COSTILLA COUNTY — Noting owners of land rights on what once was the Taylor Ranch may have not been taking advantage of those rights, the new owner of the ranch has offered to buy them back for $300 each.
The rights were granted after Colorado’s longest civil litigation and include keys to the gates for land grant heirs, whose rights were won after 35 years of struggle and many days in court by families of the original grantees, along with attorneys working mostly pro bono.
Identified several months ago as the ranch buyer, William Harrison, on behalf of Cielo Vista Ranch I LLC, sent out form letters on Dec. 20, 2017 offering to buy back the land use rights if they weren’t being used.
Harrison writes: “On Aug. 11, 2017, my company purchased the Cielo Vista Ranch (formerly known as the Taylor Ranch). As you may know, the ranch has been the subject of very extended legal proceedings in the Costilla County District Court.
“As part of those proceedings, many Costilla County properties have been determined to have limited rights to access and use the ranch for three things:
The right to gather firewood for household use;
The right to take timber for construction/maintenance of a house/farm buildings; and
The right to graze a reasonable number of livestock for domestic purposes.”
Cielo Vista Ranch encompasses 83,368 acres stretching across more than 20 miles of Sangre de Cristo ridgeline and includes the 14,047-foot Culebra Peak and 18 13,000-foot peaks.
The property, a land grant dating to the 1800s, has been owned by North Carolina lumberman Jack Taylor, Enron executive Lou Pai and, most recently, by a group of Texas investors who named it Cielo Vista. This group sold the ranch to Harrison for an estimated $105 million.
In a form letter, Harrison wrote, “property that you own has been granted access and use rights as indicated in a notice previously sent to you by the Costilla District Court. Records of the court and the previous owner do not indicate which property owners in the county have made use of these rights.”
Harrison states, “We have no good way of knowing whether you actually use or want to use the ranch.”
Recipients immediately responded that they, as descendants of the grantees, legally own their land rights, even if they don’t use them.
Harrison’s letter states, “In an effort to determine how many people actually use and want to use the ranch, for the limited purposes listed, and to make sure the resources of the ranch are protected and preserved for those who do use it and have the most interest in using it, we have decided to offer anyone who has been granted the use rights the chance to sell them back to us if they so desire.”
“We are therefore offering to pay you $300 in return for your execution of the enclosed termination and release of easement rights form.”
Doing so would end the land rights of whoever submitted the form.
Some heirs tossed the Harrison letter in the trash, while others expressed anger at its writer and his evident intent to again bar neighbors from the ranch, as Taylor did.
The historic property has changed names and hands several times since the 1800s when it was part of a land grant from Mexico and Spain. Throughout the years since, the ranch was the subject of controversial litigation that included a number of decisions rendered by the Colorado Supreme Court.
It sold after listing for $105 million and the owner was eventually identified as a Delaware-registered limited liability company named Cielo Vista Ranch II. The company traces back to the Houston office of Cathexis Oil & Gas LLC, an investment firm founded by William Harrison in 2010.
A Houston attorney, Jackson Walker representing Harrison said, when questioned about the court-granted access, “as of this time, the owner has no plans to change such access.”
The broker who negotiated the sale for the Mirr Ranch Group said in a statement following the August deal that Harrison was “a true conservationist … deeply committed to preserving this national treasure and extraordinary resource.”
The dispute over access to the vast parcel stems from promises made in the mid-1800s that Mexican settlers on the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant would have access to the mountainous regions near their homes for uses necessary for their survival.
In 2004, the Court began an identification process to identify the current owners of land entitled to access La Sierra. The district court has examined title to more than 6,300 parcels of land and found that all but approximately 300 parcels are entitled to access La Sierra.
In 2009, more than 300 individuals provided notice that they intended to use La Sierra for either grazing or to gather timber or firewood.
It has been estimated that the number of adjudicated heirs might rise as high as 3,000 before all claims are finalized.
In 1843, Carlos Beaubien applied for a 1-million-acre grant in the San Luis Valley along the Costilla, Culebra and Trinchera Rivers in southern Colorado. Since he already had one grant, the new grant went to his 13-year-old son Narciso and a Taos business associate Stephen Louis Lee. The grant was approved on Jan. 12, 1844. Narciso and Lee died in the Mexican-American war and Beaubein wrote a document ensuring settlers’ rights.
Those rights were taken for granted until, in 1960, North Carolina lumber baron Jack Taylor purchased and began to fence off land which had been used for grazing, timber and wood gathering for more than 100 years, causing enormous disruption to the economic and social fabric of the local communities.
In 1981, a class action lawsuit, Rael vs. Taylor, was brought against Taylor, owner of the Taylor Ranch. At issue was whether Taylor properly notified everybody who had a claim to the land in his 1965 ‘quiet’ title suit. The Colorado Supreme Court voted 4-3 against the plaintiffs, but such a close ruling gave them hope for a future overruling.
Rael, along with many of his neighbors, had initiated the suit in an effort to reclaim some of the land rights that had traditionally been available on the vast ranch, also known as “La Sierra.”
In an historic opinion, the Colorado Supreme Court in 2003 upheld the rights of plaintiff property owners, whose heirs and predecessors settled the land grant when it was still part of Mexico, in and around San Luis, to exercise traditional use rights to graze livestock and collect wood and timber on the property.
This decision overturned previous court and court of appeal decisions that denied the landowners these rights. District Judge Gaspar Perricone reopened the gates of a 77,000-acre ranch to descendants of the original San Luis Valley settlers, after 44 years of court battles. In a hearing lasting less than an hour, Perricone told a packed Costilla County courtroom in no uncertain terms that the heirs to the Sangre de Cristo Mexican Land Grant had won the case.
At a hearing on granting access to about 300 people with deeds that trace back to 1863, attorneys for the Texas company and the Taylor Ranch’s last owner, Enron executive Lou Pai, objected to the judge’s actions and threatened to appeal. Judge Perricone rejected their claims and said the 2003 Colorado Supreme Court ruling granting access to the heirs of Spanish settlers set up a clear process to settling the claims and barred further litigation.
The Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts that because the grant was settled after the Mexican-American War, the terms of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo did not apply under Mexican law; however, the court recognized the document written by early grantor Beaubien, supported by Gov. Gilpin’s agreement and other evidence, guaranteed a prescriptive easement to the landowners.
Noting that Beaubien wrote the document to honor his commitment to settlers he had persuaded to move hundreds of miles to make homes in a wilderness, the court declared: “It would be the height of arrogance and nothing but a legal fiction for us to claim that we can interpret this document without putting it in its historical context.”
What it meant for land grant heirs, including 1,000 families, was that the opportunity to once again work collectively on the land for the common good. That was the intent of the original settling of the Sangre de Cristo grant.