Ballard Spahr Attorney Takes on Historic Pro Bono Case

Sarah Wallace
In the latest development in a 40-year-old lawsuit, Ballard Spahr partner Sarah Wallace led a team of pro bono attorneys in an effort to secure the rights of Costilla County landowners to access the Cielo Vista Ranch. / Photo courtesy Ballard Spahr.

In the spring of 2020, Ballard Spahr partner Sarah Wallace was approached by the Colorado Lawyers Committee with a one-of-a-kind pro bono opportunity. They wanted to know if she would represent San Luis Valley landowners in their long-running litigation against the owner of Cielo Vista Ranch.

Many of the questions in the 40-year-old case — thought to be Colorado’s longest-running lawsuit — were already settled by the time Wallace took it. In 1981, Costilla County landowners sued lumber tycoon Jack Taylor, then the owner of the 83,000-acre ranch, to secure their right to access the land for grazing, timber and firewood collection. 

After two decades of litigation, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in the landowners’ favor in 2002 and in 2003 ordered the trial court to identify all people with a historical claim to access the land. The late Jeffrey Goldstein led the landowners’ pro bono legal team from their first filing in 1981 through their Supreme Court win and beyond. 

The ranch has changed hands several times since the Supreme Court’s decision. Texas oil heir William Harrison acquired the ranch in 2017. Following an unsuccessful appeal challenging the process for allocating access rights, Harrison told the Colorado Sun he hoped to “move away from litigation.” But around the same time Harrison bought the property, Wallace said, there were “ever increasing” restrictions on the landowners’ ability to access the ranch in peace.

That was the problem Wallace was tasked with solving when she took the case a year and a half ago. She said she was interested in the work because it’s a famous case and she has “always been really interested in property issues.” But more than anything, Wallace said, the case was appealing because “this community had been fighting for all these years to have these rights and —against all odds — had succeeded.” But they were finding it “unpleasant” to exercise those rights, she added, and their only recourse was to head back to court.

One of the first things Wallace did after picking up the case was to go to Costilla County for a community meeting, where she and her team met with locals and had a chance to see the ranch. They encouraged people to call with their stories about what was happening on the property. But that request wasn’t as simple as it sounds.

“That was actually a really long process because most of the people down there, they have cell phones, but [the phones] don’t necessarily work on their own properties,” Wallace said. “So they may have to go into town in order to make a call. Very few of them had email.” It also took a long time to put the substance of the interviews in writing, she added, since they couldn’t simply send documents back and forth electronically.

In April, Wallace and her team filed a motion to safeguard the landowners’ rights. The motion describes the landowners’ experiences with the ranch staff, including video and drone surveillance and encounters with armed guards and guard dogs. One landowner said that someone from the ranch flew a black helicopter so close that it spooked his cows, causing them to scatter and forcing him to spend months reassembling the herd.

“The encounters, from the perspective of the landowners, were like being stopped by the police,” she said, adding that there was a presumption that the landowners were doing something wrong by being on the land.

Most of the landowners heat their homes with wood. They’ll often drive onto the ranch to find the best place to get a truckload of firewood, Wallace said, then return the next day with help to cut and retrieve the wood. Ranch employees stopped them and said they may only look for wood if they have an axe or chainsaw, according to Wallace, or else it was considered “joyriding.” “You have these 65-year-old men and their wives looking for wood and then being told they have to leave the property because they’re joyriding,” she said.

A dozen landowners testified on Sept. 27 and 28 during an evidentiary hearing on the motion. According to Wallace, the courtroom was filled with people who have access rights to the ranch, even though the courthouse was about 45 miles from their homes. Many of the witnesses had never testified in court before, so Wallace and her team spent extra time preparing them for the hearing. “Witnesses were a lot more scared than normal — and a lot more appreciative,” she said.

