May 24, 2023 745 PM
TERLINGUA — By South Brewster County standards, David Long is living the dream. His small parcel of land — which he’s owned since 2005 — isn’t too far from the food and fun that light up the Ghost Town, but is removed enough from the hustle and bustle that the sunsets are spectacular and the night skies are bright and clear.
By mainstream American standards, Long might as well live on the moon. The property’s primary shelter is an old camper trailer with no shade, making the long summers almost unbearable. He has to collect, treat and dispose of his own water and waste. When it rains, the dirt road that connects him to the highway is completely impassable — sometimes for days at a time.
A few years ago, Long retired from Big Bend Ranch State Park, where he worked for more than two decades. He considers himself a permanent fixture of the area. Nothing else on his property — save a water tank — is permanent. “Even the outhouse blows away every once in a while,” he said.
That’s why Long was shocked to discover on May 5 that his property had quadrupled in taxable value over the course of a single year — a property that had been appraised at $13,200 five years in a row had suddenly jumped to $52,800. His property taxes, in turn, were estimated to shoot up from $176 to $704.
The Brewster County Appraisal District (BCAD) issues property tax notifications to landowners each spring. Individual properties are assessed in a rolling three-year cycle and assigned value based on a metric that compares similar units, adjusting for the housing market and the degree to which the owner has developed the land.
Property taxes determine the county’s budget, which trickles down to fund everything from road maintenance to the Terlingua Volunteer Fire Department to the Little Dribblers youth basketball program.
The Big Bend Regional Hospital District also pulls a percentage of property taxes, as well as the county’s four school districts: Alpine, Marathon, Terlingua and San Vicente.
Long wasn’t opposed — on principle — to contributing to schools and healthcare, but couldn’t understand why anyone would consider a wind-scoured patch of desert with a trailer on it to be worth four times as much as it was last year. “The only natural resource we have down here is cinnabar, and that’s toxic,” he said.
He wasn’t the only person to open up their P.O. box and discover that their appraisal value had gone up double, triple, quadruple — in a few cases, trigenuple, the proper Latin for “thirty times.”
Local Facebook groups erupted and the valuations became the hottest topic on the porch at the Starlight Theatre. Dozens of property owners pledged to formally protest their valuations with the county.
The increases themselves weren’t landowners’ only complaints. After talking to neighbors, many felt that increases were handed down inconsistently. To make matters worse, documents mailed from the county didn’t offer straightforward instructions for how to protest or how that process would unfold — directing taxpayers to non-functional websites, a phone number with a full voicemail box and a list of COVID-19 procedures that no longer apply.
Both Terlingua and the beleaguered Brewster County Appraisal District are experiencing growing pains, thanks to skyrocketing real estate prices and record-smashing regional tourism. After receiving their valuation notices, many residents have been left wondering: is this the new normal? Will they be able to afford to stay?
The land scam days
The majority of valuation protests are coming from Terlingua Ranch, a sprawling 190,000-acre complex reaching from the Solitario all the way to the northern fringes of Big Bend National Park. Around 5,000 landowners pay around $200 a year in dues to POATRI (Property Owners Association of Terlingua Ranch, Inc), spanning 9,500 individual parcels.
On Saturday, former POATRI board members Georganne Bradbury, Jim Spofford and Michelle Chiles gathered in a war room of sorts at Terlingua Ranch Lodge — the map room, home to dozens of detailed drawings of the 1,100 miles of dirt road the association maintains.
That 1,100 miles of bentonite is the reason why many POATRI members are protesting their property valuations. Brewster County, whose Road and Bridge Department Terlingua Ranch taxpayers fund, only maintains 400 miles. “We don’t receive the same services as other county residents,” Bradbury explained. “A lot of people out here live really rough because of the lack of infrastructure.”
How many people actually reside on the ranch is up for debate: by some counts, it’s 200. Other folks say 500.
That’s partly because Terlingua Ranch wasn’t originally conceived to permanently house anyone. In the 1960s, David Witts, an attorney from Dallas, bought up most of what’s now the ranch — in turn, he sold about half of that property to his friend, racing car legend Caroll Shelby.
Witts and Shelby hoped to use the stark desert landscape as hunting grounds, campsites and a dramatic backdrop for car races. Soon, they decided to try to sell portions of their land to other people — 20 acres at a time, mostly sight-unseen.
Ex-POATRI President Jim Spofford lovingly refers to the Shelby era as “the land scam days”: as a supposed bonus, each 20 acre parcel would come with an additional five that were essentially worthless. Many new buyers never made it out to their own properties.
