December 20, 2023 626 PM
PRESIDIO COUNTY — Last week, Presidio County officials were all but certain that a remote road would be declared officially open to the public — but a series of twists and turns over the past few days suggests there won’t be an easy resolution to a lawsuit brought by Austin-based land investor Maria Maurial against her neighbors, Mary Baxter and Neil Chavigny.
Maurial purchased property in a remote stretch of Presidio County just west of Chinati Hot Springs in June 2022. In the suit, she alleges that Baxter and Chavigny have unlawfully blocked access to her property by locking a gate on what her counsel insists is a county road.
Hundreds of pages of filings later, her suit gets to the heart of a deeply Texan debate: in a state whose laws fiercely defend the rights of property owners, how can the public advocate for access to what they feel is rightfully theirs?
To answer that question, Maurial and her neighbors — co-plaintiffs Pinto Canyon Ranch, LLC and Fort Rancities, as well as defendants Baxter and Chavigny and their co-defendant Presidio County — called to the stand generations of county residents. Together, they’ve attempted to reconstruct a century’s worth of history of a dusty and forgotten corner of the county.
Most Presidio County residents have likely never heard of Naegele Springs Road, also known as Niegele Road, Ayres Road, County Road 135 and County Road 27. The route is extremely remote and traveled by few, winding toward the namesake spring for a little over a mile off of Hot Springs Road before halting in front of a locked gate.
Exactly how long that gate has existed is up for debate. All parties agree that the road has remained gated through at least a year’s worth of litigation over whether or not the road is, in fact, owned and maintained by the county.
In March of 2022, Presidio County was roped into the case as a co-defendant in the interest of answering that very question. The county hoped for a swift resolution on the issue — and perhaps celebrated prematurely. At Wednesday’s commissioners court meeting, Judge Joe Portillo announced that the district court had granted a motion that would order a gate on Naegele Springs Road to remain permanently open.
That court had other ideas. On Friday, the county’s counsel, Jim Allison, filed a motion to vacate in hopes of giving the opposing party time to respond; on Tuesday, Judge Genie Wright, sitting in for District Judge Roy Ferguson, rescinded her motion, opening a window for new development in the case.
If granted the opportunity, Baxter and Chavigny will likely revisit questions their counsel has posed over the past year: what right does the county have to a strip of dirt it hasn’t paid attention to in almost 50 years?
And more broadly: in Far West Texas, what constitutes a good neighbor?
“What is it about Maria?”
In June of 2022, self-described Austin-based “land investor” Maria Maurial purchased a landlocked 480 acres in Presidio County just west of Chinati Hot Springs. The property is sandwiched between Baxter and Chavigny’s property and a slice of the Pinto Canyon Ranch, a co-plaintiff in the suit. (Pinto Canyon Ranch, LLC is owned by Jeff Fort IV; his father, Jeff Fort III, is the Jeff Fort representing the family in court filings.)
The Fort holdings include property that was once part of Donald Judd’s estate — the Judd Foundation and family members still enjoy access to Las Casas, the site of the artist’s grave.
There is no road to access Maurial’s property except for the one that passes through Baxter’s. Fort alleges that there are Jeep trails that can be used as alternate access to his property, but that the roads aren’t in good enough condition to be used for vehicles hauling ranch equipment — leaving him in essentially the same position as Maurial.
Per court transcripts, Baxter and her husband Neil Chavigny have owned the property since 2011. The two consider themselves Marfa residents, but spend part of the year in New Mexico. Baxter is a landscape painter — Chavigny described their Naegele Springs property as her “painting area,” a place she could get away to work in peace and quiet.
After learning that Maurial and her partner had somehow accessed the property without permission, Baxter wasn’t convinced that Maurial would respect that privacy. She decided to change the combination to the lock on her gate. “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,” Baxter wrote in an email to Fort on July 31, 2022.
On paper — or at least on the internet — Maurial has dedicated her life to helping others put down roots in Far West Texas. On the website for her company, Emacity Land Investments, Maurial promises to “create the dream of land ownership” for potential buyers by skipping realtors’ red tape, instead offering land directly with in-house financing “for which everyone qualifies with never a credit check.”
Maurial insisted that she never intended to rent out or subdivide the property — a matter hotly contested in court. As previously reported by The Big Bend Sentinel, when Maurial was pressed under oath about why her website — which lists properties in Presidio and Brewster counties for sale — included a rental listing for the property, she insisted that her website was “under construction.”
