May 19 , 2006
A Road to Ruin
South Texas rancher fights costly battle to keep what's his
By Bobby Horecka
John Allen is definitely no stranger to the justice system.
After 30 years in law enforcement, the last 18 as a Texas Ranger, he had followed his share of cases into the courtroom. But Allen said he thought those witness stand days were behind him when he traded his trooper hat for the quiet life on his family ranch.
"If I only knew then what I know now, I'm not so sure I would have retired as early as I did," he said.
The 52-year-old sheep and goat raiser found himself embroiled in a legal dispute surrounding a road that courses across his ranch on the Texas-Mexico border near Del Rio. That dispute first landed him in a civil court, where several months and $220,000 in legal fees later, a jury finally ruled in his favorthe road that coursed his ranch was indeed a private road across private land. Short of him selling it, the jury ruled, no one else had any legal claim to it.
But as Allen and his family would soon learn, even a court victory doesn't necessarily mean much when it comes to a governmental body wanting to exercise its right of eminent domain.
Times were tough when Homer Holman, Allen's grandfather, was first approached in the 1960s by a developer wanting to buy a few acres of isolated land off the newly formed Amistad Reservoir.
The seeming ever-present South Texas drought had the region in a death grip. Sheep and goat markets were in the early stages of a decades-long downward spiral. And all around him, ranches were parceling up among heirs or sold outright for other uses.
So no one said much of anything to him when he agreed to sell two otherwise useless peninsulas on the back of his ranch.
Holman had already lost more than 5,000 acres with the damming of the Rio Grande River to form Amistad Reservoir, and the developer was offering a far sight more than the $18 per acre the government deemed adequate for lands swallowed by the lake.
Besides, Holman still had more than 47 miles of shoreline and some 16,000 acres in which to continue his ranching operation, even after the developer claimed his share. His family was well rooted in the region, having ranched the area since the turn of the century.
So what would it hurt?
"He realized he had made a mistake almost as soon as the deal was done," Allen said of his grandfather, who after his passing left charge of the ranch to Allen and his sister Analyn Stokes.
And even after nearly a half century, Allen said, that mistake lives on.
The Allen Ranch still runs about 5,000 sheep and goats, one of the largest remaining waterfront properties still involved in traditional livestock production.
In addition, the Allens recently high fenced some 2,200 acres where they maintain a whitetail deer herd, a project designed to help diversify operations on the place.
And while Stokes remains actively involved in the business decisions of the ranch, Allen stays more involved in the day-to-day operations, working the place with John "Butch" Larson, the longtime ranch foreman, and a couple of hired hands.
But through it all runs a roada road his granddad built a road that has become a pivotal point in Val Verde County politics.
Originally, the road into the Allen Ranch ran along a fairly north-to-south path, connecting the headquarters to what was then the main road a few miles south of Comstock. But in the wake of the damming project, the subsequent rerouting of roadways outside the ranch and the ill-fated sale of the lakefront peninsulas, the road took a more east-to-west route.
That road, distanced at 8.5 miles through rough terrain, connects both the Allen Ranch headquarters and some 300 lake lot owners to Highway 90 a few miles northwest of Del Rio.
The main road links those living and weekending in Box Canyon Estates to the main highway. A second fork of the road located five miles into the craggy ranchland connects the second subdivision, Amistad Acres, to civilization by sending traffic right through the heart of the ranch headquarters.
"I guess it was just a lot simpler at the time to extend the road than it was to build a new one," Allen said.
But simpler then has made for a huge headache now.
"At first, you might see a car every couple of days or so, so it was hardly even noticeable," said Larson, the Allen Ranch foreman for the last 30 years. "But that's not the case anymore."
As more people bought up lakefront lots, more cars began making their way through, and as developers worked to improve the lakefrontconstructing a roughly $500,000 boat ramp, for instancethe motorists only multiplied.
The Allens estimate as many as 30 sheep and goats are killed by speeding motorists in any given year along the existing roadway.
And that doesn't even begin to account to the numbers lost to illegal hunting and vandals.
"There's rarely a weekend that goes by when we don't find somebody bouncing across our pasture, spotlighting a deer or just joyriding across our land," he said.
Last year, Larson said he knows of at least four large bucks shot by poachersthey were kind enough to leave behind the carcasses after they claimed the trophy rack, he saidand the same has happened to some of his larger rams and Boer goats as well.