When Shelby and Witts first decided to sell, business was slow. In 1967, they partnered with Frank X. Tolbert to create the world’s first Chili Cook Off, which still draws enormous annual crowds — many of whom don’t know that the festival was originally a land marketing scheme.
Because the original Terlingua Ranch was a loosely-connected network of extremely temporary residences, the modern day POATRI presents numerous administrative challenges not faced by most communities in the United States. “Now we’re a neighborhood without ever being set up as a neighborhood,” Spofford explained.
For example: linking properties to the formal power grid is a Herculean task, requiring special easements from each individual landowner the new line crosses. Surveys are inconsistent or nonexistent, leading to frequent boundary disputes. A series of lawsuits ensured that property owners on the ranch retain the right to gate off their portion of commonly-used roads, leaving some properties landlocked.
In theory, the Terlingua Ranch Lodge fills the gaps in what a typical county or municipality would provide for its residents. Cabins and RV spots rented by tourists go to fund the POATRI budget, and residents can buy up to 500 gallons of water a week from the well. (An invaluable summertime perk: members also get to use the lodge pool.)
The degree to which the ranch plays by its own rules gives many residents a sense — legally and spiritually — that they are a world apart and should be taxed accordingly. “Terlingua Ranch is different and pretty self-contained, at least for the moment,” Chiles added. “The county provides nothing for us.”
To hear the former POATRI big-wigs tell it, the “land scam” days never ended — though these days, they feel outsiders are scamming themselves, putting up big-city cash for properties that wouldn’t have been worth anything 20 years ago.
They all had stories about people buying land on the ranch expecting a huge return on investment. “I talked to a guy last fall from someplace in California,” Bradbury remembered. “‘[He said] I’m going to put up four AirBNB cabins, what’s it going to cost to get water?’ I thought, well, there’s a lot you don’t know.”
Perhaps even more pressing than learning how to construct off-grid structures, there simply aren’t enough folks living on the ranch able to maintain a huge array of nightly rentals.
Spofford had encountered other out-of-towners who would ask for help with their property weeks in advance. “You’d just laugh — it’s cute that you’d name the day, let alone the hour,” he said. “You have all these people coming out here who aren’t making the most informed decisions.”
Big Bend National Park used to be touted as one of the country’s least visited, but that changed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021 and 2022, over half a million people made the trek to one of the Park Service’s most remote units.
There simply aren’t enough places for everyone to stay. According to the park’s online reservation system, in 2022, there were 253 campsites in the park and 72 rooms at the Chisos Basin Lodge for 516,000 total visitors — not bad numbers, if you wouldn’t mind sharing a spot with 1,588 other people.
To relieve the pressure, AirBNBs have been popping up like bluebonnets. The rush to create as many short-term rentals as possible, locals argue, is one of the many reasons property values have become so inflated.
Denise Flores, chief appraiser at the Brewster County Appraisal District (BCAD), explained that property values must keep pace with the market in order to comply with state regulations.
Determining market value can be impossible, given that Texas does not require buyers and sellers to disclose final sales prices. Whenever the county receives notice that land has been sold, BCAD sends out letters asking for details on the honor system. Not everyone abides — or submits honest answers.
Because Terlingua is unincorporated, property owners also do not have to file for building permits, making it difficult to track who has been making improvements on their land. Flores said the BCAD simply doesn’t have the budget to perform the costly flyover — or Pictometry — studies bigger urban appraisal districts can afford.
One company that conducts those studies quoted her department $400,000, more than triple their total budget — in part because Brewster County is the largest county by land area in Texas. Instead, BCAD employees have to use homespun methods like Google Earth, self-reported landowner data and as many in-person visits as possible.
In recent years, Brewster County has failed ratio studies conducted by the comptroller’s office, meaning the state believes that BCAD is not doing its part to keep up with ballooning property values. “We’re always under the gun,” Flores said. The state comptroller’s office did not return requests for comment.
Bradbury, Spofford and Chiles all expressed sympathy for the BCAD’s relatively low funding — and for taking the heat from landowners angry about valuation increases intended to keep the county afloat.
Still, they felt that there should be a better system for recognizing and disregarding artificially inflated sale prices driven by out-of-towners. “There’s a combination — of properties who were behind, that were definitely undervalued,” Spofford said. “Then there’s the crazy prices, the anomalies. It feels like the county has not been able to deal with these things very well.”
