ARROYO HONDO, N.M. (KRQE) - A land battle with roots going back more than a century is forcing thousands of New Mexico property owners into a kind of limbo where they are unable to sell or refinance their land and homes.
"We've ruffled a lot of feathers, but justice is justice," said Lawrence Ortiz, an heir of the Arroyo Hondo Land Grant just outside Taos.
Ortiz and other members of the Arroyo Hondo Land Grant Board filed a warranty deed with the Taos County Assessor's office in 2010, reclaiming more than 20,000 acres originally granted by the Spanish government to Arroyo Hondo's founding families when Spain still controlled the area.
The U.S. government officially recognized the grant in 1908, assigning the land to the founding families' descendants.
Over the years some of those descendants sold off pieces of the land grant. Much of Arroyo Hondo was bought by private property owners who now call the area home.
"We had people from outside that came in and they intimidated, and like I say, they thought they could get away with it," Ortiz told KRQE News 13. "Now that we're educated and we know more, we're in this situation now."
Ortiz believes land grant descendants were taken advantage of and he is waging a war on their behalf.
Whatever, the case, the deed filed in 2010 has turned the real estate market in Arroyo Hondo upside down, casting a cloud over who owns what and has made selling and refinancing properties next to impossible.
"We're in a financial mess because of this," said Teresa Field, an Arroyo Hondo resident whose attempts at selling her home have failed. "Our title is clouded. The title company tells us that the house can't be sold."
With thousands of properties affected, three title companies recently filed suit in federal court, asking a judge to void the land grant board's claim. According to the title companies, millions of dollars worth of real estate transactions have been "delayed, or in some cases, abandoned."
"It's caused a lot of anxiety," said Santiago Juarez, an attorney who represented the land grant board in the federal lawsuit. "I'm not gonna say it hasn't."
U.S. District Court Judge M. Christina Armijo dismissed the case in August, saying the title companies had no standing to sue. The judge ruled that, unlike property owners, the title companies were not directly affected and had no basis for filing the suit.
KRQE News 13 has confirmed at least three additional lawsuits are pending in state court connected to the land grant dispute.
Ortiz said he is confident the land grant heirs will prevail.
"Yes, definitely," Ortiz said. "Because we have the documents."
According to Ortiz, land grant heirs have waited too long to take action.
"What we want is justice," Ortiz said. "We want justice and we want our lands back so that our future kids and grandkids can have a place to come back and be able so say ‘I have a place to come back to.'"
A state District Court judge recently sided with one property owner in the land battle, who happens to be Ortiz's sister. But separate court cases involving other property owners are still undecided.
In the meantime, Lawrence Ortiz is facing criminal charges for allegedly forging documents connected to the land dispute, something he denies.
Trial is scheduled for November 26.
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