New Mexico homeowners locked out of water access

Neighbors: No help from county or developer

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SANTA ROSA, N.M. (KRQE) – New Mexico families have been living without access to water they claim they were promised when they moved in. Residents are putting the blame on an angry neighbor and a developer who’s turning a blind eye.

“It’s peaceful,” said Larry Buras, referring to his property west of Santa Rosa. “It makes my heart happy is all I can tell you.”

Buras and a group of neighbors worked their whole lives for a peaceful retirement in the high country.

For Ann and Mike Kelley, it means more time with their 3-year-old great-granddaughter.

“My husband was a pharmacist and he’s retired and just doesn’t want to deal with people anymore,” Ann Kelley laughed.

Their search for solitude landed them in New Mexico when each of them bought property in the Cañon Milagro Subdivision west of Santa Rosa.

“We’re all basically old retirees out here,” said Mike Kelley.

But their pursuit of peace hasn’t worked out the way they planned.

Things most people take for granted like having a running faucet with water safe to drink or taking a hot shower, means extra work for the 74-year-olds.

“I just feel like I’ve been cheated,” said Ann.

The Kelleys along with their neighbors are now in the middle of a winter without access to water from a nearby well.

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Rocky Mountain Timberlands has since removed this description of water availability from its website.

Neighbors said the subdivision’s developer, Montana-based Rocky Mountain Timberlands, isn’t holding up its end of the deal it sold to people when they moved in. As of last week, the deal was still advertised on the developer’s website, stating “water is available and residents will have access to an existing well.”

After KRQE News 13 started asking questions, Rocky Mountain Timberlands removed New Mexico property listings from its website.

The original deal seemed simple, neighbors said. The Kelleys along with neighbors would use water from a community well nearby, and they did so for years. That is until Leo Muniz, the man who owns property where the well is located, literally locked everyone out.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Mike Kelley.

According to the New Mexico State Engineer’s Office records, KRQE News 13 found Muniz does have water rights to three wells on the lot he owns. He filed paperwork just last year after neighbors complained about him locking them out. But it doesn’t end there.

KRQE News 13 poured through dozens of documents and found a disclosure statement from 2002. It states, “Rocky Mountain Timberlands will arrange for the provision of water…” and “Lot owners are not allowed to drill their own wells.”

KRQE News 13 took this case to a New Mexico attorney with experience in water law. The attorney, who is not involved in this case, points to one document in particular.

A warranty deed from 2007 appears to grant residents of Rocky Mountain Timberlands access to the water well on Muniz’s property. The deed is signed by the developer with no expiration date.

“The first two years we’d drive right down where the trailer is and fill up my 500-gallon tank,” said Mike Kelley, pointing to the well he can no longer access.

KRQE News 13 called Leo Muniz to ask why he locked the gate. Muniz didn’t want to talk on camera but said he had concerns about property theft, and since he has the water rights, he said it’s also his right to lock the gate.

The president of Rocky Mountain Timberlands, Wayne Joyner, told KRQE News 13 over the phone that he agrees with Muniz, and eventually hung up the phone refusing an interview.

According to the New York Times, Joyner has worked with Rocky Mountain Timberlands for years buying large sections of land and subdividing it. In a 1991 article, Joyner was said to have touted selling more parcels of Montana land than anyone in the west — at least 700,000 acres back then.

“I don’t know what to do,” said Ann. Neighbors claim Joyner has not responded to their written complaints about the water situation.

“It adds a burden,” Buras explained. Buras and neighbors now have to haul water more than 50 miles from Edgewood or Santa Rosa.

The Kelleys also rigged a gutter to an above-ground swimming pool in their backyard. But even with disinfectant, they won’t drink that water.

And the weather doesn’t always cooperate. “It’s got ice on it right now because we had a foot of snow the other day,” Mike Kelley pointed to a sheet of ice covering his swimming pool.

KRQE News 13 went to Guadalupe County to find out exactly what water source was approved for the subdivision. No one there would talk either.

Documents filed with the county are conflicting. One plan from the developer states lot purchasers are expected to drill their own wells.

However, a contract between the developer and the county states, “No property owner is permitted to drill a water well”.

Another contract filed a month later contradicts that statement stating, “Any property owner must assume the burden of supplying and developing water and sewage facilities for his own domestic use”.

Left without a clear answer, neighbors do know drilling their own wells would cost thousands of dollars, something they claim was not part of the bargain when they moved in.

“It’s not worth it,” said Buras. “I’d either like the community well back as a community well with easement rights to it, or I would like a drastic drop in the property price.”

For now, retirement is proving to be a lot of work.

“This could break on me at any time,” Mike Kelley said, pointing to his makeshift rainwater reservoir.

Neighbors are now in a constant struggle for a basic necessity.

Despite water woes, the Kelleys and their neighbors have made a home in the subdivision, and they want to make it work.

“It’s our investment,” said Ann. “We’re not being able to sell and go somewhere else. We don’t want to.”

The Kelleys said the developer has also hung up on them when they’ve called about the water situation. Neighbors are now trying to figure out what their next move will be.