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Cover story

Church mired in valley conflict

NCR staff
Taos, N.M.

The road north from Albuquerque up the spine of New Mexico winds through a landscape of contrasts. Lean, begrudging valleys give way to majestic mountains. Modest mobile homes coexist higgledy-piggledy with more palatial structures. All-terrain vehicles outdo the speed limit on Highway 68, but the tumbleweed still tumbles across the road on a blustery February day. The legendary Rio Grande moves urgently over rocks as if trying to keep up with the times.

Past Santa Fe and on toward Taos, amid echoes of exotic people and places. Off to the west, the Georgia O’Keefe place, a national monument now that the painter is gone. Los Alamos of the bomb. The contrasts are sharp. Way back in the rear view mirror is Roswell, where some say we were visited from outer space. In the side mirror a town called Truth or Consequences, near the White Sands Missile Range, and that resonates, too. On past Taos and its historic Pueblo set within the Sangre de Christo mountain range, said to look red as the blood of Christ at certain times. In addition, the best skiing in New Mexico is up past Taos. And up there, too, in the valleys, are villages with names like Arroyo Seco, Arroyo Hondo and San Cristobal.

Tempers are running high in those villages and valleys. It is a situation new as the most recent wave of nomads from big cities, usually wealthy and discreet and worldly wise, searching for escape from hectic life to rustic rural utopias they hope time forgot. But it is also a situation old as the land itself, which is so dear to humans that, time and again, we fight about it.

On one level, the people in and around Arroyo Hondo are locked in a complex property dispute focusing on an old road that allegedly runs through a new, upscale residential development. But standing back, one can see bigger forces at play: a clash between ancient cultures and their emphasis on the rights of the community pitted against modern legal conceptions of ownership; the eternal tug-of-war between rich and poor; and the very personal animosities that fights over money and reputations invariably generate.

Not for the first time in such cases, the church has been dragged into the fray. In the conflict of interests and cultures and personalities, Fr. Vincent Chavez, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish, which serves several local villages, has taken sides decisively, with bitter effects.

Trouble in paradise

Nearly every version of this story begins with the arrival of Philip DeCaro, a lawyer turned developer who in the early 1980s bought an 80-acre tract of land along the hillside outside Arroyo Hondo, which is about 10 miles out of Taos, a quaint town with a tradition of artists and eccentrics.

DeCaro had to build a road to make the new houses accessible. Parts of this new road, the local people say, were built over a previous road that is older than memory, but the new people say it never existed, or if it existed it wasn’t really a road but a path. The new road is called by the newcomers Lobo Ranch Road, while the old people still call it the Camino Linere.

About half-a-dozen houses were built. All are opulent in a woodsy sort of way, isolated from each other and from the local community, most enjoying pristine views of mountains, valleys and especially trees — their backyard is a national forest. Some are occupied only part-time because their owners have primary homes elsewhere.

From initial high purpose and goodwill, the local atmosphere grew gradually steamy. At first, DeCaro insinuated himself into the community in various ways as if this new venture were a marriage made in heaven. When the locals set up a community association, for example, they appointed him its attorney. He was also the lawyer of, among others, Trudy and Ed Healy, the wealthiest family in the village, at least until then, and widely regarded as backers of local causes, especially environmental.

But back at the new subdivision everything was not so friendly, many locals claim. People who traveled the neighborhood were urged by DeCaro to keep away. New residents Marguerite Breen and her husband, Jerry Young, told the Taos News that they wanted privacy, that, furthermore, in order to buy the property they had to sign an agreement restricting access on Lobo Ranch Road to themselves and guests. “We consider all community members our guests,” Young said. While this sounded gracious, it implied to the local people that the newcomers had proprietorship and the guests were guests only so long as they were invited back.

Is this Fortress America?

What the new residents seemed to be setting up was a gated community, part of a popular trend toward privacy and protection.

