Costilla County Commissioners reach settlement with Cielo Vista Ranch

2022-11-24 04:31:24 By : Mr. patrick zheng

Editor’s note: This story has been updated following clarification from Costilla County regarding dates and order of events.

SAN LUIS, Colo. — The Costilla County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Nov. 1, 2022 to settle current and absolve all future disputes along miles of property fence constructed by Cielo Vista Ranch, an 83,000-acre private hunting, hiking and climbing operation within the Sangre de Cristo mountains.   Garden Border Fencing

Costilla County Commissioners reach settlement with Cielo Vista Ranch

A result of months of confidential discourse between the parties’ attorneys, the agreement seeks to remedy a collection of issues stemming from construction of the 10-foot welded wire fence. The settlement was voted on following a public commentary period lasting a few business days. 

The issue was previously discussed as an agenda item during a regular September 20 meeting. 

[Related: Read the settlement agreement and release between the Board of Costilla County Commissioners and Cielo Vista Ranch here .]

Dated to be effective Nov. 1 , the agreement focuses on back payment of unsought construction and mining permits required by the county totaling $4,100; added fence jumps to accommodate natural wildlife migration; and adjustments to fencing at specified locations. As part of the agreement, Cielo Vista Ranch will return the dirt paths along the interior of their fence line to a “natural vegetative state.” 

The county released the option to litigate further on matters relating to fence construction or placement and will be able to continue to assert wildlife jumps, ingresses and egresses as needed. 

Included in the agreement is a provision to “let all areas around the Morada return to their natural state,” addressing a lingering question between Costilla County, Cielo Vista Ranch, and local representatives of the last standing order of Colorado’s Hermanos Penitentes. 

Listed on the State and National Historic Registers, the San Francisco Morada was built around 1900 to house a local order of Penitentes, a religious and fraternal mutual aid society whose membership was established with the northern migration of Spanish and Mexican settlers in the mid-1800s.  

Arnold Valdez, a longtime Hermano of the Penitente order whose ancestors were among the area’s first permanent settlers, said he spent more than a year drawing attention to aesthetic and ecologic issues present at the site since Cielo Vista Ranch installed fencing along a shared property line last summer. 

Valdez reports the Morada property has experienced intensified storm runoff, erosion, and sedimentation leading to an increased threat of flooding in an already mitigated zone. There’s a “psychological impact,” too, he says, when conducting the annual Via Cruces pilgrimage to the top of the hill.  

[Related: Property fence interrupts 150-year-old religious tradition ]

Holding that no violations of the county’s land use code have taken place, and specifically that “all work around the Morada did not violate the code,” the settlement implies a good faith effort to restore habitat and remedy the ongoing community issue — even if they don’t agree. 

Valdez said he was not consulted during the settlement process to discuss remediation at the Morada site, and that the public comment period was not enough time to draft a response before commissioners took the offer to vote. 

“I spent the whole year back and forth, deliberating with them, trying to get [the county] to understand and to execute the violation notices in a timely way,” Valdez said, “and yet did not get to have the due process to at least respond on the agreement.” 

Valdez feels the timeline was purposeful. “They wanted to do it quickly, because they knew it was a controversial issue in the community,” he said. 

Attorneys for Costilla County and Cielo Vista Ranch declined to comment on the settlement process and did not define an expectation or time frame for work at the Morada site. 

Construction of the Cielo Vista Ranch property fence in question began in spring of 2021 and was completed earlier this year. 

Last summer, a portion of the fence was constructed across a historic ceremonial trail important to the Morada’s religious customs during Holy Week.

Los Hermanos sought to maintain access to the steep chamiso and juniper foothill at the edge of Cielo Vista Ranch’s property, working with the ranch to place an entrance gate to continue their traditional procession.  

This year, Cielo Vista Ranch staff placed handwritten liability signs on either side of the gate used to access the Calvario on Good Friday. Outside of the official procession event, the gate has remained locked, Valdez said.  

Conversations stalled around repairing damage to vegetation and natural drainage to prevent increased sedimentation and erosion issues within an already fragile soil structure. 

Valdez himself crafted early Costilla County land use codes and zoning regulations in the 1990s amidst an extensive career as a land planner, administrator, and architect, with a graduate degree from the Harvard University School of Design.  

He implored the county to issue code and permitting citations for the fence project, and to conduct an analysis of how the large-scale fence installation could affect the watershed and wildlife migration. 