During Baxter’s own deposition in January 2023, Presidio County Attorney Rod Ponton — serving at the time as Maurial’s private counsel — grilled her on why she had singled out her new neighbor. “What is it about Maria Maurial that makes you want to mistreat her?”
Baxter’s attorney, Sam Ballard, objected.
Ponton pointed out that the Forts, the Judd Foundation, Border Patrol and the Sheriff’s Office had been allowed access to the road over the years, though none of the entities had ever drawn up a formal easement agreement.
That easement agreement was a sore spot. Fort joined the suit as a plaintiff shortly after the original petition was filed; in his own deposition, he said that he had never been denied access to the road — but was concerned that someday he might.
Despite expressing some hurt and confusion about why Fort had decided to sue, Baxter and Chavigny indicated that they had enjoyed a relatively drama-free relationship with the Pinto Canyon Ranch team along Naegele Springs Road.
Ponton rephrased his question. “So the only person you don’t want to use that road is your neighbor, Maria Maurial?”
“I think there might be a lot of people I wouldn’t want crossing my land,” Baxter responded.
“A premeditated political stunt”
The story of how Ponton was dropped from the case — and how Presidio County was looped in as a co-defendant — is a particularly thorny chapter in the Naegele Springs Road saga.
On March 20, the Baxter-Chauvigny team filed a “motion to disqualify counsel,” alleging multiple conflicts of interest between the plaintiffs and their legal representation. The motion cited laws for attorneys included within the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct that limit county officials from mixing public and private legal business and from pitting clients against each other.
The document first questioned why one attorney would represent both Maurial and Fort — and what either stood to gain by making the road public. Naegele Springs Road cuts through the heart of Maurial’s property, with a spur toward the main house. The road then winds through adjoining Pinto Canyon Ranch property.
Hypothetically, the motion argues, Maurial could grant Fort an easement through her property — why was he suing Baxter and not her?
The document also questions what Maurial stood to gain as someone with a part-time residence on the fringes of a popular tourist area. “While it is arguably an advantage to have a county road to access one’s property, it is another thing entirely to have that Road run through one’s property. thereby opening that property up to hunters, sightseers, hikers and off-roaders,” the motion argues.
By this point, all parties involved had narrowed the case down to a central question: was Naegele Springs Road a public road?
The motion to disqualify counsel insisted that — since Presidio County had become a central player in the suit — County Attorney Rod Ponton could no longer represent plaintiffs in the suit as private counsel.
For Baxter and Chavigny, the quest to drop Ponton from the case became more desperate after a heated Presidio County Commissioners Court meeting on March 22, which Maurial and Fort attended.
In an emergency motion filed later that day, Baxter and Chavigny alleged that they were not given advance notice of the meeting — the same meeting that evidently plaintiffs Maurial and Fort had been invited to — and “dropped everything” to make it to Presidio in time.
To make matters worse, the agenda item had been mislabeled as pertaining to a dispute along “Casa Piedra Road” — rendering any discussion of the Naegele Springs Road issue a potential violation of the Open Meetings Act. “This was a premeditated political stunt, plain and simple,” the emergency motion reads.
In response to attorney Sam Ballard’s concerns about the misnamed agenda item, Precinct 4 Commissioner David Beebe cautioned the court against continuing discussion or making motions on the topic. “The history of this commissioners court is not great,” he said. “But this commissioners court is different.”
However, at that meeting the plaintiffs’ co-counsel Joe Hood brought forth a number of Presidio County old-timers with knowledge of the road as Chavigny and Baxter sat quietly in the audience. Hood then asked Fort to speak.
Fort told the crowd that he had owned the property since 2000. “At that point in time, the gate was wide open,” he said. “There was no indication that that was a private road and no one told us we couldn’t go on it.”
County Judge Joe Portillo said he had been familiar with the area as a boy, riding up and down the dirt roads between Ruidosa and Candelaria with his father and grandfather to deliver propane.
He said he couldn’t remember a single locked gate. “I think it’s just a shame,” he said of the controversy over Naegele Springs. “But we’ll address it appropriately when we can do it right.”
“Open and notorious use”
After Ponton was dropped as a participant in the suit in April, Attorney Robert Soza stepped up to represent the plaintiffs. Jim Allison, an attorney with the Texas Association of Counties, was tapped to represent Presidio County — his services aren’t cheap, but a successful ruling in favor of the county would likely be covered by opposing counsel.
