The City of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This region contains “frequent-fire forest types,” which the state manages following the New Mexico Forest Restoration Principles. A team of industry professionals developed these eighteen principles to create a uniform management system for public lands within New Mexico. The principles prioritize ecological heterogeneity through exotic species avoidance, prescribed burns, and active thinning to reduce fuel deposits.

In 1992, Santa Fe established a 500-acre Escarpment Overlay District to reduce burn risk and mitigate that burden on individual property owners. In Santa Fe’s Code of Ordinances, the municipal government prescribes specific guidelines for building on the escarpment. For instance, Santa Fe requires builders to produce a landscaping plan to demonstrate compliance with local protocol. For example, new vegetation must be maintained at a density commensurate with the natural landscape (as approved by city officials.) That allowable density depends upon an inventory of existing vegetation on that site. However, the city may reduce that density as a fire prevention measure. Likewise, any new vegetation must be selected from a pre-approved list created by the city.

To acquire their building permit, property developers must prove that the only “buildable site” for their project is on the escarpment. In 2016, Santa Fe hired a risk assessment specialist to advise property developers on building within the District. The City of Santa Fe restricts where and how high developers may build to maintain the escarpment’s natural topography and limit erosion. For example, residential developers can recommend fire-resistant adobe homes that utilize historic brick-making techniques. The adobe is popular in hot and arid conditions, such as the North American Southwest.

Santa Fe continues to enforce rigorous planning and building requirements for the escarpment. Its provisions align with the restoration strategies outlined in Santa Fe’s Hazard Mitigation Plan (HMP) — prepared with direction from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The city adjusted its existing policies to become eligible for funding from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation and Post-Disaster Mitigation Grant Programs. These programs seek to limit reliance on federal government assistance for disaster preparation and recovery by encouraging municipal governments to enact specific mitigation measures. Although Santa Fe’s HMP addresses multi-hazard mitigation, wildfires, specifically fires in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), feature heavily. Santa Fe has partnered with WUI specialists to facilitate the integration of a WUI Land Code into its current Land Development Code. The city has also identified three primary factors for devising mitigative measures. Those factors —fuel, topography, and weather—demonstrate how site-specific conditions shape fire prevention.

The Santa Fe County Community Wildfire Protection Plan fulfilled the requirements of the federal Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA). For instance, the escarpment’s narrow slopes are susceptible to fuel build-up and spontaneous ignition during New Mexico’s dry summers. As drought conditions persist due to climate change, Santa Fe must invest in adaptive management strategies to combat increased fire risk. In April 2013, the Santa Fe Watershed Association published a master plan with several goals. It explored fire suppression tactics, including monitoring ash accumulation in nearby reservoirs and erosion trends. Although a nongovernmental entity recommends these techniques, they mirror objectives from the state’s Forest Restoration Principles and City Code of Ordinances. As seasonal droughts worsen, Santa Fe had to address the impact of climate change on its approach to wildfire mitigation.

In 2014, Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales assembled a climate task force that consists of elected representatives and private citizens with a common goal of identifying and rectifying discrepancies or shortcomings in existing disaster (i.e., wildfire) policy. For example, in September 2020, the Santa Fe County Fire Department released another iteration of its Santa Fe County Community Wildfire Protection Plan. When the aforementioned inaugural plan defaulted in 2013, the Department compiled an updated version that addressed “changing climate conditions.” The 2020 Update of the Santa Fe County CWPP reiterates this point, stating: “…managing wildland fire for resource objectives with effective fuels management and restoration techniques have been proven to help re-establish natural fire regimes and reduce the potential for catastrophic wildfires on public lands associated with the heightened risk due to a warming climate.”

The City of Santa Fe has an integrated approach to land use planning that prioritizes intergovernmental collaboration and regulatory innovation. It strategizes with specialists to create a regulatory system that emphasizes and incorporates the area’s unique topography (i.e., escarpment). Santa Fe has experienced success with this model, encouraging internal cooperation and external communication with property owners. However, the City of Santa Fe can no longer rely on historical standards to predict future hazards. As droughts worsen due to climate change, this City must commit to ongoing maintenance of its land use ordinances and policies.

This article is part of a series from the Land Use Law Center that explores how local governments can implement Climate Resilient Development (CRD) as defined in the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC. CRD requires innovative reform of land use planning and regulation by local governments. The series presents and analyzes numerous local laws and policies capable of adapting to and mitigating climate change to create equitable and sustainable neighborhoods, achieving “sustainable development for all.” 

Author: Patricia McKee, 1L Land Use Scholar