Above: People fill the Board Chambers Thursday morning when the Chaves County Board of Commissioners voted about Felix Canyon Road. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)
Below: Rancher Mike Casabonne says he appreciates the Thursday vote that closed a portion of a county road by his property. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)
Interested members of the public had filled the Board Chambers Thursday morning, but the Chaves County Board of Commissioners chose not to hear any comments before voting to close Felix Canyon Road and turn over its maintenance to a private landowner.
The decision left some vocally upset, with a few people saying that they will evaluate if any further actions or steps can be taken.
Having previously held two public hearings and a public tour regarding the 5.47-mile stretch of road in the southwest of Roswell off of State Highway 13, Board Chair Robert Corn said in response to a question from the crowd in the room about whether commissioners would listen to comments, “It is not going to happen today,” he said. “We already had two public meetings and other groups that have been part of this process that have had public meetings.”
Four of the commissioners, Jeff Bilberry, T. Calder Ezzell Jr., Will Cavin and Corn, voted for closure of the road that many people, including officials with the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, had indicated should remain open to provide ease of access to state and federal public lands. James Duffey abstained, citing a conflict of interest.
Mike Casabonne and his family, who own a ranch divided by the portion of road in question, had applied for closure of the road, which has belonged to the county for many years. The family said during prior meetings that closing the road to the public would prevent trespassing, poaching and property crimes. They also argued that closure would not prevent access to the lands, only present some delays by requiring people traveling from the east to use alternative routes. They added that they would work with law enforcement or other first responders to give them access to the road if it became private so as not to delay their response to emergencies.
“We appreciate the commissioners for standing up for private property rights,” said Casabonne after the vote. Son, Kellen Casabonne, said, “I’m glad that it’s over.”
Kenda Willey, a resident of Chaves County, said, “I am an opponent of closing county roads,” she said, adding that she thinks that few people from the Roswell area will use Felix Canyon Road at all now. “For all intents and purposes, that is blocking the entire road for everyone coming from the east.”
She said that she hoped that outside groups such as the Wilderness Federation would consider pursuing the matter, explaining that she is worried that the decision would set a precedent leading others land owners to ask for road closures.
Chuck Schmidt of the Pecos Valley District Office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said he wasn’t sure if anything could reverse the decision, but that he intended to look into whatever options might exist to maintain access to public lands. Capt. Andrew Gray of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department said, “We have done what we can. We have made our public comments and, really, that is as far as we can go.”
Chaves County business owner Toby Amarrujo, who had spoken at a previous hearing where others had presented hundreds of signatures of county residents opposed to closure, expressed his anger about the decision. He said that he intends to talk to a Santa Fe legislator or official about the situation.
“It is sad that they are closing a road for one man but against the interest of the rest of the county,” he said. “We have to remember this day at election time.”
Toward the end of the meeting, Ezzell and Cavin said that the vote was difficult, but one they felt best served the county. Cavin said closure would decrease liability risks and costs for the county.
“I guess nobody likes to have to vote on controversial issues,” said Ezzell. “But I have always been a firm believer that everybody is entitled to their own opinions but everybody is not entitled to their own facts, and I think we learned the facts on our tour of Felix Canyon Road.”
Ezzell said that a visit to the road had shown him that alternative routes would not add 40 minutes of travel time to access public lands, but maybe an additional 10 minutes or so. He added that the road is not the only access to nearby public lands. He said an exchange of land years ago had created two points of access to state lands at a different section of Felix Canyon Road. He said that most of the public does not know about those access points because they remain unmarked.
In another road application vote, commissioners unanimously approved maintaining a 0.75-mile portion of Wrangler Road northwest of the city by the Roswell-Chaves County Solar Centers. That road application had not met with any public controversy at prior hearings, and county staff told commissioners that the road as it existed meets county standards.
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.