“We had more lawyers than I would normally bring to this type of thing,” Wallace said of the hearing and preparations. “One of the best parts of it was that some of the younger lawyers on the team got to examine witnesses in court, which is really hard to come by.” The team spent “hundreds and hundreds” of hours — or possibly more — on the case, she said, which was possible because of Ballard Spahr’s commitment to pro bono work.

At the conclusion of the hearing on Sept. 28, Costilla County District Court Senior Judge Kenneth Plotz ordered attorneys from both sides to come up with a list of guidelines and procedures for landowners to access the ranch “so that this case does not have to go on in perpetuity,” the judge said in his ruling. The parties have 90 days to agree on regulations and restrictions regarding where and when landowners may be on the property, how many livestock they may graze and whether shepherds may camp overnight with their herds, guidelines on scouting for firewood and other issues. If they can’t agree, Plotz will enter an order. 

Plotz found that videos presented by the ranch showed the landowners are “often treated as second-class citizens” and “the tone of quasi law enforcement is pervasive in all of these videos.” The judge also found there was a power imbalance between the landowners and the ranch owner, “and this imbalance serves to abrogate the landowners’ rights.”

Wallace said that based on the judge’s remarks, she expects the ranch will be allowed to continue its surveillance. But she was encouraged by his conclusions about the landowners’ experience. “He used the words ‘highly unacceptable,’ and ‘demeaning,’ and ‘second-class citizens,’” Wallace said. “That was so meaningful to the landowners because it just really vindicated everything that they’ve been saying.”

In an emailed statement, Harrison said: “As Cielo Vista’s newest owner, I inherited a host of complicated issues that I’m working to handle in a way that is fair and productive. I am committed to finding a solution that will allow my neighbors and I to cohabitate peacefully while enjoying the natural beauty of this region and honoring its rich history and the inhabitants who keep that alive.”

“I see this ruling as a chance to have clarity and a collaborative fresh start. Of course, as Judge Plotz stated, this ‘one of a kind’ case has deep-seated history and inherent challenges,” said the statement sent through Harrison’s attorney. “But it is my sincere hope that in the next couple of months we will be able to find a solution that all parties will be happy with.”

“Many previous clashes have resulted from ambiguity over who is permitted on the land and for what purposes. Per Judge Plotz’s instruction, we are presently working to sort out guidelines and regulations that will, at long last, clarify these questions, which I believe will reduce stress on ranch employees and improve life for rights holders,” Harrison’s statement said. “I sincerely hope that we can all sit down together, discuss our priorities, and come out the other side with a clear agreement to move forward from.” 

The landowners’ claim to access the ranch dates to the mid-19th Century. In the 1840s, Quebec-born trader Carlos Beaubien acquired a million acres in the San Luis Valley, when it was Mexican territory. Beaubien convinced settlers to move to the area and granted them access to the land in an 1863 document.

In 1864, the property — by then within U.S. borders — was purchased by William Gilpin, first governor of the Territory of Colorado, who agreed to honor Beaubien’s promises to the settlers and their descendants. In 2003, the Colorado Supreme Court clarified that landowners who can trace the settlement of their property to the time of Gilpin’s ownership or earlier have rights to access the ranch.

About 5,000 to 6,000 people were found to have a right to access the property, but Wallace said a much smaller number — she estimated between 250 and 500 people — have actually gotten keys to the ranch. She said a few hundred people are “actively using the property on a regular basis.”

As for what comes next, Wallace said she wants to hold a community meeting in Costilla County so landowners can talk about what they want the stipulation to look like. Some of the community members who testified or signed declarations are in their 60s or older and have been fighting for access since the 1970s. Others who started the fight are “quite elderly and unable to be super actively involved,” Wallace said, and she hopes younger community members will be inspired to take up the cause.

“I’m a really strong believer in our judicial system. And we have so many problems with people feeling like they can’t get access to justice,” Wallace said. “It’s really been an honor to be part of a case where — not that it hasn’t been hard, and it has dragged on for 40 years — but I do feel that the judicial system has, at least in part, worked for this community.”

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