Sustaining Our Better Nature: What’s Really Important?


Amenities and open spaces serve a variety of groups. Once public open space goes into private hands, it's gone forever.

For years, Los Alamos has appeared in numerous “best-places-to-live” surveys. It’s easy to understand why. Our community has numerous amenities that provide residents with outstanding quality of life. We enjoy recreation opportunities that cater to a diversity of activities ranging from hockey to horseback riding, and everything in between. Our crime rate is low, our schools are good, our air and water are clean, our open spaces are a treasure that provide opportunity for unstructured time alone or with friends, our night skies are mostly unpolluted by artificial light. We have a small-town feel that makes it easy to know our neighbors, sleep well at night, and work and play hard during the day.


My partner Caroline and I have traveled extensively by car throughout the West, and we have been unable to find another community of comparable size that offers what Los Alamos does. Yet, I worry that our community leaders are forcing us down a path that puts at risk much of what makes Los Alamos so wonderful.


Los Alamos is surrounded by federal land, which has made housing development challenging. Since the late 1980s, a parade of paid consultants has tried to convince our leadership that we can build ourselves out of high housing prices and into economic prosperity. Unfortunately, in a landlocked community, in a world with a burgeoning population, our supply of housing can never outpace demand, except during those inevitable periods when the Los Alamos National Laboratory budget shrinks, and the workforce is reduced. During these “bust” cycles, we complain that vacant properties are not put up for sale until the next boom, like the one we are currently experiencing.


Thirty years later, hundreds of homes have been added to the property tax rolls. But Los Alamos’ population is nearly the same as it was in the late 80s, our retail sector is shrinking, housing prices are still high, and property taxes continue to account for a tiny share of the community’s overall income.


Our County Council has adopted and endorsed the 2019 Housing Market Needs Analysis, which essentially confirms what we’ve known all along: our landlocked community cannot build enough housing to accommodate the entire Los Alamos National Laboratory workforce.


Current and near-term development is expected to create about 1,000 new dwelling units. These new households will create pressures on our community aquifer, infrastructure and county services. I worry these mostly market-rate developments will do little to address the very real need for housing that is affordable to service sector employees. The lack of such employees is a real hurdle for retail business.


I worry even more, however, about a concept in the study that states if the housing shortage persists, the County is willing to whittle away at the amenities that make Los Alamos among the best places to live:


“Properties like the airport could be decommissioned over time,” the study nonchalantly states. “The golf course or stables could also be decommissioned over time or planned so that housing is only part of the site, as, for example, reducing the golf course to nine holes or designing a subdivision on open space adjacent to the stables that includes equestrian trails.”


In other words, the current Council and county staff have endorsed amputating county-owned green space—an invaluable public asset—for the dubious benefit of a handful of people. The public can only assume that if the amenities mentioned by the study are on the table, then everything else is as well. Not only will this policy destroy amenities, it will divide the community as user groups rally around their favorite activities while expressing a willingness to destroy the pastimes of others.


In our travels, we have come across a lot of small communities that gave into the siren’s song of building more and more housing in the name of economic development. In the many communities where this strategy failed, we heard the same refrain: “We wish we could get our green space back.” Once public assets enter private hands, they are gone for good.


As someone who has served on the County Council, I know how easy it is to become hyper-focused on making a mark or leaving a legacy. After all, that’s what politicians are supposed to do, right? But 20 years later, I have concluded that the most important job of a County Council is to take the sober long view and make decisions that will help preserve the best aspects of our community for future generations.


I believe community leaders should go beyond merely envisioning Los Alamos as a bedroom community for the national laboratory. We must dream bigger by getting back to the basics of sustaining excellence for the 18,000 residents who have chosen to make Los Alamos their home. Basic governance means making sure that local services and amenities are top notch, that public assets are protected, that our water and air is clean, our open spaces are green, and that people feel safe enough in their hometown to smile and greet their neighbors while passing each other on the streets of our vibrant community. Sustaining Los Alamos as a best place to live is not a bad legacy if you ask me.

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James Rickman

- for County Council -

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