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‘Dust’ ordinance protects homeowners

An area being developed on Las Cruces' north end. (Photo by Nick Voges)

We can all agree that “dust ordinance” is a silly name; that aside, don’t believe the hype. This ordinance isn’t “overly restrictive” or “punitive.” Protecting Las Crucens’ health and property is exactly the type of thing the city council should be working on.

We can all agree that it’s a silly name for an ordinance; especially since the “Wind Erosion Control Ordinance,” or the “dust” ordinance, as it is popularly called, would do so much to protect the health and the homes of many Las Crucens.

Unfortunately, as a result of the bad naming, coupled with the focused efforts of a few narrow business interests, the ordinance invites misinformed comments like this one from a Las Cruces marketing assistant, as quoted in a recent article by Steve Ramirez in the Las Cruces Sun News: “If you’re going to live in Las Cruces, or move here from somewhere else when you retire, it’s a no-brainer that you’re going to live in the desert, where there’s wind and dust a lot of the time. Yeah, it can get pretty nasty…”

Of course there’ll be dust in the desert, right? Any ordinances to eliminate dust from the desert surely exemplify government over-reach, right?

Nick Voges and his son Alton

That’s exactly the conclusion that, as quoted in the same article, Las Cruces Association of Realtors CEO Isaac Chavez reaches: “It would behoove the city council to stop passing overly restrictive, punitive ordinances that are making it harder and harder for the average Las Cruces family to afford a home of their own.”

But Mr. Chavez is wrong. This ordinance is not really about dust — it’s about protecting homeowners.

Protecting homeowners

Our friends, for example, live in a development off Porter and I-70 in Las Cruces. They bought a house there — their first home — about five years ago. It’s a charming house, cozy and practical, as a first home should be. When their house was built it was one of the first homes in the subdivision. During their first winter there they planned which flowers and trees they’d plant in their front yard to augment the landscaping that came with the house. Then the spring winds came. Everyone in New Mexico knows about our winds, but the Las Cruces varietal can be especially blustery.

One afternoon I stopped by their house to drop something off. My friend was out raking his front yard, trying desperately to get the dirt out of his gravel landscaping. Because theirs was one of the first houses in the subdivision, and the construction of new housing had slowed, their home was surrounded by block after block of empty, clear-cut lots. And so the spring wind dumped mounds of unsettled dirt onto the only thing out there: their landscaped front yard.

My friend is stalwart and stoic but you can only rake dirt out of your rocks so many times before you lose heart. These days, now that the dirt has covered over everything, they joke that their front yard is xeriscaped. Again, they’re not the type to complain, but they’ve lost thousands of dollars of value in their home. And it could have all been avoided if the developers had been good neighbors.

What should have been done?

The proposed revision to the ordinance outlines a number of precautions that responsible developers should take to protect homeowners who have built homes in their subdivisions. From the ordinance: “Dust and blowing dirt and sand shall be kept to a minimum by good practices such as using an approved dust suppressant or soil stabilizer, paving, covering, landscaping, continuous wetting, controlling access and speeds, or other acceptable means.”

Everyone knows that there will always be dust in the desert, but we also know that there are ways to make blowing dust, and its effect on the health and homes of the people who live here, better or worse. Here’s how the New Mexico Environmental Department puts it:

“While windblown dust naturally occurs in undisturbed areas throughout the west, it becomes much more common where the natural soils have been disturbed by anthropogenic activities. Natural soils have a tendency to form a mineral and organic crust that is resistant to erosion. Human activities can remove or break this crust, allowing dust to escape much more easily.”


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This ordinance makes sure that developers take simple steps that protect the homeowners who have built homes in their subdivisions.

Health and Safety

The cost to homeowners isn’t the only problem that the ordinance addresses. According to this fact sheet, valley fever, which appears to be on the rise, is primarily caused by aspirating unsettled dust: “When the soil is disturbed by either the wind, construction, digging or driving on unpaved roads, the spores of the valley fever fungus are released into the air. Once in the air, the spores are inhaled as dust, and they begin growing and multiplying in your lungs.”

Valley fever is especially dangerous to vulnerable populations like infants and the elderly. Furthermore, since the big patches of unsettled dirt that carry valley fever now exist right next to more populated areas, more people are exposed to the dust that carries the valley fever fungus. The amount of dust in the air, and the chances that you’ll get valley fever, are greatly increased by the way that some developers now clear cut wide swathes of land. This could be mitigated if these developers would follow the simple protocols proposed by the ordinance to protect the health of all Las Crucens.

