Border Water Fight Brings Down Wrath Of Richardson

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has used his world-class heavyweight political skills to consolidate state executive authority in his office, with the star-struck consent of the part-time state legislature and the state supreme court. There is little doubt that he runs the state, affably and without significant opposition from a grateful public that had grown tired of government gridlock.

But Richardson does not control local government, not yet. And a test of his will to do so is developing by the Mexican border in dirt-poor Sunland Park, named for the state’s largest and wealthiest race track, nearby. Defiant Mayor Ruben Segura has brought the wrath of Richardson down on his little town, but he apparently has not lost the support of the citizens, some of whom surely recall how he was once thrown in jail for defending their interests.

The fight is over who will provide water and sanitation services, and thereby control development, around the new international port of entry west of town at Santa Teresa. Segura and a majority of his city council have refused to go along with a settlement, pushed by Richardson, in a lawsuit that pits the town against Dona Ana County and its favored developer.

The Richardson administration has threatened to step in and take over the municipal administration under state laws created to override corrupt of incompetent local governments. Most recently the administration declared its opposition to a long-proposed international port of entry between Sunland Park and the Chihuahuan border community of Anapra.

The announcement in early August by Richardson’s Economic Development secretary, Rick Homans, was a turnaround in the combative political history of the Anapra port of entry. It has been the subject of legislative hearings, gubernatorial junkets, campaign news releases, fake opening ceremonies, and general flim-flam for about 70 years. The late U.S. Sen. Clinton P. Anderson once observed negotiations had been going on since the early 1930’s.

Probably the first modern border summit on the issue was in 1970, when Chihuahua Gov. Oscar Flores and New Mexico maverick Republican Gov. David F. Cargo met in Chihuahua City, accompanied by New Mexico news media, and announced their choice of Anapra over an alternative site at a brick yard closer to Juarez.

For a while it seemed every New Mexico governor indulged in the p.r. exercise of announcing an international port of entry at Anapra, even though border crossings are the obvious jurisdiction of the two national governments. A state certainly cannot set one up by itself.

Cargo used to tell how he dedicated the Anapra port three times between 1968 and 1970. And, “I stand ready to dedicate this port again and, well, again. After all, I have more practice than all the others.” His successor, Democrat Bruce King, dedicated an “Anapra port of entry” monument and a few yards of paving in 1974.

About that time, professional land trader Charlie Crowder acquired some 30,000 acres on the U.S. side of the border, along with abundant water rights, in an exchange with the federal government for Arizona ranches involved in the Navajo-Hopi dispute. He and his partners with adjacent holdings on the Mexican side began the long campaign to designate Santa Teresa, west of Anapra, as the site of the first Dona Ana County port of entry.

Both national governments eventually approved the Santa Teresa site, and the New Mexico congressional delegation began getting through appropriations for facilities on the U.S. side. But local politics still intruded. In 1989 Republican Gov. Garrey Carruthers and Chihuahua Gov. Fernando Baeza Melendez flew the border by helicopter and announced that Anapra was a better or equal location. In 1993, with Santa Teresa finally open for general traffic, Mexican officials began dragging their heels on completion of a road to the crossing from Juarez.

Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman and the late U.S. Rep. Joe Skeen invited the Mexican ambassador to Domenici’s office for a hardball session on the road. Richardson, then a congressman, entered the fray, although it was not in his district. “The Mexicans need to commit and do what they said they’d do. They said they’d pave the road,” he said. And King, who was governor again, asked President Clinton to talk to Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari about the road.
Meantime, Crowder, a longtime Democratic political contributor, had run into financial trouble. He lost a 23,000-acre parcel embracing the Santa Teresa site in a loan foreclosure, but he kept the water rights. The vacant land was picked up by Paseo del Norte Limited Partnership, headed by Chris Lyons of Santa Fe, a Republican political contributor.

The long water fight ensued. Dona Ana County created a water and sewer authority, to be managed under agreement with Public Service Co. of New Mexico, to serve development. At the same time Sunland Park made a bizarre move to serve Santa Teresa with its own water utility, using old Crowder water rights.

A local Republican, state Rep. Andy Kissner, charged that Republican Gov. Gary Johnson was favoring the county utility. He called for legislative hearings on “why the state seems intent on this policy of doing everything in order to unilaterally develop Chris Lyon’s real estate.”

The bizarre Sunland Park move was to annex Santa Teresa, but there was a problem. The port of entry was five miles west of town. Through the creativity of lawyer Frank Coppler of Santa Fe, serving as city attorney by long distance, Sunland Park annexed a narrow five-mile ribbon of road along the border, capturing Santa Teresa. If Sunland Park’s annexation were legal, an Paseo del Norte lawyer said, “they could take a two-inch strip and go up the highway and pick off little pockets of development wherever they wanted.”

Then the little city began extending its water main along the road, with Sunland Park Mayor Ruben Segura supervising. The Dona Ana County sheriff arrested him, and he spent half a day in jail.

A year ago the state Supreme Court let stand a Court of Appeals ruling upholding Sunland Park’s 1996 takeover, by condemnation, of Santa Teresa Services Co., a water utility started by Crowder. The appeals court had dismissed legal challenges brought by Doña Ana County, developers and some customers of the utility, created mostly to serve the Santa Teresa Country Club area near El Paso.

On Aug. 4, Homans announced that the Richardson administration has withdrawn support of an international port of entry at Sunland Park, blaming the city’s atmosphere of “mismanagement.” This followed a series of fights with the state in which the state auditor took exception to all sorts of problems in the little city and Richardson’s Department of Finance and Administration threatened to displace the local administration.

Mayor Segura responded that the governor’s decision to abandon the Anapra port of entry was “retribution” for the city council’s decision to reject a federal court settlement. The settlement with Doña Ana County would divide up water and sewer services in the Santa Teresa area.

In the early decades, according to most observers and one reliable historian, El Paso and Juarez business interests worked behind the scenes to thwart creation of a Dona Ana County port of entry. Now there appears to be a new but positive force behind the scenes. The El Paso-based Verde Group LLC is consolidating land holdings at Santa Teresa.

The group, headed by William D. Sanders, who made a reported fortune in Chicago real estate management, bought over 20,000 acres from Paseo del Norte and a second parcel from Santa Teresa Real Estate Development Corp. News reports said the new group, which includes Texas oil money, owns key parcels of border land from San Diego to McAllen, Tex., including 30,000 acres at the Columbus-Palomas port of entry south of Deming.