“[The county] seems to be reluctant, maybe, to get involved in anything that's going to be controversial,” Valdez said. "I think they're also afraid, probably, of what the legal implications would be versus a multimillionaire, a billionaire. You know?” He said. “As a county, we just don't have the resources.” 

At the end of the day, the priority is watershed protection, Valdez said. He believes the county has more authority than it exercises when it comes to protecting the land from erosion and sedimentation, and has urged protections and a deeper look into the effects of construction on below water and land systems.

On June 6, 2022, a field technician from the Costilla County Planning and Zoning Department issued a series of land use code infractions against Cielo Vista Ranch, citing “no approved permits and or special use reviews for the construction being done.”  

Violations included not obtaining a mining permit for excavating and filling for road construction; not obtaining a watershed overlay permit for activity potentially affecting the watershed; and not obtaining a permit for road grading.  

The county called for a cease in fence building activity and gave Cielo Vista Ranch ten days to comply before instating legal action. 

Law firm Spencer Fane for Cielo Vista Ranch responded on June 17, 2022, denying any violations had occurred. “CVR views this latest letter as a continuation of a long series of interference with CVR’s constitutional property rights,” the response states.  

Cielo Vista Ranch’s representation stated they would seek compensatory damages including a monetary award and attorney's fees, and additional fees, stating alteration of the fence would cost $75,000 per mile, and that a lapse in project activity would incur as much as $7,000 per day. 

The parties then entered private negotiations. The settlement agreement was presented to the public on Tuesday, Oct. 25 during a special commissioners’ meeting that was spent mostly in executive session.   

Emerging from executive session, one commissioner suggested wryly he and fellow commissioners may want to “bring a bulletproof vest” to the next meeting.  

The widely circulated comment put locals on high alert and characterizes a larger paradigm of relationship between the community, Costilla County, and what is now Cielo Vista Ranch.  

[Related: Attorneys anticipate judge's historic ruling in 41-year-old land rights case ]

Commissioners published the settlement proposal in the print version of the Costilla County Free Press on Thursday, Oct. 27 . Details of the agreement were also posted on the county’s website   on Oct. 26.    

During a regular meeting Tuesday, Nov. 1, commissioners voted to accept the agreement. 

“Nobody saw [the agreement] until a few days before it was approved,” Valdez said. “It was never released to the public. I wanted to comment on it because I think there were several things wrong.”  

In reference to the Morada, “there was just a brief mention,” Valdez said. “They basically said that the impact and the development of the fence had not impacted the Morada.” 

Valdez believes an additional study of the fence’s effects on the watershed, wildlife, and cultural practices is necessary. 

He said the county’s response to issues pertaining to the fence “sets a bad precedence, because now any developer can go out there and do what they want. And then if they get caught, it’s, ‘Oh, well,’” Valdez said. “They'll just pay the fee, with no evaluation of the impacts.” 

“Still, I do appreciate that they brought it to light,” Valdez acknowledged. 

Representatives for the county declined to comment.  

Even inadvertently, a new kind of fence brings up old wounds.  

What is now Cielo Vista Ranch was once a portion of the Mexican-backed Sangre de Cristo Land Grant. The land was privatized into the hands of its sponsor, Charles Beaubien, with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.  

Beginning in 1864, the land grant was deeded to a series of surveyors and prospectors, among them, Colorado’s first governor, William Gilpin.  

Yet the area’s meadow and timber lands remained in use by the original settlers and their descendants, more or less uninterrupted — though continually contested in and out of the courts — until 1961, when a lumber operation purchased the property from the county for back taxes, fencing it off. 

The 1961 fence became a signal of a changed way of life. Closing access to the mountain’s common lands ended over a century of grazing, hunting, fishing, and firewood and timber collection that baselined the local subsistence lifestyle. 

“There’s been a lot of tension ever since the fencing off in 1961,” Valdez said. 

Decades of abuses ensued between mountain owners and the community, including direct actions to stop logging, bloodshed, and assassination attempts — hence the commissioner’s comment about a bulletproof vest — pinnacled in an unheard-of development. In an outstanding anomaly, the Colorado Supreme Court reinstated locals’ rights to graze animals and harvest tree resources on private property in 2002. They acknowledged some settlers’ rights as prescribed on behalf of the former Mexican government — opening a now two-decades-long conversation about how communal rights are to be defined, established and monitored. 

