La Sierra land use within the Cielo Vista Ranch still a source of contention
By Owen Woods | email@example.com
THE Lobato v. Taylor case was back in court this week, 3 years after an olive branch was handed down.
After two days of witness testimony and cross examination, a Costilla County district court judge came to a decision to have both sides deliberate to submit a report on guidelines for La Sierra land use within the Cielo Vista Ranch. The two sides will have 90 days to submit their reports to the court with their disagreements and stipulations. If they do not submit reports by the deadline, the court will create its own list.
Judge Kenneth Plotz, who presided over the case, said the guidelines should be agreed upon and implemented so that the case can “get out of perpetuity.”
The plaintiffs in Lobato v. Taylor asked the court to ensure land use access rights they claim have been disregarded through a “campaign of intimidation and harassment, and improper restrictions” by the Cielo Vista Ranch.
Though this is a Costilla County issue, the hearing was held at the Alamosa Justice Center to accommodate public viewing of this unique and ‘unusual’ case. The last time this case was heard in court was in 2018 at the Colorado Court of Appeals.
The plaintiffs presented 10 landowners who testified of harassment, tailing and unnecessary surveilling, and intimidation and interrogation from Cielo Vista Ranch employees while exercising their land use rights.
Land Use Rights Council President Shirley Romero-Otero was among them.
In the first two testimonies, Romero-Otero and Eli Rael were asked how the behavior of ranch employees made them feel. They both stated that it made them feel like criminals.
The defendants were Cielo Vista Ranch and its owner, William Harrison. Harrison was not present. Ranch manager and head of security Carlos DeLeon was in court to testify.
Each side was limited to six hours of presentation over the course of the two-day hearing.
The specific complaints heard from nearby landowners ranged from excessive tailing, charging guard dogs, overuse of security cameras and drones, and aggressive questioning from armed ranch employees. In testimony, Rael claimed that a herd of his cattle was scattered by a helicopter. According to him, it took Rael a month and a half to gather his herd.
The defendants argued that ranch security has faced scrutiny, threats, and abuse of land rights access that has forced them to increase their presence. The security, which at any given time is four to five employees, monitors the 83,000-acre ranch. They use handheld DTR radios to communicate, carry personal sidearms, often wear body armor, and at all times wear a police-style bodycam.
Quoting the Supreme Court’s decision that “The rights created by the Supreme Court are not subject to expansion or contraction by the ranch owners or landowners,” the plaintiffs alleged that due to Cielo Vista Ranch’s lack of outlined policies and procedures, ranch security and management have been creating their own rules based on no actual court ruling. For example, the plaintiffs testified that ranch security requires a landowner to have an axe or chainsaw in their possession when scouting for firewood, and ranch management is requiring landowners with adjacent properties to use designated gates.
The defendants in turn testified that land use owners are abusing their access by fishing, scouting for elk, camping and recreating, and grazing too many livestock at one time. Cielo Vista Ranch attorney Jamie Cotter said that the landowners are restricted to timber, firewood, and grazing for “reasonable” use only.
Land use rights limit access holders to the gathering of firewood, collection of timber, and grazing and pasture for livestock. Hunting and fishing on the property is permitted directly through the Cielo Vista Ranch. Colorado Parks and Wildlife licenses are required to hunt and fish on the land, but hunters and anglers have to apply for special tags and permits.
During DeLeon’s testimony, the defense showed the court videos involving ranch employees making contact with landowners as well as people who did not have land use access. The Cielo Vista Ranch produced for the court about 600 videos that consisted primarily of bodycam footage and cell phone footage that showed how ranch employees engage with the public.
In the past, landowners with adjacent properties to La Sierra have been able to access the land through abutted easements. Currently they are encouraged – and allegedly required – to access the land through nine designated gates. Key plaintiff witnesses claimed that abutted gates had been wired shut by Cielo Vista Ranch staff from September 2018 to February of 2019. Rael testified that his property access is still wired shut. The defendants claimed that landowners illegally cut sections of barbed-wire fencing on abutted properties to allow cattle to gain easier access to grazing areas.
Every year, landowners must submit a land use notice, which notifies ranch employees who will be accessing the land. There were 250 landowners who filled out the forms in 2021. However, due to landowners having different parcels of land, the number is not indicative of the actual number of individuals who filed to access Cielo Vista Ranch.
During closing arguments on Tuesday, Sarah Wallace, a pro bono attorney representing the landowners, gave the court and the defendants a list of changes the plaintiffs would like to see implemented. They include not limiting time or location to legal land users; allowing camping when the protection of livestock is necessary; allowing scouting for firewood with or without tools; halting the ranch’s practice of tailing someone after initial contact has been made; and allowing access from adjacent properties.
Cotter, representing the Cielo Vista Ranch, gave her closing arguments. She said ranch employees have faced death threats from locals and run an inherent risk in covering a vast area of land. She said the number of individuals who file for notices and use the land is never consistent, and that some people never file a notice and use the land regardless. She also stated that they were arguing a case number from 1981 and that 10 witness testimonies was not enough to get a full picture of the nearly 6,000 land use rights holders.
Judge Plotz then provided the court with his findings.
“This is a unique case,” he stated.
He acknowledged the inherent and continuing conflict of interest involved in the case. Plotz noted that the ranch owners are able to retain their own attorneys, but attorneys for the landowners provided their services pro bono, and that the main conflict of interest was that of economic power.
The judge found that scouting without an axe or chainsaw fell under a pervasive, “quasi law-enforcement.” However, he did find that from the evidence provided to the court the ranch employees were not intentionally treating the landowners as second-class citizens, and that in his observations, landowners were often incredibly patronizing toward the ranch employees.
He went on to state that the use of cameras and drones fell well within the ranch’s rights. “There does need to be a way to safeguard landowners rights,” he said.
In regard to Cotter’s statement that 10 witnesses was not enough, he said “if there is one or 10, there needs to be an addressing of these issues.”
Finally, he ordered attorneys on both sides to come up with a set of guidelines and submit them to the court within 90 days. Wallace requested a minor recess to consult with the Land Use Council members who were present to confirm that 90 days was enough time.
Both councils agreed upon the deadline and final recess was called.
PHOTO: Panorama Summit vista from Culebra Peak at Cielo Vista Ranch