By Owen Woods | email@example.com
IN football parlance, it’s called a punt.
The honorable Kenneth M. Plotz, retired district court judge, said he will assign a special master to help litigate any decisions made in regard to land use of the historic 83,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch and its land use holders. Plotz made his ruling in a court order May 17.
The court-appointed master will assess any complaints on a case-by-case basis. This decision once again leaves the Cielo Vista Ranch owner, William Harrison, as well as land use holders wondering what direction to go in.
“There’s still a lot of unknowns, both with how the appropriate way to act, to interact with the ranch as well as what exactly the special master will be, how it’ll be utilized,” said Sarah Wallace, pro bono counsel for the San Luis Landowners who filed a motion in April of last year alleging that Cielo Vista Ranch security was undertaking a campaign of “intimidation and harassment” toward them.
In response to the motion filed by the “historic landowners,” Harrison filed a motion to dismiss due to lack of evidence and jurisdiction. The court overruled that and had an evidentiary hearing in September.
In that hearing, the court was provided evidence of the allegations of abuse of power, harassment and intimidation against the Cielo Vista Ranch security, and abuse of rights against the “historic landowners.” After the tense two-day hearing, the court ordered both sides to come together and agree on a list of stipulated rules and regulations.
After several months of drafts and discussions, it was decided that the lists couldn’t be agreed upon and so the matter was handed to the court to make a ruling. Judge Plotz, who presided over September’s hearings, spent a large portion of this year with the lists. On May 17, when he handed down his decision, it didn’t move the case in any meaningful direction. The room for interpretation is as plain as a pikestaff.
For land use holders with easements that abut the property, it continues the preservation of inherited rights, but retains Harrison’s rights to secure his property within reason.
Even though the court found that the manner in which ranch security were conducting themselves was “unacceptably demeaning to Landowners,” security staff are still well within their rights to use cameras, body cameras, drones, and electric fencing on the property. “Generally, the Court found that it was acceptable for the Ranch Owner to monitor the property,” the filing states.
The preservation of land use holds that landowners can not be limited to the grazing they wish to conduct, the scouting of firewood, amount of firewood they choose to take and where they take it from, as well as the Ranch Owner being unable to “unilaterally make the determination that the Landowners were engaged in any activities such as commercial enterprises on the land.”
Judge Plotz declined to create any specific rules or regulations.
Judge Plotz said in his filing, “Since the parties could not agree, they now ask the Court to choose what rules and regulations to impose. This puts this Court into a position where it would be making rules or, in essence, legislating conduct on the property….
“….I find that it is inappropriate for this Court to make up rules or in effect, legislate. The reason for this is the parties are not afforded any real opportunity to have any input other than the briefs and exhibits provided by the lawyers of the parties during a court proceeding. The idea of the Court unilaterally choosing what regulations to impose on these parties is akin to a violation of the separation of powers doctrine contained in Article III of the Colorado Constitution.”
“What was puzzling about the case,” says Shirley Romero-Otero, president of the Land Use Rights Council, “was that he [Judge Plotz] didn’t rule on the stipulations. You know, we spent an awful lot of time, over four months, just preparing and putting together the stipulations and I know Mr. Harrison did, too, and we didn’t agree on his and he certainly didn’t agree on ours.”
The costs of the master will be put onto Harrison’s shoulders, but the filing leaves a lot to be decided. Who will the special master be and when will they be appointed?
The special master, whoever it turns out to be, will allow for choices to be made at a more personal level between landowners and Harrison. “It would be more of a one-to-one, rather than the way we’ve been doing it all of these decades. My personal concern, until I get clarity from our lawyers, is, OK, how much is this master gonna know about the history of this case?” said Romero-Otero.
Ruling on the regulations that both sides spent a large portion of time on “would have given a lot more clarity than we got,” said Wallace.
Even though Judge Plotz didn’t rule, Wallace still sees it as a win for the landowners, a sentiment shared by Romero-Otero. However, according to Wallace there remains no indication of when a special master will be assigned.
“We don’t really understand whether he’s planning on doing it in advance of any dispute or if he’s waiting for the first dispute to come up then he’s gonna do it.
“The normal course of action with this kind of special master would be that the court would appoint the person and then give the person a direction that’s within their scope of authority and then that person would be available when a problem arose,” Wallace said.
The Land Use Rights Council will release a statement next week in response to Judge Plotz’s ruling.
A BRIEF CIELO VISTA HISTORY
The Cielo Vista Ranch has had its fair share of publicity, and holds a prominent place in Colorado’s history. The original land was handed down by Carlos Beaubien during the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant in 1848. The land was then subdivided in the 1860s by Territorial Governor William Gilpin. The land remained open and free for landowners until 1960 when North Carolina timber baron Jack Taylor purchased the land and privatized it in its entirety. He restricted access to all land use owners and often used force to remove anyone who attempted to exercise the rights they’d had for more than a century.
Taylor stained his image among residents of San Luis and the rest of the San Luis Valley by waging a “range-war” until his death in the 1980s. Afterward, his son, Zachary Taylor, took over the ranch and sold it to Lou Pai, a former Enron executive. Pai then sold the land to a group of Texas investors in 2004. In 2017, the then 31-year old William B. Harrison of Houston, Texas, purchased the land for a grand $105 million.
A 2002 appellate case in the Colorado Supreme Court restored access to land use holders in a historic decision. Part of that decision was determining, through a census, just who was heir to the land. The census, which took 15 years to complete, showed that more than 5,000 people were rightful descendents of the original Spanish settlers of the area, and the 6,400 parcels of land were rightfully theirs.
PHOTO: Panorama Summit vista from Culebra Peak at Cielo Vista Ranch