Then there was the time someone shot one of the horses, Larson said, and he can't count the number of times he's watched as some passerby revved his engines in pursuit of one of his dogs.
With the rabble rousers also came refuse. All along the ranch road are spent beer cans, old tires and anything else drivers decide they no longer want. A few have even tossed appliances or stopped along the way to scatter sackfuls of fish heads and entrails from the day's catch.
"We wouldn't mind the traffic so much if people just showed a little respect now and again," he said. "But it's constant, and it just seems to get worse."
As the traffic increased, so did the desire for better road.
The current rock and gravel roadway can prove a bone-jarring adventure to even the smoothest of truck suspensions, plus a history of rollovers and washouts raised some safety concerns.
So when a $4.5 million grant was applied for and obtained to improve the road, no one batted an eye.
No one, that is, but the Allens.
Despite its increasing usage, the Allens maintained, the road was still privately owned as an access easement through private property to the privately-owned estates in the developments.
The county, on the other hand, deemed the road public, a stance they held when they applied for and won the federal grant.
From a production standpoint, a paved road would require an utter rethink of Allen's ranching operation. Miles of fence lines would need to be added to protect livestock from even faster moving vehicles.
Even with 47 miles of shoreline on the ranch, the road and fences would cut off livestock from water sources and working pens. And given the lay of the road, Allen was looking at about 300 acres that would ultimately be cut off from the rest and useless to him.
But with $4.5 million in federal dollars sitting on the table, the county wasn't about to walk away quietly.
So the lawsuits began in 2002, shortly before Allen retired. His family's name was splashed across local newspaper articles and letters to the editor. Calls for help to the local Congressman fell on seemingly deaf ears. And tens of thousands mounted in legal fees.
The county held it was public roadway, maintained by county machinery over the years and serving as a thoroughfare for residents and visitors alike.
"But it cut right into our private ranching operation and family heritage," Allen said. "No one seemed to see that."
His wife Laura probably said it best:
"Losing your heritage is like losing a child," she said. "No amount of money will ever compensate for that. The best that can be hoped for is as little interruption as possible."
In the end, the Allens prevailed in their legal dispute, the clincher coming when cashed checks turned up showing the county had been paid for its road keeping by the lakeside homeowners associations.
"We were so relieved when the jury sided with us," Allen said.
But it was short-lived.
County officials needed to secure the road or face the possibility of losing the grant. And no sooner had the ink dried on the jury case, the Allens learned the county had begun condemnation proceedings.
To sweeten the deal to the landholders on the back of his property, the county even promised to pave the fork road, a move that made the Allens' dispute even more unpopular with their neighbors.
"They're talking about literally building a highway between my house and my barn," Allen said.
With politicians sounding calls for tighter border security and immigration controls, Allen said he failed to see the logic in building a highway grade road to an isolated boat ramp that literally faces a marina on the Mexican side of the border.
The Allens said they already stared down more than their fair share of gun barrels when approaching poachers on their land. They could only imagine what forms of drug dealers and outlaws may be attracted by paving this isolated ranch road already equipped with a loading ramp.
"We were basically right back at square one," Allen said. "We were out $220,000 in legal fees and it looked like we might as well be back at square one."
The condemnation proceedings went before a county-appointed tribunal, who was tasked to determine what dollar amount was adequate for the Allens' loss.
They met May 4 in Del Rio, and once again, the cards seemed to fall in favor of the Allens.
Although ruling the county could proceed with seizure rights, the commission ruled it would need to pay the Allens about $900,000 in order to do so. That would reimburse the family for the 8.5 mile swath of land through the ranch and offset the costs of fences, wells and working pens that would be necessary after the paving was through.
That's a sum for more than the county's original offer of $77,000, which in large part, only covered the cost of the land beneath the road and a few minor adjustments made for fencing and amenities.
On the plus side, Allen said, the county claims it hasn't the money to pay for such an expensive venture.
But they're still not out of the woods, he said.
Considering the lake is a national park and the Park Service funded construction of the boat ramp, they could still move forward with the road condemnation, he said.
Whether they choose to remains to be seen.
For now, at least, Allen finally may get to return to the quiet life of retirement.
"It's scary when you think about it," he said. "It's like private property doesn't mean a thing anymore. And for smaller operations out there with out the resources we had, you might as well hang it up. They'll get you one way or another.
"Somehow, I don't think that's what our justice system was set up to do.