“Gated communities, one of the more dramatic forms of residential boundaries, have been springing up around the country since the early 1980s,” writes Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder in Fortress America (1997). They go on: “We estimate that more than 3 million American households have already sought out this new refuge from the problems of urbanization. ... These developments in part reflect the notion of community as an island, a social bulwark against the general degradation of the urban social order; they also reflect the increasing attempt to substitute private controls for public organization, for the joint responsibilities of democratic citizenship all of us share.”

The residents of Lobo Ranch Road don’t wish to be seen as living in a gated community. “I’ve never heard that term used,” Joseph Werntz, attorney for several of them, told NCR in a phone interview. “No one has ever expressed that concept or that perception.”

Similarly, Paul A. Cross, one of the residents, in written responses to NCR said, “Lobo Ranch is not a gated community, and no one represented to me that it would be one. My concern is about maintaining my private property rights and in limiting development in the region. Living in a gated community doesn’t matter to me.”

Among the more high-profile participants in the dispute are Stephen and Doris Briggs. Stephen Briggs explained in a lengthy memo to NCR that in 1987 they bought a site “served by an easement for ingress and egress over Lobo Ranch Road.”

The road is the most prominent bone of contention, but bones of contention never happen in a vacuum. This is a fragment of how Briggs sees the background: “In 1994, a dispute began between our neighbors, Edmund and Trudy Healy, and the rest of the residents of the Lobo Ranch properties. The dispute began when the Healys changed the location of the road. ... Although we and several other residents who own an easement over the road were not consulted, we had no real objection to the new location of the road. However, we did insist that the Healys have the location of the road surveyed and recorded in the records of Taos County, because they had interfered with our legal access to our home.”

The past lives on

If this sounds legal and technical, it merely scratches the surface of legalities and technicalities. There have been suits and countersuits, claims and counterclaims, entangling the community in a Gordian knot of legal complexities.

The simmering situation grew more combustible in late 1996, when DeCaro and the other new residents erected a large wooden gate that closed off Lobo Ranch Road while a sign declared it private property.

But there was no significant response to this seemingly forbidding gesture until May 25, 1997, when the local community, in a caravan of cars, trucks and marchers, forcibly opened the gate to Lobo Ranch Road, replaced the “Private” sign with another that read: “Public Road: Do not obstruct.” The protesters drove along the contested road, past the houses of the new residents, to the nearby national forest.

One detailed account of “the road event” was provided in a letter to the local Taos News by Doris Briggs: “We were waiting at our locked gate, hoping to talk with [the protesters] and let them know that they were welcome anytime on foot or horseback. However, it was evident immediately that mob mentality had taken over. I was physically threatened by their words and actions. I have never in my 58 years been so scared by my fellow men nor seen such hate-filled faces.”

It is a long letter full of telling detail. Toward the end it says, “We know that this was organized by Trudy and Ed Healy.” The Healys deny this.

Much of the brouhaha could be written off as a property dispute among rich neighbors — except for the community.

Time may not have stood still in New Mexico, but it did slow down. Thus its various villages pose a challenge to change. “Culture clash” shouts a recent headline in the Albuquerque Journal above a story about a flamboyant multimillionaire who paid cash for expensive homes and then painted them in “Caribbean colors” until his latest, in Taos, was burned down.

Out of Time is the title of a little book, by James C. Bull, about Arroyo Seco, one of the villages that make up Holy Trinity Parish. “From the late 17th century, Arroyo Seco was home to the Pueblo and Spanish cultures,” Bull writes. “Then a few Americans arrived during the 19th century from the North. ... The impact of the skiing culture has been considerable and apparent.”

The land is still poor. “Fields represent generations of history,” writes Bull. But not much wealth. Mostly people can get part-time work in local hotels, Fr. Chavez told NCR. The future wrestles with the past. A fraternal group called the Penitentes is still active in the area. A distant offshoot of the Franciscan missionaries who came with the Conquistadores, its members practice severe penance that includes flagellation. The organization was condemned in 1892 but was reinstated in 1947. Once a powerful political force, its religious and artistic background is still regarded as a cementing element in the local parishes.