Not really about dust

Which leads us to the larger implicit question that Chavez raises: What is the proper role for our public institutions? To my mind, ordinances like this one, which came about because people’s health and homes are being ruined by the irresponsible actions of a few developers, are an example of how our public institutions can fulfill a key mission: promoting the common good. Everyone suffers when people are sick, and home values plummet as a result of a few bad actors. It’s essential that our public institutions institute and enforce the rules that protect citizens. Articles like Mr. Ramirez’s, by failing to report the full story about the ordinance and highlighting the comments of Isaac Chavez, only confuse the real aim of the ordinance.

In the end, although this ordinance concerns dust, it is actually about protecting homeowners and their investments, and the health and well-being of Las Crucens. Don’t believe Mr. Chavez’s hype; this ordinance isn’t, as he puts it, “overly restrictive” or “punitive.” Protecting Las Crucens’ health and property is exactly the type of thing the city council should be working on.

Nick Voges is the columnist behind NMPolitics.net’s Zeitgeist. E-mail him at nick@nmpolitics.net.

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14 comments so far. Scroll down to submit your own comment.

  1. I completely agree with you Nick, and I am sure thousands of Las Cruces citizens do too. It comes down to responsibility. Weather it costs a few hundred dollars out of builders or developers pockets, it should be about the community and not ALL about the money. The ordinance will not decrease home sales, or increase market prices to where buyers will no longer be able to afford. That’s just ridiculous to even say and I know since I am in the Real Estate business and my family for over 20 years. I think buyers would happily agree to pay a few extra hundred dollars if they know their home and neighborhood is being protected from man-made dust and erosion. Their subdivision will look attractive, the homes will maintain their value, and maybe, just maybe, don’t the builders think they can increase home and lot sales in an area that is DESIRABLE??

    I agree with the person that mentioned that rich developers are not in any way affected by this because their homes are not surrounded by scraped, vacant dirt lots with blowing dirt and erosion. Oh no, they live in gated communities, surrounded by homes …. maybe a few vacant lots, but adequately fenced off to prevent damage into THEIR property. Who cares about the hundreds of acres that we scraped is what they think, right? Well, when you find 12 wheelbarrows of dirt in your driveway and landscaping, we are just giving you back what is rightfully yours!

    We won a law suit against a big local developer, who ended up illegally taking the money from the HOA account to pay the settlement, which I might add is supposed to be used to MAINTAIN the area, not to pay for damages after the developers’ negligence. This money could have been used to maintain the area for all the years we asked the developer for help to prevent and then stop the damage to our home. They would rather pay for damages? Then why the heck are they whinning about extra costs with this ordinance? Sounds like they would rather pay thousands of dollars to each resident affected by their negligence and pay the most expensive attorney in town thousands more to settle a case. This really makes sense doesn’t it. We desperately need this ordinance. It protects our home which is our biggest investment, will attract more out of town people to our area, will HELP the real estate market, and will improve the quality of life of our citizens. Let’s be responsible, didn’t they teach you this in kindergarden?? You make the mess, you clean it up! It’s ethical, honest and responsible.

  2. I don’t think the developers should be allowed to take the land down to bare dirt on acres and acres of land anyway.  They are destroying the natural habitat of thousands, possibly millions, of critters and replacing a diverse landscape with a monoculture.  I recall seeing this done outside Reno, NV.  The developer scraped off all the sagebrush and other native vegetation.  The next step is reseeding with plain grass.  Sort of like a Walmart-style development.  
     
    Now some developers might like to preserve as much of the natural beauty as possible, but that would increase their cost.  (It’s much cheaper to just bulldoze everthing down, then you can put in the streets and utility lines anywhere you want, right?)  That’s where regulation comes in, because the kind of developer that appreciates natural beauty can’t compete with the WalMart kind of developer.  And that’s why the citizens of that area have to step in and pass an ordinance.
     
    Freedom isn’t cheap, and respecting and preserving the beauty of God’s natural landscape isn’t either.

