High Desert Golf And Carting Around Saguaros

Running on empty symbols

One morning in May 2003 news photographers were let through the high security system at Las Campanas, a luxury subdivision northwest of Santa Fe, to record President Bush playing golf. It was a publicity coup for the company of Lyle Anderson of Phoenix, the developer who against substantial public opposition built two 18-hole signature courses in the high desert hills between the artistic city and the Rio Grande.

By contrast John Kerry, who won Santa Fe by 73 per cent, probably would never set foot on Las Campanas. His Santa Fe thing, not a photo op, was to ride his racing bike up Canyon Road in the mornings during his debate preparation retreat. The problem with Las Campanas is not golf or that Democrats are allergic to the executive game – Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton played — but that the management of the gated subdivision had managed to offend most of the adjacent city.

The focus of the animosity was water. In the high desert of the upper Rio Grande, the expensive seeds of golf have not often fluourished. But Las Campanas was different because 20 years ago the 4,700-acres of grazing land came with a unique source of water – namely, the Santa Fe water main from a well field by the river to the city limits. Anderson had a contract going back to the complex trade of water taps for easements by the water main constructor, Public Service Co. of New Mexico.

The first clear expression of political opposition to Las Campanas came in the mayoral election of 1994, when the well-funded leader according to all polls was a dynamic young city councilor named Peso Chavez. In the last weeks of the campaign it was revealed that his security firm had a contract with Las Campanas. It stopped his political career in its tracks. In a 2-1 upset, he was defeated by the volatile Debbie Jaramillo, whose first words as mayor-elect were: “This town is not for sale!”

Local resentment of Las Campanas drew national publicity with the onset of severe drought in 2002. Santa Fe residents were limited by emergency ordinance to watering no more than once a week. But Las Campanas adhered to no such restrictions, since it had an independent right to delivery from the Santa Fe water main out of town. It was estimated that 10 per cent of the city’s scarce water supply that summer was going to Las Campanas. The fairways and greens were thriving while in Santa Fe lawns were reverting to dirt and trees were dying in parks.

The city sued Las Campanas, claiming a priority on the water. Las Campanas responded with a withering attack on city management. After a year of public acrimony, the parties reached a settlement in September 2003. The developer agreed to cut back use of water from the city main, and the city agreed to offset this by supplying about 450 acre-feet (146 million gallons) of treated sewage effluent a year for the Las Campanas golf courses.


The city paid around $1 million in legal fees to its lawyers in the case. The cost of litigation to the developer was not disclosed. But Anderson’s costs disclosed in the settlement included nearly $4 million in capital outlay to transfer, store and distribute the effluent, plus a 61 per cent increase, to $700,000, in the annual water bill for the golf courses.

The cost of watering the two 18-hole courses ought to be a reliable benchmark for any realistic estimate of water costs for an 18-hole course in the the Rio Arriba, the upper Rio Grande. It is unlikely that any gated real estate development outside the Santa Fe cultural-amenity area could get away with lot prices and club dues sufficient to pay the bill.

Taber Anderson, the president of Lyle Anderson Co., told the Albuquerque Journal in October 2003 that the cost of the settlement was “the price of peace.” The developer had done a public opinion poll several months before the settlement. Taber Anderson would not disclose the results.

He said, “I’m not crazy enough to think that people will fall in love with Las Campanas because of the settlement or its use of effluent. But it’s going to be much harder to blame Las Campanas for the city’s overall water problem.”

It also became much harder for Santa Fe public officials to vote for any further developments. In February the county commission, usually pro-development, voted down a high-end development proposed for land just south of Las Campanas by a well-financed, well-regarded, well-connected Democrat (Gerald Peters, friend of the governor) after two years of haggling. The two main reasons for rejecting the plan were lack of affordable housing and unreliability of water supply.

The decorative gate at Bush’s Crawford, Tex., ranch shows the steel cutout of a giant saguaro cactus. There’s not a saguaro within a thousand miles. The tall multi-armed cactus is a native of the Sonoran Desert. The saguaro on the ranch gate is an empty, misleading symbol. Equally, the pictures of the president golfing in the high desert.

Not that Las Campanas is empty. The luxury Santa Fe-style vacation homes there start at something close to $1 million. The colorful real estate agency ads tell the tale. It’s probably a success – but at great public expense.