“The oldest things are mostly buried,” Bull writes. “You can’t really say they are gone because you can feel the old, and it’s there, somewhere.”

In a film called “The Milagro Bean Field War,” wonder shows on villagers’ faces as precious water is diverted to the hero’s little bean field. That wonder reflects the importance of water in New Mexico, conducted in highly regulated irrigation ditches called acequias. The acequia commission still is a highly influential body in the community, as is the local land grant association.

“The people ... are very community oriented,” said Chavez. “The notion of private property is foreign here. We always had community property. New Mexico is isolated and different, so, for survival, people depended on each other. The land was communally owned and used.”

Into this communally oriented neck of the woods — literally — rode the ruggedly individualistic Phil DeCaro, a former CIA agent. Controversy accompanied him like a shadow. He is said to have claimed he took part in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, though his daughter denied this in the local paper.

Issues to personalities

When DeCaro first built the contested road and the new tenants began using it in the early 1980s, there was no significant outcry. Indeed, there was a consistency and continuity about updating the road, explained local leader Alfred Trujillo, just as it had changed and been changed for over a century.

But then, the locals say, as the newcomers got better established, they used various forms of intimidation to keep people from visiting the DeCaro segment or passing through it to the national forest beyond. The Lobo Ranch Road residents claim no one sued when they put up “Private” signs. The local people counter that, given their communal background of living in harmony together, they find confrontation distasteful.

Every move upped the social, personal and legal ante.

Ed Healy stumbled on the information that one owner of eight Lobo Ranch acres was paying only $6 in taxes. He investigated further and found, he told NCR, that the Briggses were paying approximately $42 in taxes for 26 acres and a new house. The Healys found the low tax bills were a pattern, they said, indicating that either the developer or the owners had failed to notify authorities of developments at the Lobo Ranch. The Healys found the water supply similarly manipulated: At one stage, four houses were paying only one water bill, they said.

Werntz, the attorney for several residents, denies this on their behalf. “If not enough taxes were paid, that’s a public policy issue,” he said. And Stephen Briggs wrote: “We ... followed the required procedures and paid all tax bills that were presented to us.”

While Ed Healy is a native of Utah, his wife, Trudy, is local. She told NCR she was outraged at outsiders who come in and exploit the system.

Yet it’s possible these anomalies reflect instead a failed system of local governance. New Mexico is extremely vulnerable to exploitation, Ed Healy explained: “There are no development impact fees here. This is a great place for developers. There are no real estate transfer taxes here. People can do all kinds of things. ... There is also no enforcement of the law here.”

Not surprisingly, DeCaro soon ceased to be the Healys’ lawyer. The Healys claim the Lobo Ranch residents embarked on a campaign of misinformation about them. The Lobo Ranch residents claim the same about the Healys.

According to the Healys, when they saw plans for a new development of 80 to 100 houses on what was called the Duncan property, adjacent to the Lobo ranch property, they bought the 400 acres to ensure that no such development would occur. A newspaper article by the Briggses, on the other hand, claims the Healys plan to develop the 400 acres.

The Briggses’ article goes on: “We do not feel we are in a feud, either with Healy and certainly not the Hondo community. We are aware that Healy has been very generous to the community, but we feel in this particular issue he is using the community for his own personal agenda.”

But this seemingly sincere Briggs effort to reach out to the local community tripped over itself in the first paragraph. “No one doubts that long ago there was a trail between Arroyo Hondo and San Cristobal. However, Lobo Ranch Road as it exists today is not that path. ... We wonder if any of the 40 people who gave statements to Healy could testify that they drove up such a road before 1981.”

