A Place by the Water
The potential sale of Westland Development has spurred a battle, and the cries of protest are getting louder
James Aranda and Jaime Chavez are looking out over the West Mesa, on land that runs through their blood like the Rio Grande runs through Albuquerque. They are standing on Atrisco land, pointing out the boundaries of their heritage—the east bank of the Rio Puerco, the west bank of the Rio Grande, Pajarito Road on the south and St. Joseph Drive by St. Pius High School on the north. I smile when I realize what 82,000 acres means.
The Atrisco Land Grant, which hugs the cusp of our city, was founded in 1692, when Don Fernando Duran y Chaves II settled there and was granted the land by the King of Spain. Since that pivotal moment in time, the story of Atrisco (or Atlixco, which means "place by the water") has been long, complex and bittersweet, gnarled and twisted by war, treaty and revolution. It survived the Pueblo Revolt and was secured by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, remaining one of the oldest existing land grants in the United States.
Now, it may be up for sale.
Along Atrisco's long and winding road, it incorporated in 1967 into Westland Development, Inc. when certain heirs of the Atrisco Land Grant lobbied the State Legislature for Senate Bill 151, which allowed traditional community lands to be converted to for-profit corporations. The bill passed, and shortly thereafter the Atrisco Land Grant was transformed. According to Chavez, a former executive director of the Atrisco Lands Rights Council, this was done in an attempt to protect the land from trustees who, in the eyes of some, had abused their power. He says the goal of incorporating was to preserve the grant through the careful planning and leasing of lands that could be used to further the economic and social development of Atrisqueños (Atrisco heirs).
Yet from the beginning, what was meant to help the people began to hurt the people. In a 1995 article from the Southwest Research and Information Center, Lauro Silva, attorney and Atrisco Land Rights Council board member, wrote that many Atrisco heirs lost their right to their land in the incorporation, when the Atrisco birthright was translated into Westland stock: "People were no longer recognized necessarily as heirs, but as stockholders, and in the process a lot of people were screened out and eliminated and cut off, violating the rules of heirship under the land grant. They were supposed to be protected under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo [but] that conversion process really disenfranchised thousands of people."
At present, there are over 6,000 Westland stockholders. Yet, according to Chavez, there are about 30,000 Atrisco heirs, who, without stock, are not granted a voice in the way Westland Development is run.
Today, that voice is crucial. As reported in the Alibi [Newscity, "Land Swap," Sept. 1-7], last August, Westland President and Chief Executive Officer Barbara Page announced that the Westland board of directors was looking to sell the corporation's mostly undeveloped 57,000 acres, what's left of the Atrisco common lands, to an unnamed buyer. (The other 25,000 acres are the unincorporated areas of the South Valley.) Since then, the name of the interested buyer has been revealed: ANM Holdings, a Delaware-based company that was incorporated on Sept. 12.
In Westland's bylaws it states that shares can only be transferred between Atrisco heirs. For this reason, Westland cannot sell without the permission of its stockholders—a two-thirds majority vote—to change its bylaws to allow for the sale. An interesting element of this election process is that every share a stockholder possesses counts for one vote, so those with more shares, and therefore wealth, are granted heavier sway in the ultimate direction of the company.
A vote was supposed to take place at an annual stockholder meeting in November, but the meeting has been delayed. As the Alibi went to press, the new date for the meeting had yet to be released. But time is running out. The annual meeting is required to take place before the end of the year, and it is at that meeting that the fate of Westland will be decided.
Reactions to the potential sale among Atrisco heirs and Westland stockholders have been mixed and passionate. While some argue that the time has come to sell a perpetually disappointing company and make what money they can from the sale, others say that selling Westland Development, and therefore Atrisco land, is a form of cultural genocide.
A battle is steadily brewing in the streets and on the skirts of Albuquerque. As the New Year approaches, the cries of protest are growing.
