With discovery done and mediation failed, District Judge Kenneth DeHart heard final arguments from both sides of the ongoing dispute between Property Owners Association of Terlingua Ranch Inc (POATRI) and Marion Craig Suber, one of several Terlingua Ranch property owners who have sued their association to gain exclusive easement rights to their land.
POATRI contends that they share easement rights with property owners to all parcels on the ranch. According to the association by-laws, no gates and especially no locked gates are allowed. Suber is accused of chain-locking three gates on his property, making it, according to the suit, “impossible for vehicular traffic to pass.”
“My client is an advocate of private property rights,” attorney Rod Ponton, who represents Suber, said.
“For years there has been a tension between POATRI and owners whether the roads were public or private. The question is, do owners have the right to keep people off their land like any other land owner can,” Ponton said.
“The way POATRI has it set-up, people can drive anywhere, anytime and sightsee, like a park,” 13- year Terlingua Ranch resident Kassandra Mead said. “We just want to own our land like anybody else,” Mead said.
Many of the roads serve as long drive ways as very few parcels have direct access to public roads, essentially making most of the land, land-locked.
A temporary restraining order against Suber to keep the gates open has expired. Now the judge must decide the future of the case.
Terlingua Ranch, a 300,000 acre “sub-division” with 1100 miles of unpaved road and over 4900 individual tract owners, most of which do not live there, started as a land development scheme in the late 1960’s by a company known as the Terlingua Ranch Land and Cattle Company, led by Carroll Shelby and a disbarred lawyer named David A Witts. The Terlingua Chili Cook-Off was part of the marketing plan to develop interest in the area.
In the early 1970’s Shelby and company sold the enterprise to Great Western Corporation who in turn transferred the assets, including easements, to the present developer, Terramar Corp in 1976. Whether the transferred easement was an assignment or a license is, according to Judge DeHart, “the critical element in this case.”
Today the largest land owner at Terlingua Ranch is the Brewster County Oil Company, who not only is prospecting for petroleum but is operating one of two bentonite mines on the ranch. The company operates under several names and has its headquarters in Brenham, Texas.
Victory for Suber would mean that Terlingua Ranch owners would have the right to gate their properties but not block egress or ingress to their neighbors. A Suber victory might also require POATRI to give up some land.
“Owners in the past who have lost their land due to liens filed by POATRI because of easement disputes, might be in position to reclaim their land,” Ponton said.
Jerry Patterson, director of the Texas General Land Office, has discussed the possibility of allowing POATRI to manage Christmas Mountain.
“They would keep poachers and other trespassers off the mountain,” GLO spokesman Jim Suydam said.
A draft agreement between the GLO and POATRI has been distributed to the public, but whether easement is an issue to gain access to the mountain from the Terlingua Ranch side remains cloudy, until the Suber case is resolved. Christmas Mountain already has access and easement from the south through the Big Bend National Park.
Judge DeHart who “will take the matter under advisement,” will likely rule on the case in the next sixty days.