RUIDOSO, N.M. (KRQE) – Nearly two dozen boulders fell from state-owned land onto Doug Siddens’s newly purchased home and barn. The damage, he said, totals hundreds of thousands of dollars. He thought the state owed him that money, but a recent court ruling said he must foot the bill.

In disbelief, Siddens invited KRQE News 13 to tour his property and see the damage he said the boulders caused. “Started right up there where you can see the big crack in the rocks up above,” Siddens said pointing to the top of the cliff that butts up to his home. The rockslide let loose 22 boulders, by his count, with nowhere to go but barreling onto his property. “These are ones that came down from up there that literally jumped the house, came through this bush, landed here, landed there, landed here,” Siddens said walking KRQE through his front lawn. “And then they came through the barn. There’s about eight,” he explained pointing to an almost unrecognizable structure. The boulders tore through the barn, leaving it without at least one wall, knocking off the roof and breaking the windows.

Photo of rockslide scar. Courtesy Kenny McGlothin, KRQE Photo journalist.
Photo of rockslide scar. Courtesy Kenny McGlothin, KRQE Photojournalist.

He doesn’t believe the barn or the house can be saved. “Had to take the gas meter off,” he said walking towards the back of the home. “Had to take the electrical meter off. I don’t know how this one didn’t keep from knocking the whole house down.” Two large boulders sit just inches from his home. The one uprooted his pipe corral fencing that was cemented into the ground and shattered parts of his walkway. The other destroyed the back porch, bringing down its wooden enclosure onto the porch furniture. And Siddens said one smaller one hit the house hard enough that you can see from the inside it cracked the wall.

“I’m just so thankful that this happened before I sold the property to someone that could have potentially been hurt severely,” Siddens said. The native New Mexican explained his investment company purchased the two-acre property in Ruidoso for several reasons. “I’m very ingrained into this area. I’m a fire captain out at Nogal Fire Department,” he explained. “Family is from this area. We were ranchers. My mother was a two-term county clerk…. I love Lincoln County as much as anybody alive…. Look at where we live, you know!”

Siddens planned to fix up the horse stalls, house, and barn for a family that enjoys nature and the seclusion the neighborhood offers. But now, he cannot guarantee anyone who steps onto the property is safe. “How do you sleep at night if you sell it to somebody with three kids in a four-bedroom home? It’s not me,” he explained. “Yeah, I’m not doing that.”

It’s been two and a half years since this property Siddens’s investment company bought in a foreclosure sale became what he calls “unusable, uninsurable, and unsellable.” The rockslide happened on March 26, 2021. Siddens planned to start renovations that day. Instead, he ended up dealing with his insurance company which, he said, claimed could not help him. “I had insurance, full insurance policy. They said I didn’t have a rockslide, mudslide, or earthquake insurance.”

So, Siddens called the owner of the cliffside, the State Land Office. It sent someone to assess the damage about four days later. The Field Report created, states, “The scar from the rockslide had damaged vegetation/trees and appears to be unstable.”

“I mean, this is going to happen again,” Siddens said. It actually already happened nearly two decades ago. Siddens said he found out from that visit that the Land Office responded to the same property for a rockslide in 2004. KRQE obtained the 2004 Field Report, which included photos showing similar damage, and noted the state knew the cliffside was unstable then.

Siddens filed a tort claim. His Attorney, A. Blair Dunn, explained what that means, “Hey, this is a known, dangerous condition that you guys failed to ameliorate. And so, therefore, you guys, you owe me something for the damage that you’ve done to my property. Because you didn’t do your job, you were negligent in maintaining your property.” But before Siddens could formally file his lawsuit, the Land Office – in response to his threat, according to its spokesperson – sued Siddens’s investment company and Siddens personally. The Land Office asked a judge to find the agency is immune from Siddens’s tort claim and to force Siddens to pay the legal costs of its lawsuit. “So it’s just really just purely like, how dare you ask us for anything? We’re going to sue you for, for even just asking,” Attorney Dunn said.

He believes the lawsuit was a retaliatory move since Siddens had also requested public records on the 2004 incident. Attorney Dunn filed a countersuit on behalf of his client for retaliation, IPRA violations, and damage costs. “Instead of looking at this and saying, how do we fix the problem, their solution was, well, how do we fight this problem? And I think that’s where things went seriously awry,” Attorney Dunn explained.

A little more than two years of court hearings later, a judge ruled in the state’s favor, saying the State Land Office was immune from any responsibility for the rockslide. Because it occurred naturally, the judge explained, the state agency didn’t do anything to cause the boulders to fall, like construction on the site. Attorney Dunn responded, “Natural conditions occur on property all the time. It’s whether or not you do anything once you know about it to, to ameliorate that condition, that exposes you to liability.  And so, we think they’re liable because of the fact they knew and did nothing.” That’s the argument he’s taking to the Appeals Court, which agreed to hear their case.

Beyond the alleged negligence, Attorney Dunn is convinced a jury would also see the cliff as a “public park,” which would take away the Land Office’s immunity. “The State Land Office pushes out that they want people to go recreate on these lands and they give permits for that to recreate on this land that’s next to Doug’s property,” he said. But, in a statement, the Land Office argued that cliff “is not leased as a state or local park, or marketed for outdoor recreation – and therefore under New Mexico law, the other side’s claims have to be dismissed.  Under the other side’s view, all 9 million acres of state trust land are “public parks” and therefore the State of New Mexico is legally liable anywhere on those lands for unfortunate but entirely naturally occurring conditions including heavy rainfall, drought, weeds, rockslides, dust storms, and lightning strikes.  This is a radical idea that would severely undermine the agency’s ability to lease and make its lands available to the public for a variety of uses, including agriculture.”

While it claims no liability, a General Counsel’s Memo, obtained by KRQE, revealed the Land Office did suggest ways the previous owner could protect his property from a future rockslide – by installing netting or a retaining wall. It’s not clear if anything happened. The previous owner died several years ago.

When asked what’s next for his property, Siddens said the only solution is tearing the house and barn down or abandoning the property. Already $300,000+ in the red with a property he claims has lost 96% of its value, Siddens said he needs the state to take possession of the property and mitigate the danger. “This is just an incident that happened that could be rectified very, very easily,” he explained. “And I hope that it still can be.”

Until the lawsuit is resolved, the boulders will remain on the property because Siddens said he could not get them removed if he wanted. Multiple excavators have told him they do not feel safe using equipment near the unstable cliff.

There’s no timeline yet on when the Appeals Court will hear Siddens’s case.