This was taken by local people to mean that outsiders were calling them liars. “Don’t call me a liar,” Carlos Rendon intoned rhetorically to NCR. “I know that road was there since I was 6 years old, and I’m now 70 years old.” Rendon and others swapped stories about who used the old road and how long ago and for what — to harvest dry wood, to visit a sawmill, to visit friends. And in the distant past, they said, before San Cristobal had a church of its own, the dead were carried in procession along the old road to the church in Arroyo Hondo.

Freedom to roam

Much of that traffic, though, was in the past. No one is contending that the old road — or the new — is in constant demand by Arroyo Hondo people nowadays. What is at issue now, the locals say, is the freedom to go there if they wish. And some told NCR they liked to roam there or hunt there or have a few beers. But, beyond that, what seems most at issue is the symbolic right to go where they have always gone before the old order changed.

The Briggses’ article provoked strong support for the Healys. Letters poured in to the Taos News. “Ed Healy is a serious conservationist,” wrote one reader. “Healy has an inspiring lifetime record of protecting the environment and has demonstrated an unswerving commitment to supporting our community on many levels,” wrote another.

Villager Vincente M. Martinez wrote: “I challenge the property owners on the traditional road to also have the courage to become full participants in the community they call home by respecting our traditional rights.”

Trudy Healy, too, responded with ungracious glee to the Briggses’ article: “My husband, Ed Healy, and I don’t have to put our picture in the Taos News. ... Yes, we are spending tens of thousands of dollars to get the Arroyo Hondo-San Cristobal Road back that was stolen as an amenity to subdivision investments.”

The heightened rhetoric reflected growing community animosity. Complexity, meanwhile, was heaped upon complexity.

Chavez, 34, did his seminary studies at the famous Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, a distinction usually reserved for talented prospects. He was ordained in 1991. Less than a year later, he was appointed pastor of his first parish, an exceptionally speedy promotion even in an era of scarce priests. Arroyo Hondo is his third parish. His option to join the local people — about 200 of them, though versions differ — in the march on Lobo Ranch Road was a turning point.

Although a number of the new residents at first attended church, none formally joined the parish, Chavez told NCR. Nor do any attend now. Soon after the march, the Briggses visited Chavez. He said they were very angry. But they said they were scared. They disagree sharply about what Chavez knew about the march and when he knew it.

Chavez quotes Doris Briggs as saying to him: “How dare you participate in something so ugly?” He tells of trying to reason with them, that they were blessed with wealth and opportunity while the local people have very little. He recalls pointing out the church’s social teaching and quoting from scripture, including Lazarus and the rich man. He concluded: “After nearly two hours I sensed they still didn’t get it.”

The Briggses describe a very different meeting. “He was not interested in serving as a peacemaker or healer — only in furthering the Healy cause,” Stephen Briggs said. “At one point we asked him if he felt that violence was necessary and if he should support violence. His response was that as a priest ‘we are sometimes called to be militant.’ Father Chavez has not once tried to bring us and his other parishioners together. He has outright refused all our efforts for personal reconciliation. He has called for Doris to do public penance.” (The diligent Briggses took this opinion to their pastor in Florida, “who has his doctorate in theology,” and the latter assured them public penance had been abolished by the church in the sixth century.)

Somewhere amid the rumors, word had seeped out that Doris Briggs was Jewish, but Stephen Briggs assured NCR: “We are both lifetime Catholics. We attended Catholic schools. In the ’60s Doris was a member of a charismatic community and taught [religion classes]. We are both Cursillistas. We recently went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with our Florida priest. We have not stopped attending church. We have stopped attending Father Chavez’s church as we were told by him people like us were better off in another church.”

Paul Cross, another resident of Lobo Ranch Road, responded to the Catholic question: “I am a confirmed member of the Catholic church, as are most of the residents of Lobo Ranch. ... I also believe that the church should not involve itself in private property disputes in which it is not a party.”

