ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Since the first gathering of 13 balloons in 1972 to the hundreds planning to participate in this year’s event, the Balloon Fiesta has grown tremendously over the years. But so has Albuquerque, meaning there are substantially fewer places for the world-famous balloons to land.

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A lack of potential landing spots is not a new concern. But for the first time, KRQE’s investigative team has used satellite imagery to calculate just how much land has been taken over by new buildings, roads, and parking lots. In the last 30 years, the amount of prime landing space has decreased by about 75%.

“With the development of the City of Albuquerque, there’s many fewer landing sites, at least during the Balloon Fiesta,” says Scott Appelman. He’s the president and CEO of Rainbow Ryders, a ballooning company that’s been flying here for decades.

“Typically, we’re flying down to the south [from Balloon Fiesta Park], and obviously we’re flying into a major metropolitan area,” Appelman says. “There used to be tracts of land, plots of land, and things like that, you know, we could poke into,” he told KRQE. “Those vacant land areas are fewer and farther between now.”

That’s something the City of Albuquerque and Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (AIBF) organizers have been aware of for years now. In 2018, the Albuquerque City Council created a task force to examine the scope of the issue and come up with potential solutions. Their final report showed that balloons usually land within a roughly 7.5 square mile area south of Balloon Fiesta Park, according to Balloon Fiesta officials. The problem: That same area has been developing at a rapid pace over the last 30 years.

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Most of the time, balloons land within a roughly 7.5 square mile area east of I-25, according to research by the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

The primary landing area — where balloons land about 72% of the time, according to AIBF — lies directly south of Balloon Fiesta Park. During the Balloon Fiesta, morning wind tends to blow from north to south at about 4.5 to 13 miles per hour, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As a result, balloons often set down in open spaces in northern Albuquerque, west of I-25 —a region that’s seen a lot of growth in the last few decades.

In 1991, for example, there were about 82 million square feet of open space within that region, according to KRQE’s analysis of satellite imagery. That’s 82 million square feet of fields, dirt lots, parks, and other areas large enough for a balloon to land on (we used an area of 40,000 square feet as the minimum size, but a good pilot can land on smaller parcels of land.) By 2020, only about 19 million square feet of open area remained in that same region. In other words, about 75% of the potential balloon landing sites are now gone.

Several large commercial and residential developments now take up huge portions of those sites. One example is the Renaissance Center, at Montaño and I-25. In 1991, there were around 10 million square feet of open space and empty dirt lots at this spot, less than four miles from Balloon Fiesta Park. By 2002, there were only about 3.5 million square feet of open space. Now, there are only about a million square feet of land for would-be landings. Over 88% of the sites have been developed.

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App users click here to view image: The Renaissance Center wasn’t much more than several dirt lots back in 1991. But over the years, the space has been filled in with a Costco, Home Depot, Sam’s Club, and other commercial properties. Imagery from the United States Geological Survey and Google Earth/Landsat.

Another large development just downwind of Balloon Fiesta Park is the Vista Del Norte neighborhood. In 1991, it was nothing more than about 17 million square feet of dirt. By 2002, real estate developments had reduced that to about 13 million square feet of dirt lots. Now, most of the area has been filled with 2-story homes. Two parks and several drainage areas make up most of the remaining 2 million square feet of open space. And one of those parks was almost a Walmart.

In the mid-2000s, Walmart submitted a request to build a superstore of at least 184,000 square feet, according to emails from the City of Albuquerque. By then, housing developments had already filled in most of the area, but there were still a few spots for balloons to land. Residents voiced their opposition to the proposed Walmart in letters to the city — some even cited the fact that balloons often land at that spot. The city listened and turned the lot into a balloon-friendly park.

“Vista Del Norte Park, during some wind and weather condition patterns, sometimes gets 60 to 70% of the balloonists taking off from Balloon Fiesta Park,” says Dave Simon, the director of Albuquerque’s Parks and Recreation Department. “So, Vista Del Norte Park was actually acquired with the express goal of saving it as a balloon landing site.”

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The Vista Del Norte development went from roughly 17 million square feet of dirt to only a few parks and drainage areas in the span of 30 years. Vista Del Norte Park, the half-dirt, half-grass area near the bottom of the image, was preserved with the intention of providing a landing space. Data from United States Geological Survey and Google Earth/Landsat.

Keeping sites open for balloons isn’t just a matter of convenience. It’s a matter of economics. After all, by inviting pilots and tourists from all over the world, the Balloon Fiesta generated nearly $190 million in direct and indirect local spending in 2019, according to a report by Forward Analytics. But the shrinking size of Albuquerque’s open spaces has already hampered the event.

The first event had only 13 balloons. By 1988, there were 600 balloons. By the year 2000, there were 1,019 balloons registered to participate, according to AIBF. The next year, organizers decided to limit the number to 750 balloons, according to a 2001 report in FAA Aviation News. More recently, the organizers shrunk the event to 600 balloons because of a lack of landing sites, according to Paul Smith, the executive director of the Balloon Fiesta.

Balloon pilot Scott Appelman says that a lack of landing sites can make some pilots feel uncomfortable about participating. “A lot of those people come from say the Midwest or you know, many different places where they’re not necessarily flying over a metropolitan area. They’re used to wide-open areas,” he says. “They also want to feel comfortable flying in the area, and comfortable, as a pilot, means there’s options for landing.”

Parks and Recreation Director Simon say that creating options for landing requires tackling the issue from several angles. He was part of the 2018 task force on landing and explains that both the City of Albuquerque and private landowners play a role.

“In some cases, a strategy needs to take a planning approach, like removing tall obstacles on a parking lot or an open spot to make it more safe for a balloon pilot to land safely. In other cases, acquisition of a key parcel [by the city] may be the right move. And the city will, I believe, actively work to continue to acquire balloon landing sites with available resources,” he says. On top of that, incentivizing landowners to keep their land clear for balloons can help pilots and passengers stay safe, he says.

The “X Marks the Spot” program, started in 2018, aims to get those landowners involved. The program, aided by the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce, lets landowners mark their properties with a large, white “X,” which tells pilots they are welcome to land. If a balloon lands on the property, the landowner can enter into a prize drawing.

“That’s really a great program,” says Appelman. When landowners “are welcoming to us, to land here and they’re good with it, that’s really reaffirming as a pilot,” he says. But it’s not enough to make up for the lack of land, he adds.

“It does not replace what was,” he says. “And I don’t know that ever will happen.”

One reason he’s doubtful is because of how much it costs to preserve land. To re-landscape an existing lot to be more balloon-friendly — which means changing irrigation, landscaping, and putting power lines underground — can cost around a quarter of a million dollars for a several-acre lot, according to the 2018 Balloon Landing Task Force report. To buy one large site for an intramural facility could cost $60 million to $70 million, according to the report, and even that wouldn’t make up all of the 9 million square feet needed to land 500 to 600 balloons.

Reporter’s Note: To calculate the reduction in balloon landing sites, KRQE identified and measured individual sites using satellite imagery. While this method gives a reasonable estimate of the total amount of open space, it does not account for property ownership or the location of powerlines, which might prevent a safe balloon landing.

Additionally, due to resolution limitations, some small obstacles have been ignored in this analysis. As a result, we did not report a precise number of square feet available for landings. Rather, we reported reasonable approximations. Balloon pilots are responsible for determining whether they have permission to can safety land on a given parcel.

Finally, it’s worth noting that in 1991, Balloon Fiesta Park was located approximately one mile south of its current location.