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Road policy changes lead to debate

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“You are trying to say that it doesn’t change nothing but it does,” says Randy Robertson about the Chaves County Road Policy revisions approved by commissioners Tuesday. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

A couple of people attending a county meeting caused some disruption Tuesday morning over what county staff characterize as minor changes in its road policy.

The changes were approved unanimously by the five members of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners, in spite of some pointed words from two men.

“A question about it — did you all read it?” Randy Robertson called out to commissioners as discussion of the item began.

Chair Robert Corn responded “yes,” and then indicated that it was not a public hearing and people were not allowed to comment unless asked to do so by a commissioner.

“I was just wondering if you all read it,” Robertson continued. “There is a lot of stuff that is not …”

His remarks were interrupted by Toby Amarrujo, who identified himself only as a Chaves County businessman but has appeared at road hearings in 2017 and 2018. “If it concerns the public, the people who have an opinion should be able to say something about it,” he said.

Corn then said the man was “out of order” and repeated that the issue was not the subject of a public hearing.

Robertson exchanged several comments with Corn, Director of Public Services Bill Williams, who introduced the policy revision, and County Manager Stanton Riggs. At one point, Corn told Robertson that he would ask the sheriff to remove him from the meeting if the interruptions continued.

After a few exchanges, Riggs said, “I just want to let everyone know that these changes are not very big. What we are doing is streamlining the process,” he said.

He explained that the county will still hold public hearings as required by law prior to any proposed road changes and will notify the public before the hearings.

“We are still going to do everything we did,” he said. “We are not changing our process.”

Because road closures can affect access to public lands and because they sometimes involve long-standing disputes between neighboring property owners, county road issues often are contentious matters, commissioners have noted in previous meetings. In the past couple of years, a few proposed road closures, officially known as road vacations, have resulted in online petitions and heated county gatherings.

The revisions approved Tuesday regarding the Chaves County Road Policy are the first since December 2011 and the eighth since the policy was first established in 1970, Williams said.

The non-controversial changes, besides minor word and number changes, include adopting the phrase “road vacation” instead of “road closure” throughout the policy; clarifying that any roads or easements turned over to the county must be accepted officially to become the responsibility of the county; and changing the phase “request for road maintenance” to “request for road maintenance status change” to clarify that the request is not for grading or upkeep of a road but to change the status of a road from non-county maintained to county maintained. Some sections also change technical specifications regarding road construction and improvements.

What upset Robertson was the changes regarding public notices about proposed road changes.

The revisions in two different sections of the policy, one dealing with new roads and one dealing with road vacations, replace language about notices appearing in a “local newspaper of general circulation” with a direct reference to the Roswell Daily Record, the only general-interest newspaper published in Chaves County at the current time. The changes also delete specific reference to the New Mexico statutes requiring counties to post notices at three locations near the roads being considered for adoption or closure prior to the public hearings.

Riggs stressed in his remarks that the county has to comply with the laws regarding posting, even if the policy does not specifically cite the statute or law.

While Amarrujo left the meeting shortly after the commissioners’ vote, Robertson remained until the business items concluded and the public comment period was opened.

“You are trying to say that it doesn’t change nothing but it does,” he said, explaining that he thinks the change will allow the county to forego posting notices near proposed road closures.

“I don’t understand why we would make it harder for people to find stuff rather than to make it easier,” he said. “On top of that, the Roswell Daily Record, which is a great place, but what if something happens to the Roswell Daily Record? What if it closes down or whatever? You all will have shot yourself in the foot because you won’t even be able to legally post it.”

After the meeting, Williams and Robertson were seen talking at length and Williams later reiterated that the county would still follow the same procedures regarding road changes, including naming three citizens, known as freeholders, to review applications and make recommendations to the commissioners, as well as conducting postings, legal notices and public hearings.

Williams also agreed that road matters are frequently emotionally-charged debates and said the situation presented an opportunity to remind property owners that they cannot block, lock, gate, divert, obstruct or otherwise prevent traffic on county roads or easements, even if those are near their own roads or properties.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.