N.M. Orchard Operators Get $2M After Disasters

A massive wildfire was followed by floods and destroyed the famous Dixon's orchard.


May 19--ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The legal mess that resulted from the destruction of northern New Mexico's famous Dixon's Apple Orchard by wildfire and floods in 2011 has been resolved.

Under a deal that was finalized today, Jim and Becky Mullane -- whose family has run the orchard for decades -- will receive $2 million to relinquish their 75-year lease on the orchard site and an adjacent 8,800 acres, all of it owned by the State Land Office.

Cochiti Pueblo, which borders the apple farm site, is paying $1.8 million to the Mullanes and the other $200,000 comes from insurance proceeds that the Land Office received after the massive Las Conchas wildfire burned through Dixon's and subsequent monsoon rains over the burned landscape completed ruination of the orchard three years ago.

The Land Office has signed a new five-year lease with Cochiti Pueblo. The 8,800 acres adjacent to Dixon's includes cultural and historic sites that are "highly significant" to the pueblo, State Land Commissioner Ray Powell said.

During the five-year lease term, Powell said, Cochit and the Land Office will work on a land exchange under which the Dixon's site and the adjacent land would be swapped to the pueblo. In return, the Land Office would receive property that would be better suited to commercial development and generating funds for the state land trust, Powell said.

The trust generates funding for public schools and other public entities.

After the orchard was ruined, the Mullanes wanted to move on -- they now live in Wisconsin -- and assign their lease on the orchard plot and the other 8,800 acres of adjacent state to San Felipe Pueblo for $2.8 million. The lease still has about 70 years to run.

But Powell rejected the proposal, a second time after a former district judge serving as a hearing officer this year found Powell's decision-making process was "not rational and is arbitrary and capricious as a matter of law." The Mullanes were irate that the Land Office was blocking their effort to get compensation for generations of running and building up the apple farm on public land.

Powell objected to the Mullanes' long-term lease terms in part because they called for only a $100 annual payment to the Land Office for lease of the adjacent 8,800-acres and that's all the state would receive from that part of the property for the next seven decades. That lease was struck by Powell's predecessor as land commissioner, current state public regulation commissioner Patrick Lyons.

The Mullanes appealed Powell's rejection of the lease assignment in state District Court. Monday's agreements settle the litigation.

Powell said there is no expectation that Cochiti will restart the apple orchard operations. Dixon's was a favorite spot for weekend visits in the fall when its apples came in.

"That day is gone," Powell said. "... With the continued flood risk it's going to be a decade or decades before anything could be done with the orchard. We're all very sad. It's nature and nothing we can control."

Of the settlement arrangements, