is how Aztec can manage that," he said. "That is something unique within this region."

Once the plan has been finalized and adopted, the work is just beginning for Saavedra, whose department will be responsible for implementing it. He said it's important that the public hold him, his staff and other city officials accountable, he said. But it's also important for residents to be willing to follow the stated goals of the plan, he said.

"The city can't do it alone," Saavedra said.

A draft version of the plan can be downloaded here

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.