In addition to the New York and California-based bogeymen often blamed for rising property taxes, there are the more humble ranch property owners: people all from all over the world who love the Big Bend and scrape together savings for slivers of its peace and quiet.
In some ways it’s easier to live in a notoriously rugged area than ever before: solar panels are cheap, water catchment systems are widespread, new cell towers pop up every few years. You can even get high speed satellite internet through Starlink.
Good Wi-Fi, it turns out, isn’t enough.
People still get tired of the Big Bend’s loneliness and lack of services. Then they leave, often not paying their taxes and creating headaches for the appraisal district.
Flores said her office deals with a lot of absentee landowners — who ultimately are turned over to the tax assessor-collector’s office. “We have a lot of that, for sure,” she said. “We just try to keep up with what’s recorded.”
In place of physical records, Chiles said you can get a sense of the scale of the problem by simply scanning the landscape. “[People] end up leaving behind a shack — there’s hundreds of them scattered all over this ranch. It’s a broken dream,” she said. “Somebody thought, ‘This is cheap, I’m going to live off the land and live happily ever after.’”
Who gets the black eye?
Perhaps the most complex and controversial piece of the puzzle is school funding. Terlingua CSD claims around 0.85% of property taxes within district lines — properties in Brewster County are taxed at a 1.3% rate in total.
By law, the Brewster County Appraisal District must value land in the district within 5% of market value in order for the school district to receive its apportioned state funding. That rule conjoins the fates of BCAD and county school districts, not unlike skydivers fastened together as they plummet toward the ground.
School funding in Texas is an endlessly complicated subject, but the basic calculus is this: school districts set their basic yearly budget. Local property taxes fulfill a chunk of the total cost of running the district, and if the state determines that property tax valuations are up to snuff, they will fill in the gaps.
If BCAD fails to keep property valuations within 5% of market rate, the school district suffers. Last year, the state pulled some of Terlingua CSD’s funding, and the school district had to lawyer up through a fraught and time-consuming protest process in order to recoup the loss.
In an email to property owner Abbey Moore — whose valuation went up 3,300% between 2018 and 2022 — BCAD Deputy Appraiser Aaron Garza explained the difficult position both the schools and the appraisal district were in. “As high as we agree these values are going, the state always tells us it’s not high enough,” he wrote. “We are always stuck between a rock and a hard place between the state and the people.”
Terlingua CSD Superintendent Reagan Reed echoed Garza’s sentiments, feeling torn between the two camps as both a Terlingua taxpayer and an educator with 24 years on the books. “If [the state] forces the county appraisal district’s hand to raise values in order for schools to be fully funded, then my point of view is that the school districts get the black eye — and so do the appraisal districts,” he said.
As it is, school district budgets are bare bones. They don’t include improvements like new facilities — they simply cover the basic operational costs of keeping the school running year to year.
Reed said that slashing funding typically meant staff cuts, lessening student one-on-one time with teachers. It also meant axing courses beyond basic subjects — like industrial tech or computer science — that can open doors after graduation.
In Marfa — another Big Bend community dealing with the growing pains of skyrocketing property values — the school district is considered a wealthy district, despite the fact that the majority of its student population is low income.
Marfa ISD is what’s known as a “Robin Hood” district. Because the state considers the district to be wealthy, some of their state funding is redistributed to poorer districts, despite the fact that the district would be receiving more assistance from the state if property values weren’t so high.
Reed felt that Terlingua might become a Robin Hood district but wasn’t concerned about the situation escalating too quickly for the district to handle. “I think many of us here down along the border are going through the same thing,” he said. “Our kids all think they’re from the tiniest place in the world, but they get a great education.”
Reed believes part of the solution might be making the 5% stipulation a little more flexible for districts. “Austin is dictating your taxes,” he said. “What that’s doing is deflecting the blame to somebody local — to your neighbors.”
The situation gets even more complicated considering how the district’s lines were drawn. With some exceptions, kids south of the main ranch road are sent to Terlingua and kids north of the road are sent to Alpine. Neither district provides bus service, though Terlingua reimburses parents per semester for the cost of driving their kids to school.
The lines haven’t changed much since 1906, when Brewster County Commissioners Court split the county into four school districts. At that time, there were more kids living closer to the border in Brewster County, attending small schools in what’s now the Ghost Town and the national park.
