SAN LUIS — Residents who have fought for the past 40 years to regain rights to lands once granted to their forefathers are "outraged" about Cielo Vista Ranch owner William Harrison’s offer to buy those rights for $300 each.
Land Rights Council Chair Shirley Romero-Otero commented, “The new guy showed his hand early in the game,” so a public meeting is planned at noon Monday, Jan. 15, at the economic development office to discuss a letter sent out Dec. 20, 2017 offering to buy back the land use rights if they weren’t being used.
Harrison has not met with members of the Land Rights Council or the community and Romero-Otero isn’t sure why he chose to do so by means of a form letter.
Attorneys involved in the litigation will be present at the Jan. 15 meeting to answer questions. In addition, the suit itself is entering a final phase and Romero-Otero suggests the letters may be an effort to test the commitment of some plaintiffs.
A land grant dating to the 1800s, the ranch has been owned by New Bern, N.C. lumber baron Jack T. Taylor, Enron executive Lou Pai and a group of Texas investors who named it Cielo Vista. The latter group sold the ranch to Harrison for an estimated $105 million.
Harrison wrote: “On Aug. 11, 2017, my company purchased the Cielo Vista Ranch (formerly known as the Taylor Ranch). As you may know, the ranch has been the subject of very extended legal proceedings in the Costilla County District Court.
“As part of those proceedings, many Costilla County properties have been determined to have limited rights to access and use the ranch for three things:
The right to gather firewood for household use; the right to take timber for construction/maintenance of a house/farm buildings; and the right to graze a reasonable number of livestock for domestic purposes.”
Some recipients tossed the Harrison letter into the trash, while others expressed anger at its writer and his evident intent to again bar neighbors from the ranch, as Taylor did.
Not everyone holding keys to gates on the ranch and land use rights received a letter and Otero suspects Harrison might have been trying to test the resolve of the community.
In his form letter, Harrison wrote, “property that you own has been granted access and use rights as indicated in a notice previously sent to you by the Costilla District Court. Records of the court and the previous owner do not indicate which property owners in the county have made use of these rights.”
He states, “We have no good way of knowing whether you actually use or want to use the ranch.”
Recipients immediately responded that they, as descendants of the grantees, legally own their land rights, even if they don’t use them.
“It’s a divisive tactic,” she said, noting that some people may have already sent in a release form, despite the fact that it may not be legal. “No one can sell those rights,” she said. “Those rights go with the individual.”
Harrison’s letter states, “In an effort to determine how many people actually use and want to use the ranch for the limited purposes listed and to make sure the resources of the ranch are protected and preserved for those who do use it and have the most interest in using it, we have decided to offer anyone who has been granted the use rights the chance to sell them back to us if they so desire.”
“We are therefore offering to pay you $300 in return for your execution of the enclosed termination and release of easement rights form.”
The Land Rights Council was organized 40 years ago and has remained dedicated and strong since that time.
In 1981, a class action lawsuit, Rael vs. Taylor, was brought against Taylor, owner of the ranch.
At issue was whether Taylor properly notified everybody who had a claim to the land in his 1965 ‘quiet’ title suit. The Colorado Supreme Court voted 4-3 against the plaintiffs but such a close ruling gave them hope for a future overruling — and it eventually came.
Apolinar Rael, along with many of his neighbors, sued in an effort to reclaim some of the land rights that had traditionally been available on the vast ranch, also known as “La Sierra” and traditionally used by the people to whom the land grants were conferred.
The Colorado Lawyers Committee became involved in 1996 and saw the case through federal court review, two trials and both appeals. In an historic opinion, the Colorado Supreme Court in 2003 upheld the rights of plaintiff property owners —whose heirs and predecessors settled the land grant when it was still part of Mexico— in and around San Luis to exercise traditional use rights to graze livestock and collect wood and timber on the property. This decision overturned previous court and court of appeal decisions that denied the landowners these rights.
District Judge Gaspar Perricone reopened the gates of a 77,000-acre ranch to descendants of the original San Luis Valley settlers, after 44 years of court battles. In a hearing lasting less than an hour, Perricone told a packed Costilla County courtroom in no uncertain terms that the heirs to the Sangre de Cristo Mexican Land Grant had won the case.
The Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts that, because the grant was settled after the Mexican-American War, the terms of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo did not apply under Mexican law; however, the court recognized a document written by early grantor Carlos Beaubien, supported by an agreement signed by Gov. Gilpin and other evidence, guaranteed a prescriptive easement to the landowners.
Noting that Beaubien wrote the document to honor his commitment to settlers he had persuaded to move hundreds of miles to make homes in a wilderness, the court declared: “It would be the height of arrogance and nothing but a legal fiction for us to claim that we can interpret this document without putting it in its historical context.”
Romero-Otero may be contacted at 970-640-8014.