The possible sale of Westland Development may have far-reaching implications
By Christie Chisholm
It's not every day that someone sets about selling a city; or, at least, a potential city. It's also not every day that someone tries to sell a birthright. Yet, on the cusp of our very own metropolis, such a proposition is underway.
Westland Development Inc., formerly known as the Atrisco Land Grant before it was incorporated in 1967, announced last week, or, rather, its president announced, that it was looking to sell its mostly undeveloped 57,000 acres on the Westside to an unnamed party. It is a deal that could not only permanently affect the landscape of the region, but could also drastically impact the corporation's more than 6,000 shareholders—heirs to the land that was originally granted to their forefathers in 1692 by the King of Spain.
The potential sale of the land—worth a sum totaling over $147 million at $200 a share—comes at a significant time in Albuquerque's, and Westland's, history. At a time when sprawl is disseminating on the frontiers of the Westside at a rate that far outpaces policy, planning or economic growth outside the construction industry, putting a piece of land the size of Rio Rancho into the hands of a party who could streamline its development has massive implications.
But there is more to the sale than the potential for development and the swapping of land for dollars and cents. The Atrisco land is rich with history and cultural significance, having been established as a township before Albuquerque was even founded. The proposal is more than a transaction; according to some Atrisco heirs, it may signal the possible death of a culture more than 300 years in the making.
What It All Means
James Aranda understands the weight of the situation. An Atrisco heir and shareholder whose roots on the land go back seven generations, Aranda feels the potential sale of the land is not only unethical, but illegal. "The [57,000 acres of] common lands were given to Atrisqueños for the betterment of the people ... nowhere [in the articles of incorporation] does it allow for the sale of common lands."
Jaime Chavez, also an heir and shareholder, echoed the sentiment. “Historically, the land grant was something our ancestors worked hard for to make sure it would come down to future generations. This is a form of cultural genocide that would destroy the land-based relation between our people and their community.”
Unfortunately for heirs like Aranda and Chavez, there is a potential loophole in the system. If Atrisco heirs vote to accept the transaction and win by a simple majority, the deal could still go through. Aranda said the vote will likely take place at Westland's annual meeting in November.
Yet, even if heirs approve the deal, Aranda, who is a Master's candidate in Community and Regional Planning at the University of New Mexico, still feels that such a transfer wouldn't be legal when looking at the intent of Westland's articles of incorporation.
"Within the articles, shares cannot be sold or transferred to non-heirs. Their lineage has to be traced back to one of the original 260 incorporators from 1967. How do they reconcile selling to a third party?"
Barbara Page, president of Westland, did not return the Alibi's calls, despite repeated attempts to reach her. However, in 1994, when a related issue was in debate among Atrisco heirs over whether or not to allow the sale of land in the Petroglyph National Monument, Page did speak with the Alibi (at the time known as NuCity) and said, "The [Atrisco Land Rights] Council believes that there should be a land grant, but the fact is that there hasn't been one for years. ... We will try to sell only a minimum amount of the land we own, but ultimately there is no bottom line as to how much we are willing to sell."
But Chavez said that this time around there may be repercussions for Page. “If Ms. Page does not retract her statement of her intent to sell, she will be leaving herself exposed to potential litigation.”
Aranda also claimed Page and Westland's board of trustees are acting somewhat underhanded in their approach to the sale. As evidence, he cited the fact that none of the shareholders were informed by Westland that a sale might take place. Rather, they mostly discovered the transaction through local media.
Aranda said the timing of the announcement for the sale also seems odd. On July 14, a public meeting was held with the Legislative Interim Land Grant Committee to hear testimony from heirs about the direction of Westland, as there had been a high level of dissatisfaction with the operation of the company for years.
At the meeting, Aranda gave testimony and presented a list of recommendations to increase economic and community development. Recommendations included measures such as conducting an audit of Westland to determine if any wrongdoing had occurred in the form of malfeasance by board members, insider trading, or illegal or unethical profiteering or political lobbying. They also included initiatives that would establish a corporate monitoring committee, scholarship fund and job referral index, and laid the foundation for steps to implement affordable, mixed-use, mixed-income, infill housing solutions.
Aranda's recommendations were used by the committee as a template on how to improve Westland's situation. Within two weeks of the distribution of the recommendations, Westland announced that they were looking to sell.
"It seems like they're trying to jump ship," said Aranda. "You know, why fix the leak when you can jump ship?"
According to Aranda, Mayor Martin Chavez' family ties to Westland began in 1967, when his father, Lorenzo Chavez, who recently passed away, was contracted as a lawyer to convert the Town of Atrisco into Westland Development. Also, throughout the years, the mayor and his father have represented Westland stockholders.
Aranda said he has no knowledge that the mayor has any direct ties to the land, but said that is a question he and other shareholders would like answered. "We live in such a small fishpond ... many politicians, through their connections to the development community, have direct ties to land."
It's no secret the mayor has links with developers, especially production residential builders on the Westside; in fact, 40 percent of the mayor's donations for his re-election campaign come from developers. According to the city's most recent summary audit report, to date Westland has donated $5,250 to the mayor's campaign; the maximum contribution allowed is just over $4,800.
Deborah James, the mayor's spokesperson, could not be reached for comment after numerous attempts by the Alibi. At this point, the mayor's position on the potential sale of Westland, as well as the nature of the mayor's ties to the corporation, is still unknown.
Fighting the Good Fight
In the meantime, Aranda is concerned about the fate of his peoples' birthright. Although he doubts that many heirs would want to sell, he worries that they will agree to it anyway because they are being offered so much money for their shares. Currently, Westland is turning a minimal profit; as of March 30, 2005, annual earnings per common share were only $1.07, said Aranda.
Aranda worries that if Westland does sell, his people will lose something that is irretrievable—their heritage. He is certain that with the right direction, Westland could still achieve its goals and create a sustainable community for its citizens. By selling, they lose that hope, he said.
"You hear all this talk of fighting the good fight, and we need to get rid of oppression and fight the enemy—all this stupid rhetoric. In the end, we're only fighting ourselves."
Chavez also sees a greater irony at play. “On the eve of the Tricentennial, the 300-year anniversary of this city, a cultural and historical atrocity is about to be committed to a town on its border, which has also been around over three centuries.”
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