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Legal battle over public access to private road looms

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

San Miguel County is threatening legal action against a couple who late last year put a locked chain gate across a road that local residents say they have used for generations to gain access to the Santa Fe National Forest to hunt, fish, gather firewood and pick piñon nuts.

The road, north of Interstate 25 about midway between Pecos and Las Vegas, starts off as County Road B55 but becomes a private road after 1.3 miles, where county maintenance ends.

The five-member San Miguel County Commission on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution demanding that landowners Jordan and Meleah Hosea, whose property the road crosses as it leads to the national forest from the south, open the road without obstruction.

“If not, the County instructs its attorney to file an injunction and suit to correct this injustice, which takes away the rights enjoyed by San Miguel citizens for more than one hundred years,” the resolution says.

Commissioner Max Trujillo introduced the resolution.

“As a private land owner myself, any time access is cut off to our public lands, it’s never a good thing. Things like this cause a lot of discord,” Trujillo said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “There’s been some tension boiling up, and I don’t want it to come to a head and someone get hurt because of this.”

Trujillo said about 30 people at Tuesday’s commission meeting were there to support the resolution, many of them saying they were being deprived of historical use of the road to access the national forest. No one spoke in opposition to the resolution, he said.

Reached by phone on Thursday, Meleah Hosea said she and her husband were never notified that the commission was going to address the issue and questioned whether it was properly advertised, as required by law.

Nevertheless, she said they don’t plan to comply with the county’s demand.

“It’s going to be a legal battle, is what it’s going to be,” she said. “I don’t feel like I have to be living in the wild, wild West where people can do whatever they want. … Don’t I have a constitutional right to live peacefully?”

The Hoseas, who are originally from California, bought 77 acres in picturesque San Miguel County more than a year ago. Meleah Hosea told the Journal in June that they closed the gate because they were having problems with people dumping garbage, using drugs and hunting illegally.

On Thursday, she said people have fired guns at a cabin on the property, scattered nails in front of their driveway and broken the chain on the gate.

County Attorney Dave Romero said he would first contact the Hoseas to ask them to remove the chain and follow that up with a letter. “Then we’ll file suit if they don’t comply in full,” he said.

Romero said the lawsuit would likely be based on prescriptive easement, a legal concept that allows for easements if a road has been used by the public for more than 10 years.

“What we intend to show – and each one of the people who were at that meeting can testify to – is that they have used that road, and their parents have used that road, and their grandparents have used that road to go into the forest to fish and hunt, gather wood. The county sees it as a threat to the established way of life.”

Romero said he also believes there is legal precedence to support the county’s argument, citing a decision last year by a state district judge to open roads that cross private land in the White Peak area of northern New Mexico. The decision affected several roads that provided access to 50,000 acres of state trust land in Mora and Colfax counties.

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