Easement Issues Halt Regional Water System Development

Area residents attend Santa Fe County Commission meeting Tuesday evening to speak on easement dispute. Valley Daily Post image

Easement Issues Halt Regional Water System Development

By: Tarin Nix, Valley Daily Post

SANTA FE – The Santa Fe County Commission wasn’t the first government entity to tackle the growing easement right of way issues plaguing Northern New Mexico, but they were the first to successfully pass a resolution to address the mounting tensions over County Road 84 easements.

On Tuesday night, the Santa Fe County Commission passed (4-1) a resolution requiring the legal status of Santa Fe County roads within the exterior boundaries of the Pueblos of Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, and Tesuque to be resolved before the Board of County Commissioners appropriating funds for the construction costs of the regional water system outlined by the Aamodt Settlement. As Commissioner Liz Stefanics noted the regional water system, “is dependent upon the security of the resources needed for it and that includes the roads.” This resolution was a small victory to the non-native residents whose property utilizes County Road 84 and its feeder roads, but as the one vote against the resolution, Commissioner Miguel Chavez pointed out he doesn’t think the, “resolution gets us anywhere in a quick and easy way.”

(Read San Ildefonso Pueblo response to Santa Fe County Vote HERE)

 Native versus Non-Native

All who attended Tuesday’s meeting and spoke on the issue said no one involved with this issue desires a scenario where natives are pitted against non-native residents, but that appears to be precisely what is occurring and there is very little light in this long and complicated tunnel.

After decades of negotiations and agreements over easement for rights of way on Pueblo lands, there was a shift in practice and charges associated with easements that have cost thousands of utility users higher rates and negatively impacted property value throughout the region. 

Rising tensions between native and non-native residents came to a head in December 2013 when San Ildefonso issued a letter to Santa Fe County notifying them that they were in trespass on County Road 84 and Sandy Way because there was no record of use for easement or rights of way.  This, according to residents of El Rancho and Jaconita and the individual home lenders in the area continues to restrict seniors from getting reverse mortgages or families from selling their property.  As one resident put it at Tuesday’s meeting, “You can’t predict the viability of water or sewer, if we don’t have the easement rights of way,” and it is that viability that lenders argue needs to be ensured for a period greater than 25 years.

In response to San Ildefonso’s actions an organization, Northern New Mexico Protects filed a lawsuit in July 2015 on behalf of their 400 members that asserted that these rights of way have been public vested private property since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo (1848), affirmed under the Mining Act of July 26, 1866, 14 Stat. 253, and that these rights of way were confirmed in the Pueblo Lands Act of 1924.

Commission Intervenes

When homeowners in El Rancho were unable to refinance their homes and buyers couldn’t get loans on properties affected by the trespass claims, they started to protest their property value.  To date, Santa Fe County Assessor Gus Martinez has received 160 protests over property valuations in El Rancho and that number has continued to rise as this issue remains unresolved.  As Dave Neal with NNMProtects explains, “If Martinez decides to grant a 10 percent reduction in taxes that will cost 2 cents on the dollar or $200,000 in lost revenue for the County.” Combined, the properties in protest are estimated to be worth $91 million with a third being taxable.

San Ildefonso Pueblo released a statement regarding the growing conflict with Santa Fe County last week (See statement on Page B-2).

In an attempt to resolve this dispute, Commissioner Henry Roybal sponsored the resolution to stop further action on the regional water system until an agreement was reached regarding County Road 84. Each of the four Pueblo’s sent a representative to plea their case over the regional water system and the action against San Ildefonso Pueblo that would affect all four Pueblos.  The Pueblos argued that the County did not have the authority to use the regional water system as leverage over easements and that all four Pueblos should not be punished for the actions of one Pueblo.

Neal argues that the County has every right to opt out of the regional water system. According to Aamodt Settlement Public law 111-291. Section 6-11 states that, “the State and the County in the agreement with the Pueblos and other signers can modify the agreement.”

In a swift 4-1 decision with Miguel Chavez voting against the resolution, every Commissioner stated their desire to participate in the regional water system and noted that this set of easements is just one of many easement issues facing residents of Santa Fe County.  Although he wasn’t ready to vote in favor of the resolution, Chavez did express his desire to find a solution, “not only to the roads issue but some of the other issues that are festering between natives and non-natives in the community.”

Santa Fe County Commission isn’t alone in trying to take action to resolve these disputes. Representative Carl Trujillo has introduced legislation during the past two sessions that he says would help protect native and non-native utility users impacted by easement costs. “The actions taken by the Commission may seem extreme but failed negotiations and shortcomings in Federal law have negatively impacted all residents of the Pojoaque Valley,” stated Trujillo.  “At the end of the day, all residents alike will have legitimate claims that need to be addressed but the end goal is to establish a permanent solution that guarantees road access to our homes, keeps utility costs down, and guarantees affordable access to water.” In Española, the City Council refused to pay the $11 million in easement fees assessed by Ohkay Owingeh, which has since rolled over to the fees charged to Jemez Mountain Electric Cooperative users.

Presumably since the majority of those affected reside in Commissioner Roybal’s district, he will continue to lead negotiations between stakeholders. However, in the meantime, NNMProtects will be having their monthly meeting with special guest County Assessor Gus Martinez to discuss the 160 protests and implications of Tuesday night’s resolution.  Those interested in attending the NNMProtects meeting are invited to attend Thursday, Aug. 27 at 6:15p.m. at the Nambe Community Center.