The first thing Allison did was to advise Ponton to start digging: if the county wanted to prove that Naegele Springs was a county road, he would need to find evidence. Eventually, Ponton found the smoking gun — the minutes of a commissioners court meeting held in February 1975.
On February 19, 1975, Precinct 1 Commissioner Fidel Vizcaino made a motion to designate Naegele Springs Road a “third class” county road after being advised of an “obstruction” at the intersection of Naegele Springs and Hot Springs Road.
Precinct 3 Commissioner David Fuentez and Precinct 4 Commissioner Frances Howard attested that they had worked on the road for the county in some capacity in the past, and Vizcaino’s motion passed unanimously.
With backup from the Texas Transportation Code, the county considered the case closed. A county road could only be designated by a resolution of the commissioners court — which Allison now had documentation of. Lack of maintenance on the road or its absence on county maps also didn’t disqualify its legal status; the fact that the road didn’t have proper signage also wasn’t an issue under the law.
The court would have had to make another declaration to abandon the road, which county officials weren’t able to find in their trawl through the archives.
Last Monday, the county filed a motion for summary judgment declaring that Naegele Springs was a county road. “There is no basis for the continuation of Presidio County as an ‘indispensable party’ to this action,” the motion reads.
On Thursday, Judge Wright approved the motion, declaring Naegele Springs Road to be an official county road.
The next day, Allison filed a motion to vacate — essentially asking the judge to grant Baxter and Chavigny a chance to respond to the county’s motion. Though he believed the county had a slam-dunk case, he found it unusual how fast the motion had been granted. “It’s my belief that the defendant should have an opportunity to respond,” he said.
Representatives for both the Maurial-Fort and Baxter-Chavigny teams declined to comment for this story, citing a gag order. However, filings from Baxter’s 319-page response to Maurial’s motion for partial summary judgment back in October suggest that the county road designation may not be as simple as the “open and notorious use” of the road county officials claimed stretched back generations.
One question may never be definitively answered: when did the gate around 1.3 miles from the intersection of Naegele Springs and Hot Springs Road appear? Testimony from witnesses for the plaintiffs and defendants don’t line up.
Henry Naegele — who was born at the property in 1943 and for whose family the road was named after — claimed that so far as he knew, there was always some kind of gate at the property. First there was a wire gate; in the early ‘80s, it was replaced with an iron gate.
Naegele said that Baxter and Chavigny had always granted him access to the land for sightseeing and reminiscing. In his 80 years of ties to the land, one thing he hadn’t seen was heavy machinery. “During my lifetime, I never witnessed Presidio County or any other governmental entity maintaining the road past the gate,” he testified.
Monroe Elms, who served as Presidio County judge from 1990 to 1994, said that there was a big push to shed county road mileage as a cost-saving measure just before his tenure at the courthouse.
He filed an exhibit to accompany his affidavit: a copy of a letter sent out by then-Judge Charlie Henderson to county landowners in 1985. The letter said that the county’s road and bridge budget was too meager to keep up with maintaining 900-plus miles of roads, and inquired whether each landowner wanted roads within their property maintained as county roads or maintained privately.
The letter expressed that the county hoped to shed responsibility for maintaining roads that were privately used. “Few, if any of the so-called county roads in Presidio County have ever been dedicated to public use,” Henderson wrote. “Most have come about by the personal easement of neighbor to neighbor to allow for ingress and egress.”
Elms claimed that the county stopped maintaining the road past the gate in 1985. County documents — including a road and bridge report from October 2022 — describe Naegele Springs Road as a county road branching off of Hot Springs Road for 1.3 miles, around where the Baxter gate is located.
Ponton stood by the document that he had dredged up from 48-years of commissioners court minutes, still believing — as he had when Maurial contacted him in the fall of 2022 to file an injunction for access to her land — that the road was public and should be open to all. “Presidio County takes seriously to let there be public access where there’s always been public access,” he told The Big Bend Sentinel.
Beyond the property rights issues, he felt a stronger, more emotional opposition to the gate on Naegele Springs Road. During Baxter’s January deposition, he asked repeatedly if she had ever tried to reach out to Maurial, to get to know her and help her access what was rightfully hers — “That’s what neighbors do, they help each other out, don’t they?”
Baxter agreed, but said that she felt owning land next to someone was different from granting them unfettered access to your own. “She’s a stranger,” she said. “I don’t allow strangers onto my property.”
As the case continues to wind its way through the courts, Ponton remains steadfast. “It’s just not the West Texas way,” he said.