Taos Town Manager Rick Bellis discussed revamping town code with a developer a full year before an application for a four-story hotel went to the local planning commission, according to emails obtained by The Taos News.
The emails show Bellis and hotel developer Jay Batra discussed the strategy of changing town code to allow taller hotels as early as the spring of 2015, even though formal proposals -- both for the specific project and a code rewrite that allowed its application to move forward -- did not come before the town until the summer of 2016.
"We will need your assistance in having the project approved for being a minimum of a 3 storied structure," Batra wrote in an email to Bellis March 13, 2015.
Two weeks later, Bellis responded to a follow-up email from Batra and suggested that Batra present to the planning commission a concept and preliminary site plans for a three- or four-story hotel.
"This would allow you to then either apply for and likely obtain a variance within a month or for us to adjust the codes accordingly within a similar timeframe," Bellis wrote in an email March 31, 2015.
The Taos News obtained the emails between Batra and Bellis from the town through a public records request after a group of residents alerted the newspaper about their existence.
Generally, Taos has restrictions on buildings taller than 27 feet. But in October 2016, the town council voted 3-2 to allow hotels to be built up to 48 feet in a special "hotel overlay zone" at the southern end of the town near the two-story Sagebrush Inn and Suites and the Hampton Inn, which was renovated by Batra. Judi Cantu and Darien Fernandez, both town councilors, voted against the hotel overlay zone ordinance. Councilors Fritz Hahn and Nathaniel Evans voted in favor of it. Mayor Dan Barrone cast the deciding vote when the council split.
In the middle of the historic Taos Plaza sits the La Fonda Inn, the only other hotel in town taller than three stories. In the late 1930s, La Fonda had second and third stories added on to the original 1820s foundation and was grandfathered into the hotel ordinance in the town.
The town has claimed from the start of the overlay zone conversation that it was meant to spur economic development, a view reiterated this week.
"If [the hotel] blocks a little view of the mountains, just know the little bit that you're giving up, it's to be able to support jobs for youth in our community," Barrone told The Taos News in a May 9 interview. Barrone also said the area for the hotel overlay zone was chosen because taller hotels would have the least visual impact.
Batra is proposing to build a 48-foot-tall, four-story Holiday Inn Express within the hotel overlay zone in the 1500 block of Paseo del Pueblo Sur. The property is adjacent to the Hampton Inn.
The Taos planning commission rejected Batra's initial application in July 2016. Since then, several versions of the basic, four-story hotel design have come before the commission at least two other times. Another redesign will be reviewed by the commission at a May 18 meeting.
Ultimate approval or denial of the application will go to the town council, as dictated in the ordinance that created the hotel overlay zone.
The proposed hotel became a hot-button issue almost as soon as it became public. The town has argued throughout the past year that the hotel is meant to accommodate needed growth in the largest sector of the local economy -- tourism. But opponents to the development claim that beyond changing the architectural character of Taos, this is another instance of the town courting and accommodating a single moneyed developer without considering the broader community's values and visions for Taos.
"This is déjà vu all over again," said Lawrence Baker, a vocal opponent of the Holiday Inn Express who independently requested emails from the town.
"This is what [Bellis] did before: make promises to a specific developer, but [say] to the people that it's a rezoning for anybody. There's a pattern here," Baker said, referring to a series of rezoning initiatives in early 2016 that coincided with a much-talked-about relocation and expansion of the Smith's grocery store near downtown.
Baker, who in the last few months has gathered nearly 3,000 signatures from Taos Valley residents opposed to the hotel, claims the town has consistently ignored the concerns of hotel opponents. The signatures were presented to the town council along with a request to revisit the hotel overlay zone in March. Despite the collection of signatures, Councilman Evans says the results are inaccurate and insists there is no backroom dealing.
Danielle Vigil, a Taoseña who separately requested emails from the town, disagrees and told The Taos News Bellis' 2015 emails reveal a "contempt for public input."
For his part, Bellis argues the 2015 emails with Batra are no smoking gun, but rather the end result of a yearslong process of trying to attract a hotel developer to Taos.
"There's absolutely no question we went courting hotels," Bellis told The Taos News in a May 2 interview.
"It's absolutely my job to go out and find business to invest in our town. If people see me walking around showing property to someone, it's not a conspiracy, it's my job," he said.
Bellis and Batra, among others, argue the town needs more quality hotel rooms because the current stock is too limited and also because the town is making moves to shut down some of the most beleaguered hotels with the greatest number of code violations, thus shrinking the already limited supply.
Bellis told The Taos News town officials were impressed with Batra's rehabilitation of the Hampton Inn, which is why he was front and center for conversations about potentially developing other properties. Batra bought the foreclosed Don Fernando Hotel and secured a $500,000 state grant for improvements. He also discussed with the town developing a hotel near the historic downtown, as well as the plan that ultimately yielded the Holiday Inn Express application.
"What came out of two years of investigative work was that we couldn't get anyone to build a two- or three-story hotel. So if we wanted a hotel, it would have to go for four stories," Bellis said, noting the first floor of most modern hotels are taken up with amenities like a dining room, gym and pool, as well as space for staff and operations. Indeed, only four rooms are located on the first floor of the proposed Holiday Inn, according to the most recently submitted architectural plans.
While Bellis argues Batra indicated early in their conversations that a taller hotel would be a necessity, it wasn't until October 2016 that emails between the two show a hard-line on four-storied structures.
Included in the batch of emails obtained by The Taos News was an email from a hotel management company that said, "Gone are the days of two and three story non-resort properties. With this in mind, for new construction, they do have to go along with the [four-story] prototype." The email is dated Oct. 6, 2016. The town council voted Oct. 11 to increase hotel height limits via the hotel overlay zone ordinance.
Batra considered changing brands, according to Bellis, but determined the Holiday Inn Express to be the most economically feasible model.
Bellis acknowledged there was some urgency in moving forward with Batra's design in order to align his project with major renovations to Paseo del Pueblo Sur, which are slated to begin in 2018. "If we don't have a plan, [the New Mexico Department of Transportation] will dictate the changes. And that will make [Taos] more or less livable," he said.
Taos Town Council members Evans, Cantu and Fernandez have all stated in interviews with The Taos News they had no knowledge of communications between Batra and Bellis before 2016 regarding a possible change of code to accommodate outside hotel builders before the presentation went public. In addition, they said they had no knowledge of the town being in contact with any developers or hotels. While the three council members agreed that there is, in fact, a need for additional hotel rooms to be available for Taos, Cantu and Fernandez insisted that a three-story hotel would suffice. Both said Tuesday (May 9) they pushed for a two- or three-story design instead of the four-story model proposed by Batra.
As far as ignoring the community, Bellis said the four-story Holiday Inn hotel is only an issue "among the same 20 or 30 people who oppose every building that's been proposed" and who "want this to be a humble, quiet, collapsed community."
Batra told The Taos News he doesn't think town leaders made promises they couldn't deliver. "They see the picture of what we're trying to do here," he said. As Batra said after the last planning commission down vote of his design, he and his team are planning to keep pushing ahead. "I think Taos is one of those markets that is going to be expanding and breaking free because of what's happening in the [Taos] Ski Valley," he said.