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County decides not to close area roads; Three of disputed roads near public lands

“I am not trying to block anyone access. I am here to work. I am here to give you solutions. I am here to help,” says rancher Steven Ellyson, addressing the Chaves County Board of Commissioners at its Thursday meeting that included some decisions about county roads. Ellyson and his lawyer are asking commissioners to reconsider a decision to allow a county road near his ranch to remain open, saying the road can be dangerous after inclement weather and indicating that other access to public lands exist or can be made. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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What constitutes “primary access” and what exactly do county records show about previous actions taken regarding roads?

These are two of the questions that can make decisions about county road closures, or road vacations, so controversial.

“Some years we have hunters that are very upset with us. Some years we have landowners that are very upset with us,” said Chaves County Manager Stanton Riggs at the Thursday morning meeting of the county Board of Commissioners.

A full house appeared at the commission meeting at the Chaves County Administrative Center. Many people in attendance, including those behind a petition drive, were interested in hearing what three appointed “freeholders” had decided regarding 16 road vacation requests, nine submitted by the county and seven by landowners.

The freeholders — Steven Chaves, Travis Johnson and Alan Theobald — decided unanimously after visiting the roads March 7 to reject four applications, including three northwest of Roswell near the Flying H community and Picacho Road. Commissioners voted to accept the freeholders’ reports.

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The Picacho Road area is of interest to hunters, recreationists and sports enthusiasts, who use the federal and state lands accessible by county roads. A decision last year by commissioners to close a county road in the area that went through a ranch owned by the Casabonnes upset many people.

Riggs said that county policy dictates that the elected commissioners have no further role regarding the applications that freeholders agree upon unanimously. A lawyer representing a rancher who opposes the freeholders’ decision regarding his application later questioned that point.

The commissioners still have to consider 10 road applications that the freeholders recommend for vacation. Another two applications were made by the county but have been withdrawn upon further consideration, Chaves County Public Services Director Bill Williams told the board.

Commissioners will hold a public hearing April 19 to allow comments from interested parties on the remaining road applications and then will visit each road starting at 7 a.m. April 23, a site tour the public can also attend, before deciding whether to keep the roads as county property.

Freeholders’ decision is applauded, opposed

The freeholders’ decisions and commissioners’ votes regarding the Picacho Road area pleased members of Access New Mexico, said its spokesman Mark Pantuso.

He said that his group and the New Mexico Wildlife Federation presented commissioners with 3,200 signatures of people who were opposed to closures that limit access to publicly owned land.

“What we are going to do from here forward is to make sure that we don’t see the road closures that we are concerned about showing up on any other meeting agenda,” he said. “I do feel that what we did help, and it just brought everyone together and made us realize that we have to, I guess, work the system we have.”

He said he and other group members made radio and TV appearances, emailed commissioners to let them know of their objections and held meetings.

“We think the freeholders acted in the best interest of Chaves County residents and public land users in New Mexico who rely on these roads for recreation and access to thousands of acres of (Bureau of Land Management) and state lands,” added Gabe Vasquez of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “We are pleased they followed the guidance of the Chaves County road policy, which clearly states that the county shall not vacate roads that provide primary access to public land. We are grateful for the freeholders’ decision, as are the 3,200 people who signed the petition to keep the roads open.”

Among those who are not happy are a rancher and his supporters.

Steven Ellyson, whose request for the vacation of 2.37 miles of road on Felix Canyon was denied, plans to continue talking with commissioners and county staff to change the situation, according to his lawyer, Lane Martin of Carlsbad.

Martin said that the state statute does not require commissioners to accept the freeholders’ decisions, even when unanimous, but does specify that commissioners should consider the full report of the freeholders, not just their summary.

“If you look at the statute, it requires the freeholders to ‘fully’ report, and I quote the word ‘fully’ from the specific statute,” Martin said. “There is no mention in the summary of the condition of the road. There is no mention in the summary of the cost to maintain that road. There is no mention of the dangers of the road in that summary.”

Ellyson, who said he has owned the land for seven months, described a road that becomes dangerous and impassable after rains or snow. He said he once had to help rescue hunters, at his own expense, who had become stuck on the road and was himself, after a rain four months ago, unable to leave his ranch except by helicopter. He said he had to spend about $20,000 to make the road usable again.

“What worries me and should you, too, is the liability of what could happen,” he said.

Ellyson also told commissioners that he is willing to work with land officials about creating additional access or creating better signage about what other roads do exist into public lands.

“I am not trying to block anyone access. I am here to work. I am here to give you solutions. I am here to help,” he said.

Another person at the meeting, Dave Romine, who said his wife’s family owned the Ellyson ranch previously, contended that the road already was closed by commissioners in 1979. Riggs and Williams said they have not yet found any documents to indicate that.

Williams said after the meeting that freeholders discussed the Ellyson vacation application extensively but ultimately decided that the road should not be closed because, although there are other roads to public lands in that area, the road in the Ellyson area is the one providing primary access.

The other road vacation requests rejected unanimously by commissioners were the following:

• A request by Terry Bogle to close a one-mile portion of Caddo Road in Dexter. Freeholders decided the road was regularly used by many people, including emergency responders, Williams said.

• A request by Helen Henderson to close about five miles of C4-033 on Picacho Road. According to Williams, the freeholders reported that they had determined that the road is used daily by many people.

• A request by H.C. Hendricks to close 4.77 miles of C4-042, known as both Felix Canyon Road and Picacho Road. Williams said that freeholders reported that they found this road to be both a primary access to public lands and a frequently used road.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.