Just because Westland Development is interested in selling doesn't mean it's in financial ruin. Take, for example, a letter that was sent by Page to Westland shareholders on Nov. 10, which states that at the end of their fiscal year on June 30, they made a net income over the year of $5,302,145. According to an unaudited quarterly report, on Sept. 30, Westland had total assets of $43,399,258 and total liabilities of $22,151,762.
Donaciano Justin Jones y Lobato, an Atrisco heir and Westland stockholder who lives in California, where a large number of heirs reside, questioned why Westland would want to sell if they were financially stable. Page declined to comment to the Alibi for this article.
If Westland is sold, some shareholders stand to make a considerable amount of money from the deal. Currently, shares are worth $20 to $25 each, but ANM Holdings is offering to pay $200 per share in the sale, with a $166 million price tag on the entire transaction. Westland's board of directors and officers would likely benefit the most because, according to a 2005 SEC report, they will each earn six times their annual salary if involuntarily terminated. Additionally, upon the sale, directors with 10 years or more of service will gain 5,000 extra shares, worth a total of $1 million, while those with less than 10 years of service will gain 2,500 shares, worth a total of $500,000.
Page, for instance, who has been president and CEO since the '80s, would make $2,489,400 in sales from her personal shares, $921,498 from involuntary termination—based on her salary from the last two years of $153,583—and $1 million in extra shares, for a grand total of $4,410,898. Other directors and officers would make comparable amounts, with the nine-member board of directors taking home more than $26 million.
Although most shareholders would make considerably less than Westland's officers, there are some who are supportive of the venture and think Westland should sell while it still can. Tom Mares, a Westland stockholder, is one such individual. "This has been a long time coming," says Mares, "and it's a good opportunity for shareholders. Considering the way the company is, being a closed corporation where the shares are only traded amongst [Atrisco] heirs, it leaves a small market. If they turn the company loose, there's an opportunity to sell in an open market. This is strictly economic." Mares says he owns a significant amount of shares, but he was unwilling to provide an exact number.
Still, there are others who say the implications of the sale go much deeper than dollars and cents. "[This is about losing] the ancestral landholdings of our homeland," says Rep. Miguel Garcia, an Atrisco heir and Westland shareholder who has become heavily involved in the issue. "[We're not going to sell that] so we can purchase a VCR or a brand new truck or a widescreen TV. That goes counter to our value system, as a land grant community, of really upholding our sense of consciousness in regards to that spirit of cooperation, camaraderie, family values, fairness, caring, hard work and religious devotion that has kept our culture going for 350 years here in Atrisco. Those things don't evaporate overnight—they're ingrained in our consciousness—we won't let go of them for a dollar bill."
Gil Cordova, who served as Westland president and CEO directly preceding Page, says he is also against the deal. “There'e more in it than getting money--there's a lot of emotional value. Our forefathers came here to keep the land, they would not like to see it sold.”
But Mares has his own set of priorities. "I want the opportunity to be able to pay for my grandkids' college one day, when the time comes," he says, adding that he doesn't have any feelings toward the perpetuity of the land. "The corporation's there to represent stockholders; the only people that should have a voice ought to be stockholders. Just because they're an heir, that doesn't mean they have a voice."
From Westland's proposal to sell, other issues have arisen. Now, suspicions of insider trading have emerged. After a probe was requested by Rep. Garcia on Oct. 12, the state Securities Division is investigating claims of illegal behavior. Bruce Kohl, director of the Securities Division, verified that an investigation is underway but was unable to release any details at this time. He added, however, that he expected to have results soon, due to the timeliness of the issue.
Garcia said he was prompted to request the investigation after hearing repeated allegations from his constituents that insider trading was occurring; namely, that Westland board members, and those connected to them, were buying and selling stock directly before and then following the announcement of the plan to sell, during a time when all stock transfers were supposed to halt. He said at least 15 other complaints of insider trading have been filed. Garcia's district represents approximately 27,000 people, about half of which are Atrisco heirs.
