Patience runs out in San Luis

 

After more than four years of work, the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant Commission voted Oct. 27 to end negotiations with Zachary Taylor, owner of the Taylor Ranch near San Luis, Colo.

The commission agreed to remain in existence in case Taylor ever makes a reasonable sales offer, but "the state is fed up," said Dan McAuliffe, assistant director of the Department of Natural Resources.

Made up of state agencies and local organizations, the Land Grant Commission was formed by Gov. Roy Romer in 1993 to try to purchase the 77,500-acre ranch known as "La Sierra" on the border of New Mexico.

"The window for public purchase is closing. Taylor took advantage of the state and made us look stupid," McAuliffe said. "If Taylor does not think we are serious, he is crazy."

Jim Lochhead, chairman of the commission and executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, offered Taylor $12 million for the remaining 53,000 acres of the ranch after one-third of the ranch was sold to a private corporation in August.

An appraisal that took five months and cost $17,000 valued the remaining portion of the ranch at $19.6 million.

But according to the Department of Natural Resources, the sale price of the southern third of the ranch - $412 an acre - was astronomically high and "an unusual coincidence" that skewed the appraisal to a lofty figure.

Jack T. Taylor, Zachary's father, paid $493,000 for the entire ranch in 1960 - roughly $6.40 an acre.

McAuliffe said $12 million was a reasonable offer because the Taylor Ranch maintains three logging contracts and litigation is pending over historic land rights which the appraisal neglects. He also noted that Taylor wanted $20 million for the entire ranch last January.

McAuliffe says Colorado has spent close to $1 million on related expenses and "we don't know anything more about the property today than we did two years ago because Taylor has not given the state access. Taylor thinks we can just get $12 million by asking. It is a lot more complicated."

Maria Mondragon Valdez, a commission member and resident of San Luis, expressed frustration over the decision because local San Luis members on the commission were always "left in the dark."

"This proves rural areas can't wait on the state," Valdez said. But she hopes the commission remains as a safety valve as logging on the ranch continues to create tension in the predominantly Hispanic community of San Luis.

A week before the commission meeting, protests and sabotage led to the arrests of two environmentalists and two armed loggers.

After the commission's decision, the tense atmosphere in this oldest town in Colorado intensified as protesters carried signs blaming both Taylor and the state for not breaking the stalemate. Some slogans read "Put Taylor in Prison" and "The State's Solution ... Blah, Blah, Blah."

The vote of the Land Grant Commission comes only a few weeks after a judge ruled that Zachary Taylor's father, Jack, violated the due process rights of certain property owners in San Luis when he sought to remove their historic claims to the property in the 1960s.

The Oct. 10 decision by Judge Gaspar F. Perricone, a retired District Court judge from Jefferson County, came after a week-long hearing in a packed courtroom. The ruling gives four San Luis residents an opportunity to be heard in court when the 16-year-old Rael vs. Taylor case goes to trial, perhaps in May 1998.

Jeff Goldstein, one of nine lawyers who represented the plaintiffs without salary, called Perricone's ruling a victory. Taylor's attorney, Albert Wolf, also viewed the decision as a victory, however, since Perricone's ruling refused to certify a class-action suit brought on behalf of 27 local plaintiffs. Perricone ruled that the rights of only four San Luis residents were violated.

"We are almost home free," Wolf told The Denver Post. "And we should be able to succeed in establishing that the handful of remaining (access) claims are not valid."

Peter McBride is a writer and photographer in Old Snowmass, Colorado.

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