Oil at Bottom of New Mexico Land Buy

Shares in New Mexico's Atrisco Land Trust have been held by thousands of families since the 1600s. A development company is trying to buy shares from 6,000 living heirs. But many didn't know the land might sit atop an untapped oil deposit.

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From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY. 80 years before the American Revolution, Spanish Noble Don Diego de Vargas awarded a land grant to the townspeople of what is now Atrisco, New Mexico. Centuries later, descendants of those original inhabitants still hold those 57,000 acres near Albuquerque. A company that manages the land now wants to sell, and that has sharply divided the Atrisco heirs. Doug Fine reports.

DOUG FINE reporting:

Jaime Chavez can trace his family history back to the beginnings of the Atrisco land grant, to 1692. He's outraged that the Westland Development Corporation, the company that now manages the land, plans to sell it off.

Mr. JAIME CHAVEZ (Atrisco Land Grant Heir): Well basically, we're talking about a historical, cultural community that has its roots in the colonization of New Mexico, Spanish and Indian people that have survived on this landscape up to the present time. We're here to stop the sale. Our ancestors would not put up with this kind of activity, and they would literally turn over in their graves.

FINE: But not all the Atrisco heirs are against the sale. At an overflowing Westland shareholder meeting this June morning, hundreds of Atrisco descendants argue in the Hotel Albuquerque conference hall. They're wearing stickers and T-shirts reading either Tell Westland No or I'm in favor of the sale of the Atrisco land grant. As Atrisco heir Stuart Prager(ph) starts to explain his support of the sale, anti-sale heir Rudy Solomon(ph) interrupts.

Mr. STUART PRAGER (Atrisco Land Grant Heir): The largest developer in Las Vegas, in Clark County, and he's coming into town and buying it for peanuts.

Mr. RUDY SOLOMON (Atrisco Land Grant Heir): I don't think it's peanuts. The land is in your heritage. The people are your heritage.

Mr. PRAGER: And the land is part of it.

Mr. SOLOMON: The land is dirt and rock and brush.

FINE: The land in question is 89 square miles of desert, along the banks of the Rio Grande. Few heirs ever imagined that the land would be sold, and that's why many became suspicious last fall, when the Westland board suddenly announced a deal to sell the Atrisco property for a little over $200 million. A New Mexico Securities Division probe found no wrongdoing in the initial Westland buyout deal, and the price is fine to heir Tom Marez(ph) of Albuquerque. Wearing the pro-sale T-shirt, he said that for three centuries his family could get nothing out of the land, and now he's ready to sell.

Mr. TOM MAREZ (Atrisco Land Grant Heir): Because it's an opportunity that has arisen for people to finally benefit from investments that have been longstanding. I've been an investor, and as a consequence of being an investor, my thing is benefiting on a business sense.

FINE: Even some heirs who are interested in selling the land don't trust the Westland board, especially after a Westland vice-president estimated that the land was worth $175 million more than the accepted bid. This is, after all, rapidly growing Albuquerque, and with the New Mexico Oil Exploration Company interested in testing the Atrisco land, many heirs feel its true value is unknown.

This day's meeting didn't clear things up for Patty K. Garcia(ph) of Albuquerque. She stormed out of the conference hall, asserting that the board isn't leveling with the heirs.

Ms. PATTY K. GARCIA (Atrisco Land Grant Heir): All they did was throw everybody out of here that had something to say. If they didn't agree with it, and they didn't want to hear it, they threw them out. They didn't want people to be informed.

FINE: Do you want to see just a better price, or do you want to see no sale at all?

Ms. GARCIA: No sale at all.

FINE: Is that because of the heritage...

Ms. GARCIA: We've had it for 300 years. What for sell now?

FINE: In response to all the questions, Westland attorney Thad Turk said that the board is trying to get the best possible offer for shareholders. It will take the approval of two-thirds of Atrisco's 6,000 heirs to finalize any sale offer. Even someone like Rudy Solomon, who opposes the sale in theory, really wants to hear all the offers.

Mr. SOLOMON: I think owning the land is where the power is.

FINE: If you saw it went up to something like $1 billion or $2 billion, would that change how you felt?

Mr. SOLOMON: Well, we'll wait until that happens, okay?

FINE: For NPR News, I'm Doug Fine.

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