Land deal, New Mexico style

Ancestral land turned corporation could be up for sale

  • Heirs to what was formerly the Atrisco Land Grant gathered in December outside the Westland Development Company's office to protest a deal proposed by its board of directors on whether to sell the land to an outside developer. The sign held by heir Richard Griego reads 'Land or Death.'

    Photo courtesy Concerned Heirs of Atrisco
  • Petroglyph National Monument

    Diane Sylvain
 

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — This booming desert city, with luxury homes stuck like ticks to the foothills and suburbs crawling west from the Rio Grande, is nearing capacity. To the north and south, Indian reservations block sprawl; the only open land lies beyond the western mesa. But those sandy rills and arroyos have been largely off-limits for the past 300 years: In 1692, the king of Spain granted that land to Spanish settlers and their heirs.

Today, the former Atrisco Land Grant covers 57,000 acres from the Rio Grande to the Rio Puerco. Developers and politicians alike are casting covetous eyes at that land, which became a private for-profit corporation in 1967 — the only such instance in New Mexico’s history. People who could prove they were heirs became "shareholders" of the Westland Development Corporation.

Last summer, however, the Westland board of directors shocked those heirs when it announced it was considering an offer that would liquidate all shares, dissolve the corporation and sell the land. If the land is developed, it will increase the Duke City’s area by half its size.

Many heirs don’t understand the implications of that, says shareholder James Aranda, whose connections to Atrisco stretch back at least nine generations. People think the sale will allow them to "buy a fridge or put a down payment on an SUV," he says. What they don’t realize is "this is a one-shot deal."

"We’re going to lose everything," he says. "And it’s going to transform the entire region."

Board business

Since incorporating, Westland has sold some land, including 2,000 acres that today make up part of Petroglyph National Monument (HCN, 10/25/99: Monumental Chaos). It’s also building a 6,400-acre planned community and is seeking approval to break ground on another 14,000 acres. But the outright sale of shares is a new twist — and it’s set off a bidding war. Last August, the initial offer was for $200 per share. The current offer, from Las Vegas-based Sedora Holdings, stands at $305 per share, or a total of $242 million.

Some heirs are eager to cash in on the deal: Shareholders currently receive annual dividend checks for about $1 per share. But others are skeptical of the board’s intentions, alleging that its members cut a "sweetheart" deal with an early buyer, participated in insider trading by purchasing shares at deflated prices prior to the sale announcement, and even withheld knowledge of oil resources. (Repeated calls to Westland were unreturned.)

If the deal goes through, the nine board members will profit most: Under Sedora’s offer, they would reap more than $15 million. In contrast, the other 6,120 shareholders would split just over $227 million. And the split would be uneven; some own just a few shares, while others own thousands.

On June 8, shareholders were supposed to vote on whether to allow non-heirs to purchase Westland shares, a necessary condition for any land sale. But the board abruptly called off the vote, because Sedora outbid an earlier offer. Bewildered shareholders were left milling around the Hotel Albuquerque on a Thursday morning, and Westland has yet to reschedule the vote.

Shareholder Jerome Padilla, who opposes the sale, says the board has no business signing land deals when shares can’t even be sold to non-heirs. Westland has already paid a $5 million termination fee to one early buyer. And if the deal with Sedora falls through, the company will shell out another $10 million termination fee.

"This group of people is not negotiating in our best interest," says Padilla. "How can we allow this board, who jeopardizes such large amounts of money, to be responsible (for) such prime property?"

Connecting a city with its future

Westland has its hands on prime real estate indeed: This winter ended a long-standing battle over the westward expansion of Paseo del Norte through Petroglyph National Monument (HCN, 6/27/05: Suburbia blasts through a national monument). The city won with significant legislative help from Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, who, more than 30 years ago, bought land along the west bank of the Rio Puerco. If Westland is developed, that land will be made accessible by the proposed Northwest Loop Road, which would blow through the Puerco Valley.

Even non-heirs in Albuquerque wonder about the future if Westland sells. The city might someday resemble Las Vegas, where Sedora owner James Rhodes is one of the city’s biggest developers. The area could even sprout nettles of oil derricks, pumping out an estimated 100 to 500 million barrels of oil.

But state Rep. Miguel Garcia, D, thinks that land could instead "re-instill hope and respect" for his poverty-stricken constituents, many of whom are Atrisco heirs. His district in the South Valley of Albuquerque has the state’s highest teen pregnancy rate; many residents don’t have health insurance, and the area lacks basic infrastructure such as storm drains.

Garcia — an heir, but not a shareholder — hopes shareholders will vote against the sale and someday elect a new generation of board members. If that happened, he says, Westland’s assets could be used for the good of the community, funding loans, education and recreational opportunities for teens and seniors — rather than simply enriching "a handful of people."

"Land grants are about tradition, belief, respect, ancestors, strength, democracy and values," says Garcia."They are not about money."

The author, Southwest correspondent for High Country News, lives in Albuquerque.

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation in Santa Fe.

High Country News Classifieds
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...