Northern New Mexicans Protecting Land, Water and Rights, Inc.(NNMPLWR), filed a lawsuit Monday, June 29, in federal district court naming Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI), Kevin Washburn, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Raymond Fry, Superintendent of the Northern Pueblos Agency of the BIA as plaintiffs in a suit alleging that federal government has illegally clouded title to private property within the exterior bounds of the San Ildefonso Pueblo Land Grant.
The complaint enumerates the damage done by the government agencies when it wrote a letter in December 2013, claiming that Santa Fe County and all private residents accessing their private properties by way of County Roads 84, 84A, 84B, 84C, 84D and Sandy Way were in trespass on Pueblo land, and ordering the County to “show cause why the County should not immediately be assessed trespass damages and why the County should not be evicted from the subject Pueblo lands.” (Ref. 1)
The roads in question offer access to more than 1000 non-Native residents of the communities of El Rancho and Jaconita and have existed for centuries to access private land claims within the San Ildefonso Pueblo Land Grant. Since the letter of trespass was issued by the BIA, private property owners have been unable to reliably secure title insurance policies without exceptions for ingress/egress, effectively barring homeowners from buying, selling and refinancing their private properties.
Elderly residents count on the equity in their homes to pay for their long-term care once they are unable to live on their own. Other property owners run small businesses that secure bonds for projects using their private property as collateral. The economic impacts of the BIA’s claim have been detrimental to the economy of the entire Pojoaque Valley.
The non-profit organization NNMPLWR, Inc. has been working with Santa Fe County, their state legislative representatives and federal delegates to try to resolve the issue since May 2014. The County’s attorney, Stephen Ross, initially responded to the trespass claim in early 2014, along with U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, but since Mr. Ross left the County Attorney’s office, no further response has been made by county or federal representatives or staff.
Despite informing the County about the impact of these claims on residents, the County has mostly stayed silent on the issue. Federal representatives were contacted numerous times in 2014, and the non-profit organization was finally able to get a meeting with staff of Congressman Lujan, Senator Heinrich and Senator Udall in April 2015. Despite numerous follow-up calls, no action has come of this meeting.
A flood of property tax protests were filed with the Santa Fe County Assessor’s office this year, informing the assessor that their property values have been greatly diminished by the action of the BIA and the inaction of the County to resolve the issue.
The lawsuit asks for an immediate injunction to be placed on the BIA from interfering with private property rights within the exterior boundaries of the San Ildefonso Pueblo Land Grant and to Quiet Title on all these public rights-of-way maintained by Santa Fe County. It alleges that these rights-of-way have been public vested private property since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (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.
The title insurance companies and banks are being especially cautious when lending on homes in the area, and that doesn’t stop at El Rancho. Landowners in nearby Nambe and Pojoaque are now having similar issues when refinancing or selling. The fear is that this will only spread further to the areas bordering the pueblos of Ohkay Owingeh and Santa Clara, potentially effecting thousands of homeowners’ property values and borrowing power in northern New Mexico.
NNMPLWR believes it has done all it can to bring the issue to the attention of public officials who can resolve it; to no resolve.