Tortugas Mountain is a site of cultural significance for the Our Lady of Guadalupe Tortugas Pueblo congregation, who climb the mountain in an annual pilgrimage to honor the Virgin Mary. But it’s also an important place for local residents like Duane Mosley who go to the mountain to unwind, hike, and watch the sunset and the stars at night.
“It has always been a special place for me” he says “Eating the mesquite beans and watching lizards crawl around on the rocks it is something that brings me back to my center” he says.
Mosley was born and raised in Las Cruces. He is one of around 50 residents that turned out for the appeal hearing to allow a retail development near Tortugas Mountain. He says that kind of development would completely desecrate its natural beauty and outshine the stars in the night sky.
“I’ve never come down from the top of that mountain and thought how wonderful it would be to have some Taco Bell” he says
Resident after resident stepped up to the podium voicing disgust and frustration with even the consideration of commercial development in the area.
But not before county staff presented a detailed case for appeal, so detailed that it had to be cut short by County commissioner Benjamin Rawson. The hearing still went on until almost 1:30 in the morning.
County development staff spent much of the 8 hour hearing rebutting many arguments in favor of preservation. ETA member Billy Garrett did not rebuke public concerns, but acknowledges that there must be a legal reason to deny zoning appeals.
“There are things that are brought up in the course of these kinds of deliberations that are not relevant to the legal aspect of the case” he says.
Even some of the ETA members’ comments indicated confusion regarding the legally relevant factors in the ultimate rejection of the appeal. At least until county legal pulled them into a backroom for almost two hours to discuss it.
“The authority had to be based on some very specific kinds of concerns one had to do with whether or not the application was consistent with extra territorial zoning comprehensive plan and the other had to do with it met certain kind of criteria that are spelled out in the zoning ordinance” Garrett says.
Another factor, the ETA Board did not find the appeal met a need for commercial activity or would boost the tourism economy.
But Dona Ana County Community Development Director Daniel Hortert stated the zoning change would have assisted the area’s economy.
“The proposed EC3 zoning district would compliment this activity” he says.
But ETA members said the need to preserve the area has only grown the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks national monument designation.
ETA member Garrett says Tortugas mountain is a gateway to the Organ Mountains.
“Is this kind of a space, development of this space really amenable to that kind of tourist experience that we are trying to cultivate” he says “A similar kind of question can be raised in terms of the recreational use of Tortugas mountain and the kinds of attraction that that can bring in from local people or visitors who want to climb that mountain and experience the area” he says.
The authority found that not only was a commercial development not needed but it would also detract from the national monument’s tourism potential.
They also found research into NMSU’s plan for university land around the property was insufficient to prove the suitability of commercial zoning.
With more research into that plan another appeal could be filed, though it would be heard in district court. The owners of the property are still assessing that and other options.
Community members opposed like Moseley says the denial is just a battle won in a longer fight.
“I will yell, scream, run, fight and claw until they either they start building or they don’t” he says.
Hortert says the Viva Dona Ana unified development code will disband the ETZ and simplify future zoning disputes.