  3. stever,     I’m suspect if there had been some sigificant expense of public money to generate “data” about the incidence and harm to humans from disturbed (greatly increased) versus natural terrain windblown dust in New Mexico you’d be whining and stamping your feet about gov’t boondoggles and silly scientific studies.
    I don’t need a research grant, an EPA study or a Phd to see vast clouds of dust coming off disturbed soils versus undisturbed ground nearby during strong winds in the Mesilla Valley.  Windy, dusty days are bad enough in the desert, with the fine particulates (especially hazardous) creating a haze that can last for days, without humans adding vast quantities of windblown dust simply because it’s cheaper not to do anything about it. 
      You can check in with the EPA or the American Lung Assn about the hazards and effects of dust in the lungs of human beings. Here’s a place to start, with many links that have DATA, collected, no doubt, at taxpayer expense by some pointy-headed, white-coated lab nerd working to destroy free enterprise and the American way.<a href=”http://www.epa.gov/air/particlepollution/health.html” rel=”nofollow”>http://www.epa.gov/air/particlepollution/health.html</a>If you feel the need to choke on “data” the way most people choke on windblown dust you can go here for more fun facts, methodology, etc: <a href=”http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/cfm/recordisplay.cfm?deid=216546” rel=”nofollow”>http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/cfm/recordisplay.cfm?deid=216546</a> Your attempt to put a super fine point on ”show me the data”  (speaking of “bogus arguements”) reminds me of AM radio talk show hosts who avoid being responsible for what they spew by demanding callers cite time and day of such utterances.  Obscuring with  minutae is a too-easy way to dodge the obvious and clearly apparent issue….well used by tobacco companies saying (even in recent years) there wasn’t enough study or data to absolutely declare smoking to be hazardous to one’s health.  They also bemoan the loss of jobs and government interference in free enterprise when restrictions on smoking first appeared , and they still use this to dupe the gullible. 

    I don’t see an ideology in mandating dust control efforts, an attempt to lessen health problems due to dust, or  concern about this issue.  To suggest that is silly political posturing and transparently “bogus”.   

  4. Very good piece, Nick. I say that not only because I agree with your comments about the wisdom of scraping the vegetation off every inch of residential construction sites but because I believe you have touched on a debate that we need to have with each other in the US. 

    We have fallen into a mindset where we label each other as “conservatives” and “liberals” then each assume that whichever side of that divide we fall on is the right side and the other side is wrong.  It would be more far more productive if we would ask each other to define the ideal role of government at the federal, state and local level.  AHD apparently believes that local government should not concern itself with urban landscaping practices. I disagree. I have lived in the Albuquerque area for more than 30 years and still marvel at the difference between areas that were developed when it was still acceptable to pave every inch of the surface on a commercial property and areas that were developed after laws on landscaping a percentage of all commercial properties went into effect.

    I don’t have a problem with my local government looking at limiting the amount of asphalt that covers my property, nor do I have a problem with my local government telling builders not to scrape the vegetation off residential properties they are developing. I definitely have a problem with a law that would tell them to go ahead and scrape the vegetation off the property, then waste water to keep the dust down. 

    I have no problem debating AHD about whether I’m right or wrong in a public forum. I just don’t want AHD to say, “Let’s skip the debate. I’m right, you are wrong.”

     

  5. Weak response gofdisks, really weak.  Do you have any data which indicates the % of “anthropogenic dust” versus natural dust, the average Las Crucesan inhales?, the average New Mexican?, anybody, anywhere? I suspect you have nothing anywhere close to data.  Much less a documented link between the unknown higher level, the average level and the risk of disease or negative effects on humans (or cute little yapping dogs).

    In the real world of creating new environmental regulations, there is a burden to demonstrate the need, the costs, the benefits, the negative impacts.  Something being a good idea or some unsubstantiated link to some negative impact is not enough.  Be a wiseaker doesn’t impress me.  You have no data, no experience, just an idealogy. 

    You want to stop development in anyway possible (now that your nice house has been built on land that was once undeveloped), just say so.  Stop using bogus arguements. 

  6. Looks like Stever.  I know that old man scraping that field behind my house doesn’t have a bit of sense.  I doubt that a rich developer does either unless he and his kids LIVE in it.  These guys just make a mess and walk away.
    WOW!  I can just imagine what it must be like out in La Joranada.
    I never heard of the Valley Fever.  I learn from this blog. 

  7. I think rather than go ahead and implement the ordinance why not get some real data?   “it becomes much more common where the natural soils have been disturbed by anthropogenic activities.”  Wow that’s real precise.  Well maybe only somewhat precise.  Well maybe just sorta precise. 

    Who would ever think buying a house in a new and unfinished development would have dust issues in the spring?  Is it the city’s responsibility to take the place of common sense?

  8.   AHD has obviously never lived downwind of a large grading/construction project.  

     Of course the desert is dusty in windy weather, not really a surpise, is it?
      But even rock hard caliche that’s been dug up and spread around will turn to a thick nasty cloud far worse than anything dished out by natural terrain.  One only needs to drive around the East side of town in March to see the clouds of impenetrable dust coming off stalled subdivisions and “works in progress”.
      It’s not natural, it’s nasty and unsafe, and owners of these properties should be held responsible for doing everything possible to keep the extraordinary dust under control. 