The lines don’t make any sense to many folks in South Brewster County today — why aren’t Terlingua kids going to Terlingua schools? Properties on the ranch road closer to Highway 118 are only a half an hour away from the CSD campus, instead of an hour from Alpine.
Beyond the issue of school redistricting — perhaps just as daunting as the issue of school funding — there just aren’t that many kids living on the ranch. A large portion of Terlingua Ranch is owned by retirees, whom — resident Mark Chiles pointed out — have their school property tax rate frozen at age 65 if they’ve filed for a homestead exemption.
As more people on the ranch retire, the property tax pool dries up. Chiles theorized that the state was pushing BCAD — and other appraisal districts around the state — to hike valuations in order to prepare for an aging Texas. “The schools need [the funding], and they’re losing money from people over 65,” Chiles said. “Where else are they going to get it?”
What comes next
Dozens of people have protested their valuations with Brewster County. Formal hearings will begin in June, but the county has already offered to settle with some landowners for a reduced rate. As landowners wait for answers, many Terlinguans can’t help but look to the future.
David Long said that he knew that tax increases were a part of life — and didn’t mind them, so long as they were steady and proportional, targeting major cash cow businesses and leaving the little guys alone.
Long was worried about the Terlinguans who had been here for generations, related to the people who lived by the river before the tourists, before the mines, before the Spanish. “I have no problem with commercial entities being taxed what they’re worth,” he said. “But what about people just trying to scrape a living together in a trailer or an adobe ruin handed down to them by their families? That’s who can’t afford to live here anymore.”
For a handful of Terlingua landowners, this year’s property valuations are their first Brewster County rodeo. Sarah Bowlin and her husband Brett bought two properties in the Christmas Mountains in 2021. They live in Austin full-time, but come to camp and enjoy the scenery with friends about once a month. “We like the ruggedness of the property — it’s like being in Big Bend National Park, but without the crowds,” she said.
Bowlin and her husband use their time outdoors to unwind. They work in the tech industry, and perhaps understand better than anyone how damaging screens and speakers and push notifications can be — they want to someday turn their property into a retreat space where people can unplug and reconnect with nature.
One of Bowlin’s properties is not far down a well-traveled dirt road. That property increased 350% in value over its first year in their name. Her other property is completely inaccessible by road and may never be — still, the county says it tripled in value.
Trying to navigate the appraisal protest process from Austin was a nightmare. She said county documents gave separate web addresses that didn’t work and crashed without a way to report issues. She also said that the voicemail box for the number given to submit a protest was full. (BCAD reported that they had addressed technical issues and that the office was swamped with protests, so responses might be delayed.)
On Tuesday, Bowlin received an offer to settle her dispute for a 150% valuation increase. She plans to make a special trip to Alpine to attend a hearing disputing that figure, adjudicated by the Appraisal Review Board, a panel of taxpayers independent from BCAD. “150% is absolutely unjustifiable,” she said. “This is the literal scope of our [improvements]: to push dirt around .3 acres of our entire parcel.”
Even as a part-timer, Bowlin worries what might come next for her neighbors that stake their living in the landscape she’s come to appreciate so much. “I think about the people who have been here forever, who know things and are essential to this place moving away,” she said. “I feel like the culture and safety of the community is in some way at risk. It makes me very scared for what the future might look like.”
Both the county and its residents are scrambling this year to settle their tabs as quickly as possible — and figure out how to proceed when the next cycle comes around.
The state comptroller’s office oversees and regulates individual county appraisal districts, but some Terlingua landowners have gone above and beyond to contact elected officials, hoping for statewide structural change.
Dave Aurzada, who has owned property on Terlingua Ranch for over a decade and recently made it his full-time home, had a few more ideas — he seconded the notion that there should be some way for the county to pinpoint and disregard needlessly inflated property sales.
He also felt there should be more education about homestead exemptions and was kicking himself for not filing one in time for this year’s valuation. With the proper documentation to prove that a property is a full-time residence, taxable appraisal values are capped at 10% and school tax rates are frozen after age 65.
That, he thought, could go a long way to protecting Terlingua’s retired, fixed-income residents. “For those people that actually live here, they need to know that the first line of defense is to get into the tax office and apply for homesteading,” he said. “One of the things we should do as Terlingua Ranch is get the word out.”
After the hubbub dies down, he’s holding out hope that Terlingua will do as it has always done: provide for those who respect it and push out those who don’t.
He borrowed a line from a friend. “I’m sure she got it from someone else, but I love this quote,” he said. “The desert will decide how long you stay.’”