[Related: Court appoints special master in Costilla County land rights case ]

The Cielo Vista Ranch property adjacent to the Morada is a parcel referred to as “Cielo Vista II,” and is not part of the Colorado Supreme Court-issued allowance to the originally deeded common lands.  

Climbing the hill behind the Morada toward the fence, Valdez points out erosion tendrils etched like miniature deltas from the summer monsoons.  

Valdez says effects of the fence construction — established across a natural drainage area above a pre-existing adobe flood berm, and on a quick slope — accelerate preexisting conditions of erosion and sedimentation. He points to a corner of the Morada where he worries flooding may occur. 

“This is one of the major drainages that runs through the property of the Morada,” Valdez explained. “All these slopes here where the fence goes through, eventually those are all going to be erosion gullies. This is adding to the problem of the maintenance.” He believes county roads also suffer from the burden of increased runoff.  

As if on cue, a county road grader drives by at a snail’s pace, beeping incessantly. Valdez waves a hello as the worker makes a U-turn and heads toward a deposit of sedimentation.  

“It's a question of accountability in my mind,” Valdez said. "We have a legitimate ordinance on the books that needs to be looked at and enforced.” 

Back at home, Valdez sits in front of his wood stove, crowded by dogs vying for the coveted spot closest to his chair. He seems more relaxed, more at peace, having recently made the decision to step away as the point of contact for the San Francisco Morada. 

Frustration over what he perceives as “a lack of accountability from all parties” created “that I can’t, in good conscience, continue,” Valdez said. “I feel that nothing has happened — other than I've stirred the pot up a lot,” he acknowledged. 

Valdez knows commissioners and county staff don’t want him in the room when they make decisions — he acknowledges he’s yelled at them during public meetings, calling them incompetent, and other names to their faces. He also understands the frustration he carries is not just his own — it is compounded over generations of repeated story lines.  

“You have to be really centered when you sit down to talk about this stuff,” Valdez said, “or it’s really easy to get angry.” 

Valdez shrugs when asked if the settlement agreement will truly halt the community’s dissonance with the fence. 

“Where it goes from here, I don't know,” he said. “It's a little bit uncertain as to what the future is going to be.” 

Catherine Stroh, Executive Director of the Colorado Historical Foundation, said her organization was unaware of the settlement agreement when contacted by Rocky Mountain PBS on Nov. 8.  

The Foundation, too, had urged the county and ranch to assess permitting, storm water drainage, and rehabilitation at the Morada fence site on behalf of a preservation easement they hold on the Morada’s property.  

Cindy Nasky, Director of Preservation Programs at the Colorado Historical Foundation, conducted a periodic in-person inspection of the easement site in August and reported back: “the building seems to be holding its own and the drainage system and retaining wall that were installed years ago are working as they were designed to. However, the unusually heavy rains in the [San Luis Valley] this summer are not helping.” 

The organization continued dialogue with “several agencies” in “support of the Hermanos and the important historical site” around stormwater drainage issues at the Morada,” Nasky said.  

“It’s hard,” Stroh acknowledged. “So far, everything is holding up the way it’s supposed to.”  

“Per the easement, our role is limited and the ultimate site and building maintenance responsibility lies firmly with the property owner,” Nasky said. Her personal hope was that the ranch and Morada would reach an independent agreement on corrective measures. 

“The owner of the Morada site, could have, at any time, also taken their own legal action, and maybe then been privy to their own settlement,” Stroh noted.  

Regarding the county’s issuing of permit violations, “in my mind, at least some action was taken,” Stroh said. “But I know it will probably never seem like enough.” 

Stroh reflects on the question of the day: “Does this mean the fence will come down at the Morada?” 

Between social pressures and declining membership, Valdez fears that the Morada may become extinct. Once holding 73 Hermanos, today, membership is down to six. 

“What's going to happen?” Valdez wonders aloud. “What’s left?”  

“To me, this is the challenge,” he said. “How do we keep these traditions alive, and merge them with the dynamic cultural interfaces of time and change? How do we try to maintain some description of what the cultural landscape was, and is, and what it's evolving into? Because it's changing,” he recognized. “It's something that's dynamic.”  

“We're not going to always have it, you know, the way we romanticize it to be,” Valdez said. “This is our last stand. It's literally the last stand in Costilla County — as far as religious, spiritual practice, that’s been here solid through the generations.” 

Kate Perdoni is a multimedia journalist with Rocky Mountain PBS and can be reached at . 

Costilla County Commissioners reach settlement with Cielo Vista Ranch

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