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Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
GUADALUPITA – All land belongs to God, says Guadalupita resident Donald Laran, but to him that belief has more meaning in certain places.
One of those spots is a small, grassy island where the historic village’s Catholic church once stood. The lifelong resident, who lives across the street from the tract with dirt roads as boundaries, still has childhood photos taken back when the church remained on what was the village’s central plaza. A picture from Laran’s First Communion is from May 1955, in the decade before the church came down.
During a visit earlier this week, the only sign of what used to be was a headstone of a villager who had been buried next to the church.
As Laran and Joe Chavez, his neighbor and cousin, walked the old church site, which amounts only to just more than a half-acre in all, they went past a run-down fence that used to border the church. Soon after, with a Journal reporter and photographer looking on, a Mora County deputy arrived and told them their neighbor had called with claims of trespassing.
Laran and Chavez say this kind of tense interaction – this week’s ended with the deputy telling them to leave the property for now – is not unusual these days.
Two of their neighbors, father and son Jacob Regensberg and Jacob Jude Regensberg, have claimed the north half of the small tract as their own.
While the Regensbergs have a survey they say proves ownership, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe says it was deeded the entirety of the “teardrop-shaped” island back in 1861, when the Guadalupita church was built. Other residents say the small plot has always been community space.
It’s not clear whether the Regensbergs or anyone else uses the disputed territory for anything in particular these days, but the ownership dispute over what Chavez calls “holy land” has ended up in court.
Residents siding with the archdiocese say they believe relatives may be buried on the contested land. A “Save the Original Guadalupita Church and Cemetery Site” Facebook page seeks information on possible gravesites. Guadalupita is part of a larger, rural historic district as recognized by both the state and federal governments.
Jacob Regensberg, meanwhile, says he has seen no proof he owns a graveyard.
The Regensbergs, lifelong residents of Guadalupita and part of a well-known political family, filed suit in July over 0.3 acres of the site. The case is set to go to trial in April.
The Regensbergs say a 2013 survey based on their property deed indicates that a section of the former church site is their property. The original court complaint says the two own the land based on their deed, as well as “adverse possession,” also known as “squatter’s rights” or acquiring ownership based on long-term use.
Jacob Regensberg, 72, is a former Mora County Commissioner and father of former state Rep. Benjie Regensberg. He told the Journal the land has been in his family since 1881.
According to his court affidavit, he officially acquired the property in 1988. He sold it in 2000, but it remained in the family until he and his son bought it back in May.
The Archdiocese cannot prove ownership, he said, because its deed is not accompanied by a survey. “If you don’t have a survey coinciding with your papers, papers don’t mean nothing,” he said.
Tom Macken, the Archdiocese’s chancellor, property manager and attorney, said that even though the land wasn’t surveyed back in the mid-19th century – surveys weren’t used back then, he said – the entire plot is historically known to belong to the church. Historical maps show the entire teardrop as one property, said Macken, and the county Assessor’s Office lists the island as church land with no record of taxation.
The Archdiocese is exempt from taxation. In order to claim adverse possession, Macken said, the Regensbergs would need to have paid taxes on the land.
A court affidavit by Jacob Regensberg states that he paid property taxes “in good faith,” believing the taxes were counting toward all of his property near the old church site, including the disputed area. Jude Regensberg’s affidavit states the Assessor’s Office is “unreliable” because it uses decades-old photos and maps rather than surveys.
County Assessor Paul Duran says he identifies and taxes land based on available information, which can sometimes be murky because of issues like vague deeds. “As far as (it) overlapping or not, we’re not surveyors,” Duran said .
“That’s when (residents) do end up going to court and disputing things like this,” he said.
Macken said that no matter what the Regensbergs’ deed states, the Archdiocese’s was created first. “A predecessor can’t give something they don’t own,” he said. “If we own it first, they’re out of luck.”
The Regensbergs’ survey, conducted when Jacob’s brother owned the property, describes the spot as a “possible conflict area.” The surveyor was Jude Regensberg, which many on the other side point out as suspect.
Jude Regensberg, who owns a surveying business, did not answer calls for comment. The legal assistant for the Regensbergs’ attorney, Kelan Emery, said Emery would not comment. After an initial interview last week, Jacob Regensberg said his lawyer advised him not to comment any further.
Jacob Regensberg pointed out there is nothing historical on the land any more and says he has been using the land for decades with no complaints until the suit. He had stopped commenting when the Journal wanted to ask about what he has used the property for.
Laran said the grassy spot was never disputed as anything other than community space until recently.
“It doesn’t belong to me; it doesn’t belong to him,” he said. “It belongs to the people and the Archdiocese.”
Possible burial site
Mora’s Board of County Commissioners and four private landowners, including Laran, are involved in the suit because of easements and a county road surrounding the land. Residents say they want it to stay in the hands of the church, not only out of principle and historical significance, but also because the tract is believed to be an old cemetery site.
Several locals and people with ancestral ties to Guadalupita say they’ve heard anecdotally about late residents being buried on the land that the Regensbergs are claiming.
Laran told the Journal he found a headstone there dating back to the late 1880s, which he removed for the Archdiocese as evidence. Macken said the archdiocese also believes there are burials on the site, but hasn’t confirmed whose they might be. He declined to provide photos of the removed headstone.
The “Save the Original Guadalupita Church and Cemetery Site” Facebook page was started by Jesse Williams-Chavez of Las Cruces, who has family from Guadalupita. He said he’s been told about members of the Coca family who may be buried there.
Jacob Regensberg said he has seen no proof of the small plot being a grave site. “So now, they have to prove (it) to me,” he said. He said he’s requested names from relatives of people supposedly interred there.
The archdiocese’s Macken said he is also reaching out to people about possible burials.
“In some sense, it doesn’t matter,” Macken said. “It’s our property, whatever we have on it, we have on it.”
150 years of history
The Guadalupita/Coyote Historic District, a large rural area, was listed on New Mexico’s Register of Cultural Properties in 2011 and the National Register of Historic Places this June. Guadalupita, which the County Manager’s office said likely has about 250 residents, was centered around the church, according to a report from local historian and register applicant Malcolm Ebright. Ebright said it was torn down in the 1960s due to major structural damage.
Because old villages like this and their use of common spaces change over the years, overlapping land claims with private owners are not unusual, said Paula Garcia, chair of the Mora County Commission.
While she trusts the court to fairly assess ownership, Garcia said Mora’s main interest is its constituents. In this case, she has received several calls from Guadalupita residents worried about losing access, especially if it is also a final resting place.
“There’s a sentiment of what spaces in villages should be still considered common,” said Garcia. “Even if the church isn’t there, people still feel that attachment.”
Laran said he thinks the area’s declining population – due to many older neighbors passing away – may cause the Regensbergs to think no one cares if they claim this property.
“But there’s still us that care,” he said. “My generation … we all care what happens. Just leave it alone, to us.”