In the wake of uncertainty, judge stands by order to declare Naegele Springs a public road

An early 19th century photograph of a road in Pinto Canyon, not far from the contested Naegele Springs Road. Photo courtesy of University of North Texas Portal to Texas History.

PRESIDIO COUNTY — Just before the holidays, a judge declared in district court that Naegele Springs Road — a dirt road in remote western Presidio County — was open for public use, tying up a legal battle that had stretched on for roughly a year. After the plaintiffs asked the judge to give the defendants more time to respond, Judge Genie Wright rescinded her order — but on December 27, decided to stick to her original declaration. 

Naegele Springs Road is an extremely remote stretch of dust and gravel about an hour and a half west of Marfa. The lonesome route has been infrequently traveled for the better part of a century — but became politically contentious in June of 2022, when Austin-based “land investor” Maria Maurial purchased a landlocked tract about two miles down the road. 

Since the 1980s, the road has been cordoned off by a gate located 1.2 miles off of Hot Springs Road. The gate — and the property behind it — are owned by longtime Marfa residents Mary Baxter and Neil Chavigny, who use the property a few times a year as an artistic retreat. 

Historically, they’ve shared the combination to the gate with their neighbors: the staff and owners of Pinto Canyon Ranch and the Judd Foundation. After learning that Maurial had crossed their property without permission — and alleging that the lock had been cut — they decided not to extend access to Maurial, worrying that the newcomer would rent out or subdivide the property to strangers. 

Maurial decided to fight back. In November 2022, she filed suit against Baxter and Chavigny; shortly after, Jeff Fort III of Pinto Canyon Ranch decided to join her as co-plaintiff. The plaintiffs argued that Naegele Springs Road was a county road and that it was illegal to close it off from the public with a gate. 

The defense argued that the stretch of road cut off from the gate had never been public — and that Maurial was well aware that she had no established access to her property except through someone else’s. Maurial’s title insurance policy — provided to the court by the defense — acknowledges that she had “a lack of access to or from the land.”

In a deposition from January 2023, Maurial said that she knew that her property was behind someone else’s gate but that she was under the impression that all the landowners on the road were given the combination to the lock. 

Two months later, Presidio County was roped into the case as a co-defendant in hopes of answering the question at the heart of the suit: is Naegele Springs Road a county road? 

The plaintiffs pointed to the minutes from a Presidio County Commissioners Court meeting in 1975, after Precinct 1 Commissioner Fidel Vizcaino made a motion to declare Naegele Springs a “third-class” public road. The county’s counsel, Jim Allison, agreed that the meeting minutes were enough for a successful case. He argued that the county’s historic lack of maintenance behind the gate was irrelevant — without an official declaration to abandon the road, it was still considered public.

On December 11, Allison filed a motion for summary judgment on behalf of the county. Judge Genie Wright — sitting in for District Judge Roy Ferguson — approved the motion just three days later, ruling in the county’s favor. 

As previously reported by The Big Bend Sentinel, Allison was surprised by how quickly the judge ruled. In the interest of fairness, he filed a motion to vacate — Judge Wright acquiesced, giving the defense more time to file a response. 

The Baxter-Chavigny team delivered, filing 386 pages of arguments and exhibits hinging on the protection of private property rights, “a keystone to the history, strength and politics” of Texas. “The Plaintiffs and the County are both asking the Court to disregard nearly 50 years of history and effectively asking the Court to set a dangerous precedent for Texas landowners,” they wrote. 

In their response, the defense reiterated an argument heard by the court multiple times: that the plaintiffs’ understanding of the Texas Transportation Code lacked context and detail. They pointed toward Section 251.057, which states that roads don’t necessarily have to be “abandoned” by a formal declaration. “A county road is abandoned when its use has become so infrequent that one or more adjoining property owners have enclosed the road with a fence continuously for at least 20 years,” the law reads. 

They argued that the Naegele Springs gate had more than met that requirement — the gate was erected and had been continually locked since the early 1980s. “The assertion that [Baxter and Chavigny] built the gate and were the first owners to begin locking it is the BIG LIE that has been told throughout this case,” the response reads. 

Beyond defending their right to close off their own property, the Baxter-Chavigny team repeatedly questioned what interest the county had in owning and maintaining around nine extra miles of road. 

The Presidio County Road and Bridge Department was allotted just over $650,000 in this year’s county budget — after a contentious drafting process that resulted in a hefty deficit. Without the additional Naegele Springs mileage, the county maintains 190 miles of roads. Factoring in equipment, materials and employee salaries, each mile of road costs the county around $3,427 per year. 

The county had attempted to shave off road mileage as a cost-cutting measure in 1985, when then-judge Charlie Henderson sent a form letter out to landowners asking whether they would like the roads on their property to be public or private. If the landowner didn’t answer, the road was considered private. 

So far as the defense could tell — based on decades of maps and the affidavit of Road and Bridge Director Ruben Carrasco — the road had never been maintained by the county or considered a county road beyond the gate. 

Perhaps the most incendiary claim in the defendant’s response is that the county had intentionally tampered with and hidden records from “key time periods” in 1985, 2007 and 2008. “Certain pages are missing from the record books and certain documents, such as county road maps, are also missing,” they wrote. 

Despite the detailed accusations of prejudice and corruption detailed in the response, Judge Wright ultimately ruled the same on December 27 as she had earlier in the month, declaring the road open to the public. 

In the aftermath of the decision, there has been some confusion about how long the now-public road is. The defense marks the end of the road at a ranch once owned by Jesse Vizcaino — the brother of the commissioner who designated Naegele Springs a public road. 

The Vizcaino Ranch headquarters is now known as Las Casas and was the primary Pinto Canyon retreat of the late artist Donald Judd — as well as his eternal resting place. “While this case is still open it is our understanding … that the road segment in question would revert to a private road a considerable distance from Judd Foundation’s property,” wrote Judd Foundation Director of Operations and Preservation Peter Stanley in an email. “That said, we will be following the case closely and look forward to working with the party that maintains the road moving forward.”

That question — and whether or not the defendants will appeal — remains open. All parties involved declined to comment directly on the case, citing an ongoing gag order.