In remote Presidio County, attempt to block road access yields a complex legal fight

PRESIDIO COUNTY — On Tuesday morning, Judge Genie Wright presided over a hearing in the 394th District Court on access to a road snaking through remote, rural Presidio County. Ayres Road — also known as County Road 27 — begins at the Hot Springs Road and ultimately runs into vast tracts of private land belonging to warring legal parties.

A total of six lawyers were present to grapple with the question: who gets access to the stretch of Ayres Road that passes through 80 acres belonging to defendants Mary Baxter and Neil Chavigny? The couple is being sued by Maria Maurial, an Austin-based “land investor” who last year swiped up 480 acres near their remote property. Her only means of accessing a home on her impressive acreage, she says, runs through that of Baxter and Chavigny, who have barred her entry with a locked gate. It is an unprecedented gesture in the road’s roughly century-long history, claim her lawyers, who have now vociferously argued across multiple public venues that the road is a county road open for public use. 

That’s a claim that has yet to be proven, the opposing legal team counters.

“There’s no official county record that they have submitted that show the road in question is indeed a public dedicated road,” said Sam Ballard, one of four attorneys representing the defendants, at a February hearing on the matter.

The nature of Maurial’s foray into the remote territory has been called into question throughout legal proceedings. The defendants worry she plans to rent it out to vacationers rather than occupy it herself.

Their concern is bolstered by a since-removed apparent advertisement for the property on the website of her company Emacity Land Investments, under a section labeled “Ranches for rent.” Maurial’s website described the ranch as a peaceful, secluded getaway “embraced by the arms of the earth.” 

Screenshots of this section of the site remain documented in court filings. “The stress and tensions of a hectic culture siphon away as you kick back and let go, soaking up the clean quiet atmosphere and panoramic mountain views,” the site description read. “The only sound comes from nature — the mockingbird, dove, and an occasional coyote.”

Maurial was joined, roughly a month after filing the initial lawsuit, by co-plaintiffs Pinto Canyon Ranch, LLC and Forth Ranches LP, both headed by John Fort IV, whose ranchland is reached by following the road past Mauriel’s property. Fort’s father, John Fort III, has been the family member involved in legal proceedings. 

Fort has, by his own admission, never been denied passage through the Baxter-Chavigny estate — he has simply come to fear he and his family might be one day, after negotiations over a prospective easement fell apart, per his own sworn deposition, and believes he should have guarantee of access independent of his neighbors’ permission.

In the most recently filed amended petition — the fourth since the convoluted legal battle began in November of last year — Mauriel and Fort’s attorneys assert an argument that hinges on history. 

They argue that the road has historically been a county road and was maintained as such until Baxter bought the 80 acres in 2011. The locking of the gate that marks the entry into the Baxter-Chavigny property is unprecedented and unlawful, they claim, entitling their clients to relief both monetary (at least $250,000) and non-monetary. Previous occupants of land along the road — including the Vizcaino and Judd families, who owned Fort’s ranchland before him, and the Daltons, which owned Maurial’s property before her — have long enjoyed uninhibited access, posing their clients for either prescriptive easements or easements by estoppel, they argue. 

Baxter and Chavigny’s attorneys have argued in court that it is unproven that Ayres Road is a public, county-maintained road — but even if it is, that designation would stop at the entry to Baxter and Chavigny’s private property. The attempted easement claims are moot, they say, because the plaintiffs can’t show unity of ownership, or evidence they once owned the tract of land they’re seeking to pass through.

The trouble started in July 2022, shortly after Maurial bought the property at 316 Ayres Road from William Dalton. Up until this point, per court records, Baxter had locked the gate leading to her property but willingly shared the lock’s combination with her neighbors, including Fort. Emails between John “Jeff” Fort III and Baxter, exhibits in the case file, show when this openness shifted with the arrival of Maurial.

“Because I’m not looking forward to a bunch of VRBO’ers (via our new neighbor) coming through my place, I will be changing the lock combination this week,” wrote Baxter in an email dated July 31, 2022. The Judd Foundation — which owns land accessed by the road — was also aware of the change, she wrote, as was Border Patrol. “Thank you in advance for not sharing the combination with any undesirables, including shifty politicians or real estate agents.”