  9. This is a well-written commentary.  Dust from construction areas, vacant lots, and dirt roads are the largest man-made contributors to the Dona Ana County’s non-attainment of the nation-wide PM10 standard. Here are the effects of dust on health as listed by the New Mexico Department of Environment.

    http://www.nmenv.state.nm.us/aqb/NEAP/naaqs.html

    The ridiculous comments by Mr. Issac Chavez on the restrictiveness of the dust ordinance has no basis in fact. It  would be nice if Mr. Chavez could at least do an honest assessment.  Meanwhile the City Council is acting very responsible in this matter.

  10. “It would behoove the city council to stop passing overly restrictive, punitive ordinances that are making it harder and harder for the average Las Cruces family to afford a home of their own.” Issac Chavez
    First of all, Mr. Chavez wants pretend that the costs of our dust problems in Las Cruces are only placed on the backs of builders, which are then transferred onto potential buyers. But, really, how much actual increase in the price of homes does he project by asking builders to wet down the desert areas they have sheared off in anticipation of later homes being built on their properties? $100? $500? Given the cost of these new homes ranges anywhere from $120K to over $500K, I don’t think the reason people are not buying homes is dust control. 
    Second, in case anyone believes that the true costs of these dust storms are confined to housing prices, think again. I am a nurse who sees the worst outcomes to health of our unhealthy air in Las Cruces. This year,we have had many cases in this county of Valley Fever, as well as other dust-borne inhaled pathogens requiring intensive care hosptializations and ventilator assisted support, expensive IV antibiotics, physician consults and follow up care. Many of these folks are uninsured, many are on government sponsored insurance programs such as Medicaid and Medicare. Call Memorial Medical Center, which serves the majority of these folks–how much does it cost to stay in the CCU on a vent for 10-14 days?  Call First Step Pediatrics and ask how much it costs to treat children with chronic asthma, or bronchitis, or pneumonia, or fly them to El Paso or Albuquerque for advanced care? How about the many, many seniors in our town with COPD which becomes exacerbated by particular irritation of their lungs, leading to a squeeze on their finances from increased medical costs?
    It costs far more to remedy the results of letting this dust blow than the few hundred dollars a house it costs to limit it.

  11. Yes, dust storms and Valley Fever are part of living in the desert. But there is a difference between natural dust blowing and man made.  When contractors were grading for the new golf course on the East Mesa, the blowing dirt was so thick, it stretched from the construction sight all the way across Hwy. 70 and continued on the other side.  The visibility on Hwy. 70 from Mesa Grande to Organ was zero.  Lots of blowing dirt when they graded for the two new schools in the Peachtree Hills/North Jornada Rd. area. This is certainly not safe.   Other desert cities and states have some type of ordinance, at least pertaining to construction dirt. In California, any grading project must have a water truck on sight. The sight must be wet down before grading begins and any other time during the day, as needed. If the city receives dust complaints, the inspector for that project goes to the sight and makes the contractor wet down the sight or the project can be shut down for the day.  The trick is, the rules need to make sense and be enforced. 

  12. Thanks, Nick Voges, for your column.  Steve Ramirez did a rather poor job of reporting on this issue. Dona Ana County now has much less “desert” than it did 25 years ago. I noticed several years ago that I no longer enjoyed the natural odors of desert vegetation after a good monsoon rain. If Commenter AHD had ever attended Public Input sessions on the problems with scraped, bare desert, he would not have made such a sarcastic remark. One time last year when Las Cruces was ‘browned-out’ from blowing dust, we headed to Albuquerque. As we drove toward Fort Selden and farther into the agricultural areas in the North Valley, the air completely cleared. That’s what disturbed, bare desert soils cause – excessive dust.  The revised ordinance is meant to mitigate the problem of disturbed-earth dust; it cqn’t be completely eradicated. People like Isaac Chavez are only concerned with money. Those who have pushed for years for a correction of the present ordinance are working for a better, healthier and more attractive Las Cruces.

  13. Well, AHD you might have something there.  Do YOU want Las Cruces to be like El Paso?  Hot, ugly, and just…hot and butt ugly?  Nah, a quality of life in the southwest is to try to keep cool and shady when possible.  I love the artwork too.
    Seriously, I have a 3 acre field behind the house and the old guy that owns it has no aesthetic.  His idea of maintaining the field is to scrape every green living scrap off of it.  That last wind storm, before the snows, put the field into my house.
    Well, the hellitives  hate visiting because dusting is not one of my top priorities.  The peacefulness may even offset living in the dirt.
    I could taste it for several days after that storm. 

  14. What’s next, they introduce an Urban Heat Island ordinance because the electro-magnetic radiation absorbed/retained by asphalt is making Las Cruces hotter than ever in the summers?

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