The company that wants to buy Westland, ANM Holdings, is a very new addition to the business world, having only incorporated on Sept. 12, nearly a month after Westland announced its plans to sell. Because of its freshness, it doesn't have much of a track record; additionally, neither ANM nor Westland has yet released information on what ANM plans to do with the land if the deal goes through. According to a Westland press release, ANM was "formed specifically for the purposes of the merger and is owned by several private investors." Guy Inzalaco, spokesperson for ANM Holdings, failed to return the Alibi's calls after repeated attempts to contact him.
Some interested parties, however, question whether ANM will be the ultimate buyer. Justin Jones y Lobato believes that "ANM doesn't have enough capital to [purchase Westland] on their own—these guys can't possibly be the final thing."
Whatever the case, ANM is certainly central to the controversy. Even though the company doesn't have much of a history, one of its members, Phillip Aries, does. Aries, a Tucson real estate broker who is working with ANM as a consultant on the Westland deal, says he has had conversations with Westland over the last 18 to 20 years, and that he has repeatedly expressed interest in working with them, "but it's never materialized as far as it has now." Aries didn't specify what kind of business he wanted to do with Westland in the past, saying only, "This is a very important piece of property; I was looking to see what [Westland was] interested in doing." Aries says the current deal began sometime over the summer, when he approached Westland with an offer, but declined to comment on it any further, deferring to Inzalaco.
Inzalaco has his own history. Also working for the Arizona-based Olympic Group and a former aide to retired Sen. Dennis DeConcini, he's been involved in land exchanges since the late '80s, including over 10 exchanges with the federal government. In the Zephyr Cove exchange in Nevada, Olympic swapped land with the Bureau of Land Management to acquire 2,327 acres of land that is now a sprawling desert development known as Southern Highlands with a population of more than 18,000.
A Forest Magazine article from 2000 critiqued the deal:
“Charles Hancock, the retired chief appraiser for the BLM in Nevada and a vocal critic of land exchanges, claims Olympic has realized spectacular profits. He has tracked down dozens of deeds for land that Olympic received from the government by exchange and then sold. On average, Hancock says, Olympic sold the land less than a year after obtaining it, for more than three times the value that the government had placed on it.
“’These people have made one hell of a good living on land exchanges,' Hancock said. ’They're operators. They're smooth. They know how the system works and they've milked it for everything possible.'”
Inzalaco's past could be representative of what ANM is planning to do with the Westland deal, but currently there's no way to be sure. One Atrisco heir and Westland shareholder who wished to remain anonymous, who worked as an energy advisor to the Jemez Pueblo under the Department of Energy, is curious about ANM's intentions and believes there's evidence to suggest they may be serving as a middleman for resource development.
According to a report published by the New Mexico Geological Society Guidebook, it has been proven that hydrocarbons exist in the land, and there is speculation over whether oil and gas lay beneath the land as well. The former energy advisor also says the land has untapped potential for wind and solar energy, and provides an anecdote to flesh out his point: "In 1927, the Yankees were the best team in baseball, [so] some of the older men in my family used to go out with a wind generator to run the radio so we could listen to them. They knew where the wind was. There's a great wind resource out there [Westland] should be developing; it's just sitting there, but the management hasn't discovered that unlocked potential. [The land] has resources that the people who want to buy it can't develop—they don't have the history [for it]. They'd have to act as a go-between for someone else."
Renewable energy development is only one potential for the land. Other Atrisco heirs have heard rumors that the petroleum industry may also have an interest in buying Westland.
Khute E. Lee, head of the Albuquerque Petroleum Association, said to his knowledge such rumors were untrue. He said companies, such as Shell and Burlington, have tried to drill for oil and gas on the land before, and as recently as this spring, but they've always been unsuccessful. "[Westland's land] is geologically intriguing and that's caused people to drill wells out there, but it's always been unsuccessful and will probably remain unsuccessful," he says. "But we'd love for someone to make a discovery."