But now the church was definitely involved. In late 1998, attorneys for DeCaro filed a subpoena requiring Chavez to turn over 17 types of information. These included all records of donations made to the parish by the Healys; a list of all parishioners; a list of all those buried in Arroyo Hondo and San Cristobal; copies of Chavez’s homilies relating to the case.

If Chavez complied, there would be few secrets left in the parish. But the feisty priest, whose trademark is a Texas-style rancher’s hat, was and remains defiant. There has been an intense legal tussle about whether this subpoena is warranted. The archdiocese of Santa Fe admonished Chavez that “it was seen as legally not prudent for a pastor ... to be implicated in any future legal action.” Chavez refused to comply with most aspects of the subpoena, stating he would go to jail if necessary. “My response is that I have to be on the side of the church, the side of justice and peace,” he said.

“They think they’re going to hurt the community by attacking the priest,” said local leader Trujillo. “When they attack the church they attack the community, because that’s what the church is, the community.” Chavez presented a similar viewpoint: “Since I’ve been dragged through the courts, a lot of people in Arroyo Hondo are fearful of saying anything ... afraid of being sued.”

The word intimidation comes up often, each side claiming the tactic is used by the other. While Chavez invokes the community, especially the parish, and the local people certainly rallied to the Healys in the letters pages of the local paper, the Lobo residents counter that they are not outcasts in the valley. “Personally I have friends all through the valley, from all walks of life, of diverse cultures and backgrounds,” wrote Cross. And Stephen Briggs: “Except for a small group of people from Upper Hondo, we have very cordial relations with the members of the community. Some have expressed regret at what we are going through, and one sweet viejo ... told us to come back to church.”

No end in sight

Even the district judge, Jay G. Harris, does not seem to have managed to rise above the strife over which he is called to render judgment. Chavez says Harris, in response to a question, told him trouble in the valley “will end when you stop opening your mouth in public.” And, in rendering one of his many judgments to date between the warring parties, Harris remarked that the folks in the valley had gotten along fine until the Healys came along. These comments, Chavez says, seem to be connected to the fact that Chavez and other parishioners testified against Harris in an investigation about racial bias and fairness.

There are dozens of issues in dispute and cases pending. Cross claims the Healys alone “have sued 35 parties with about a hundred allegations.” Chavez was deposed for a day in January. He says there were 15 attorneys representing various aspects of the “other side.” He awaits further deposition.

In the sanitized future depicted in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, New Mexico is an oasis preserved from the past, a place to which the brave new people could go to see what it used to be like. Back there in New Mexico it is “the Savage” who represents the way we were.

Chavez mentioned the book more than once. Huxley lived nearby when he was writing it. The New Mexico mention could be construed as an exotic tribute to its uniqueness and wholesomeness, but then as now, reality is mercurial and the Savage a work in progress.

“I don’t see any more conflict between residents of Lobo Ranch and the residents of the valley floor than I see among the residents of the valley floor themselves,” wrote Cross to NCR. He is not optimistic that the various claims will be solved outside the courts. “Mediation is always a possibility,” he nevertheless added. Stephen Briggs echoed this: “Sad as it is, it looks like litigation will be the only answer.” He added, “To be at odds with our local church in Arroyo Hondo is very painful.”

Werntz said the court has actually ordered the contesting parties to sit down and mediate their dispute in hopes of reaching a negotiated settlement. This will probably happen in summer. Comments Werntz: “I think if the parties were willing to sit down in good faith and try to reach a solution based upon compromise, that would be the best course of action for everyone to take in this case.”

Chavez confirmed that, some months ago, before going to the Holy Land, Doris Briggs approached him and “wanted to make peace. I sensed she wanted to reconcile. She wanted absolution.” But he told her that penance is necessary for reconciliation and absolution. He believed she was acting on her lawyer’s advice, Chavez said. He did not seem hopeful about healing.

Meanwhile, many ghosts wander that disputed road.

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 1999