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Santa Fe parks chief says city is working on clearing medians of weeds

May 16, 2019

You thought the plethora of potholes was bad?

Santa Fe is seeing an invasion of weeds overrunning city medians and generating new headaches at City Hall, which took a beating after a wet winter left rugged pavement on city streets.

“I’ve said, and I maintain, it’s a visible sign of failure to our constituents, to everybody, to our tourists, when they drive through and they look at the condition of our medians,” City Councilor Mike Harris told Parks and Recreation Director John Muñoz during last week’s City Council meeting.

Harris called the appearance of lower Cerrillos Road an “embarrassment” and displayed pictures of medians in his district with weeds 4 feet tall.

“It’s horrible,” he said.

The councilor’s harsh criticism about weedy medians came after Muñoz presented a new plan to deal with a perpetual problem that has been made more difficult by lots of precipitation, a situation that city officials said could have been even worse had the city not gotten a jump-start this year.

“Instead of waiting until spring, we have had crews out starting in February,” city spokeswoman Lilia Chacon said Tuesday. “They were working between snowfalls to begin prepping the soil and removing the weeds. Residents will start seeing results almost immediately but not everywhere at once. We don’t want to overpromise and underdeliver, but they are cracking on this.”

Chacon said the “extraordinarily wet winter,” which was followed by a series of spring showers, compounded the problem.

“It’s really good for the aquifer. It’s really good for watersheds,” she said, “but it’s also been just a boom town for the weeds.”

In his presentation last week, Muñoz acknowledged the obvious.

“We have a problem,” he said. “We have a problem with median maintenance.”

But Muñoz said the city’s approach this year should start to deliver visible results.

“I don’t want to make excuses or talk disparagingly about the past, but I want to contrast some of the activities of the past and some actions of the future that I think will help us address our medians,” he said.

In addition to hiring seasonal workers several months early, the city assigned crews to newly created zones with the goal of improving efficiency and making the workers more accountable for assigned areas. The city also plans to use outside contractors and temp agencies to supplement the city’s efforts.

“I think we can all agree that medians are a representation of the cities to which they belong,” Muñoz said. “Over the course of many years, due to deferred maintenance and other issues, we’ve seen a decline of median care.”

As part of the push to improve the appearance of medians, the city is evaluating whether to continue its decades-old Adopt-a-Median program. It has been terminating contractual ties to business owners and others who adopted medians but failed to maintain them.

Shirlene Sitton, city environmental services director, told the council that 87 medians had been adopted under the program since it started in 1985. An assessment of the program found it rife with challenges, she said, from a lack of end dates in contracts to a lack of experience requirements to adopt a median.

“There has been no infrastructure for reporting for the adopters to show what they have done or if they have done the things outlined in the contract,” she said, “and there has, historically, been no way to ensure that contractual maintenance has been done. For example, in the contact, it says the volunteers will maintain the medians on a weekly basis from April to October. That’s probably unrealistic, and it’s very doubtful that most median adopters were able to adhere to that schedule.”

Sitton said Keep Santa Fe Beautiful, a nonprofit volunteer program that partners with the city on various environmental and beautification programs, including Adopt-a-Median, is working to create “what might be an alternate program.” The proposed alternative will be ready to present to the public in the next few months, she said.

But Sitton cautioned council members against relying too much on volunteers for median maintenance.

“When looking at the larger median issues,” she said, “we really need to understand that we can’t adopt our way out of median maintenance.”

The city maintains about 380 medians totaling 114 miles — which equals about the distance between Santa Fe and the last gas station before Socorro, said Muñoz, the parks director.

Some council members questioned whether the parks and recreation division, which is also responsible for 77 parks and more than 100 miles of trails, has a budget big enough to fulfill its duties.

“If this council is going to be demanding of parks and rec and staff and wants this city cleaned up, then we better pony up the money,” said City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler. “It’s as simple as that.”

While the city will never get rid of all the weeds in medians, calling it a war that can’t be won, Chacon said crews are making progress. She encouraged residents to pitch in and maintain sidewalks abutting their property.

“The mayor sees what we all see, and some of these medians are in rough shape,” she said. “They’re overgrown. They’re untended. We all want Santa Fe to look great for visitors and residents alike, and we know that it’s the little things that have a big impact. It didn’t happen overnight. It’s not going to get beautiful overnight, but we are off to a good start.”

Whether the city is off to a good start could be a matter for debate.

“It’s frustrating that we’re talking about this in May,” City Councilor Signe Lindell said last week, referring to the presentation on the city’s plan to deal with weedy medians. “The train has left the station for this year.”

Harris said he didn’t have confidence in Muñoz’s promises.

“We don’t want a plan,” he said. “We want action. It’s that simple.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.