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Lawsuit filed over access to San Ildefonso roads

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Hundreds of property owners are suing the federal government in an attempt to clear up who owns the roads through San Ildefonso Pueblo that give them access to their property.

The pueblo has stirred up non-Indian residents of northern Santa Fe County by seeking payments for rights of way, including for longtime county roads across land that San Ildefonso maintains it owns.

About 400 residents are in the group that filed the suit.

The lawsuit contends that, because of the pueblo’s claim on the roads, property values have diminished, title companies are refusing to provide title insurance, and property owners are having trouble securing financing to purchase, sell or refinance their property.

Citing the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the group is seeking title to the right-of-way easements.

Northern New Mexicans Protecting Land, Water and Rights filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the federal government and officials with the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Northern Pueblo Agency.

The lawsuit states that actions by the federal agencies on the issue “were taken in an attempt to extract monies for continued access to private property or to facilitate others to extract and/or extort such funds.”

Beverley Duran-Cash, president of Northern New Mexicans Protecting Land, Water and Rights, said the group has been trying for 18 months to resolve the matter. They’ve met with officials from San Ildefonso Pueblo, Santa Fe County and New Mexico’s congressional delegation to no avail.

“We as a group have tried diligently to go to everyone to ask for help. This is our last resort,” she said of the lawsuit. The group, representing residents mostly from the El Rancho area, says residents around Nambé and Pojoaque are facing similar problems.

At issue is who legally owns several roads that cut across pueblo land, including County Road 84 and five roads that branch off it. San Ildefonso maintains that the pueblo owns the roads.

Santa Fe County officials have argued that the county has maintained at least some of those same roads for more than 100 years and point to a 1989 agreement between the county and pueblo that explicitly grants the county right of way on all the roads in question.

The pueblo’s attorney said San Ildefonso isn’t trying to do El Rancho property owners harm, but that the pueblo has a right as a landowner to address trespass and boundary dispute issues.

The federal court lawsuit says property rights were extended to them through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the settlement that ended the Mexican-American War, which protected property rights and land grants for Mexican citizens living in what became U.S. territory after the war.

The lawsuit stems from a December 2013 letter from the BIA’s Northern Pueblo Agency President Raymond Fry, one of the named defendants in the suit, to Santa Fe County Manager Katherine Miller alleging that the county was trespassing on part of County Road 84 extending from the pueblo’s entrance, as well as several other county roads and Sandy Way. The letter said that no easements or rights of way exist for those roads, “thus, the county is in trespass.”

Fry urged the county to enter into negotiations with the pueblo and “establish a legal basis for the county’s continued use of pueblo land.”

That letter prompted a sharply worded response from Miller and then-County Attorney Stephen Ross, who said the BIA was “overreaching” and made numerous errors in determining the county was trespassing on pueblo land.

A phone call to Fry’s office was referred to BIA Regional Director William Walker, also a defendant in the lawsuit, who did not return a call from the Journal . San Ildefonso Gov. James R. Mountain did not immediately return a phone message Monday afternoon.

A Santa Fe County spokeswoman said the county does not comment on pending litigation, especially when it is not named as party to the litigation. The property owners group complains that the county has done nothing to help them.

Santa Fe County Assessor Gus Martinez said the county has received about 160 appeals of property valuation assessments from the El Rancho area in the wake of the dispute and his office was working with property owners to determine a fair value.

A. Blair Dunn, the attorney representing Northern New Mexicans Protecting Land, Water and Rights, said the group isn’t suing San Ildefonso Pueblo itself because it was Fry’s letter that started it all. “We’ve heard directly from the title companies that what Raymond Fry did was cloud title by denying or stating that there was no access to property,” he said. “It’s a fairly simple equation. If the only way to get to your property is to put in a helicopter pad, it’s pretty worthless.”

Dunn wrote in a letter to county officials last year, “Quite plainly these are public roads and the public should be able to use the public roads without threat of trespass action or under a threat of extorting payment from the taxpayers to continue to use their public property.”

San Ildefonso claimed Dunn didn’t understand that tribal land is not public land and that people who use the roads are technically trespassing. Then-Pueblo Gov. Terry Aguilar said the pueblo has raised the issues for years and now wants to get the issue resolved once and for all.