Certainly, one could say the area is geologically intriguing. According to the same report by the New Mexico Geological Society Guidebook, oil and gas exploration in the area of the Albuquerque basin began as early as 1912. Since then, over 46 tests were drilled by a variety of companies, many on Westland property. The author of the report concluded that he believes there is evidence oil and gas exist in the Albuquerque basin: "In the writer's opinion, the question is not if production [of oil and gas] can be established, but rather when it will be established."
The possible sale of Westland Development has massive implications. In a time when Albuquerque can only grow westward, and when the state and the country are increasingly searching for new energy options, the considerably large, undeveloped patch of land sitting next to our city is prime real estate. Whoever owns the land, and therefore also ends up with the mineral and groundwater rights for the land, stands to play a large role in shaping the region.
But beyond the financial and regional connotations of the land, many feel the larger issue at play is its cultural significance. "Our very heritage is at stake. If the land is sold, it would literally leave a gaping hole within the soul of the community; we can't allow that to happen. This is about our forthcoming generation—the land was intended to be maintained in perpetuity, and we will maintain it at all costs," said Chavez.
Chavez and others still feel the sting from the loss of the southern tip of the Petroglyphs, the site where a road is soon scheduled to plop down, when 2,000 acres of Atrisco land were purchased by the National Park Service in the '90s for $9.3 million. "That sale was illegal [because land was transferred to non-heirs],” says Chavez. “We won't let that happen again."
The pressure not to sell seems to be rising. Even in California, says Justin Jones y Lobato, heirs are beginning to network to stop the sale; talking to the federal legislature and examining legal options. "We want to be supportive of our brothers and sisters in New Mexico; we don't want to duplicate their work, but we feel that we're working from a complementary perspective," he says. "This [task] falls to this generation to keep face with our ancestors. We got here in time. But this is happening, people: Wake up."
Atrisco heirs who are not stockholders don't have a vote in the outcome of the sale, but to Chavez, it is the wellbeing of all heirs that should be at the epicenter of the decision. "Your heritage is not defined by your stock—it's defined by your linear ancestors. If that population is left out, Westland is exposing itself to a potential human rights violation."
Whatever ANM's plans are, James Aranda has a set of his own. An Atrisco heir and Westland shareholder who's been at the forefront of the opposition to Westland's sale, Aranda is also a Masters Candidate in Community and Regional Planning at the University of New Mexico.
Shortly preceding Westland's announcement to sell, Aranda presented a set of recommendations to the Legislative Interim Land Grant Committee on what he would like to see happen with the company, which included a scholarship fund and a job referral index, as well as the foundation for steps to implement affordable, mixed-use, mixed-income, infill housing solutions. Aranda says he would still like to explore these avenues.
"We need a governing structure for our land that's accountable—that will seriously invest in Atrisco. We need to concentrate the land toward economic development, not subdivisions," he says, adding that one example of how to accomplish such a task would be to bring in the State Fair in a lease joint venture. "There's ample land to do it—why aren't these talks happening?"
Aranda says he's currently working on a research project with the UNM Law School to see if it would be possible to convert Westland back into a land grant. "In 2003, the Legislature passed a bill that made land grants political subdivisions, where they have the power to do their own planning. We have 57,000 acres of common land [to plan with]. We can go forward to become a land grant once again—instead of having to sell ourselves to gain resources."
Rep. Garcia also sees the benefits of converting back to a land grant. He says with the new bill, land grants can determine their own zoning of the commons, which means they could protect areas they wanted to leave undisturbed, such as those with medicinal plants, while wisely developing other areas to aid the Atrisco people in economic opportunity, education and self-sustaining development. Additionally, he says the land grant would allow for a more democratic election process, as every heir would be able to vote, and every vote would count equally.
Aranda hopes that even if the Westland sale goes through, there will be a way to reclaim some of the land and turn it back into a land grant. "I'm for sustainable development that respects our culture and respects our land. I'm not saying I'm against development—we're going to integrate ourselves into the global economy; but we're going to do it on our own terms. Regardless of what happens [with the sale], Atrisco's not going anywhere."