Indeed, days earlier, a lawyer for Baxter and Chavigny had sent Maurial a letter stating that her entry on their property without permission was “unauthorized and considered a trespass,” and that a new lock was being placed on the gate to prevent her entry. 

Shortly thereafter, on August 8, Maurial emailed then-Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara requesting that she “assist” in the matter, records show.

In a sworn deposition, Maurial testified that she believed upon purchase she would have access to her property due to conversations with the previous owner and neighbors, who she says informed her of an “agreement for all the neighborhood to have access.” A handful of those neighbors have submitted affidavits testifying that the road has historically been open for use.

When asked, in her deposition, whether she intended to rent out the ranch — identified on her website as “Split Rock Ranch” — Maurial responded that she didn’t know, and clarified that her website is “under construction.” When asked why she includes nearby attractions (including the city of Marfa and the Prada Marfa installation) on the listing, she responded, “Because I am a West Texas lover, and I want people to know what is in there.” 

“I’m a true believer that nature can heal your soul,” she continued.

The website for Emacity, Maurial’s LLC, advertises 10+ acre tracts of land in Presidio County for sale, which Maurial testified was unrelated to Split Rock Ranch. Emacity exists to help buyers “create the dream of land ownership,” per the website, wherein Maurial introduces herself as a “land investor” passionate about West Texas. 

In the course of her deposition, Maurial also spoke to the hardships of being denied access to the land she owns — her house on the land had incurred damage from a storm during the time she was unable to access it, she said. 

In November, shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the court issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting Baxter or Chavigny from restricting Maurial’s access to the road. At a court hearing in early February, Maurial was granted a temporary injunction allowing her access to the property with certain restrictions. Judge Wright ordered the two parties to go into mediation in an attempt to settle the matter within 90 days to avoid a trial.

At Tuesday’s court hearing, it was revealed that a resolution could not be reached despite undergoing three rounds of mediation. Rod Ponton, one of Maurial and Fort’s two attorneys — the other being Joseph Hood — called for a jury trial. The date of that trial has yet to be determined.

In the meantime, Judge Wright ruled to end Maurial’s temporary injunction, barring her access to the road for the time being. The road that traverses the Baxter property is not a public county road, Wright concluded.

“That’s a private road that belongs to Mary Baxter, and because it’s Mary Baxter’s private road, she can certainly block it off, refuse people entry, she can bulldoze it up if she wants to — it’s her’s,” said Judge Wright, but not without acknowledging the hardship placed on the plaintiff.

“Ms. Mauriel, this is terrible, I feel awful for you — just awful — but I’m going to follow the law, and this is how I see it,” said the judge. “All the reading I have done does show that you can indeed landlock somebody in Texas. And I’m sorry, but that’s where we are today.”

Seemingly resigned to await the outcome of a jury trial, the matter unexpectedly reared its head again the following morning, at Wednesday’s regular Presidio County Commissioners Court meeting — attorney Joseph Hood, accompanied by his clients, appeared before the court to ask that officials “acknowledge a historical fact,” that the road in question “has been a county road and remains a county road to this day,” and that they “unlock or remove” the gate currently blocking the road. Both Jeff Fort himself and longtime local Chon Prieto testified to the road’s historical usage as an uninhibited county road.

Ballard, also attending the meeting via Zoom, noted there was no designated agenda item on the road in question, and that Judge Wright had ruled in his clients’ favor just the day before.

County officials, for their part, sympathized with the plaintiffs, but maintained it was not currently their place to take any action on the matter. This was a legal case currently being battled out in the district court, noted County Commissioner David Beebe.

“I’m concerned if this case is in the district court, and we do anything today, we might be interfering in something that’s not our business,” said Beebe.

“I don’t like gates across roads personally, but this is not something I’m sure we have jurisdiction over,” he went on to say.

Presidio County Judge Joe Portillo agreed, and the item was abandoned — but not before the judge briefly reflected on his childhood traversing the very road in question.

“I don’t remember gates, I don’t remember locks,” said Portillo. “This is not settled, I don’t think we should act on it. I just think it’s a shame.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article identified Judge Jennifer Wright as the 394th District Court Judge. Judge Wright was sitting in for 394th District Court Judge Roy Ferguson.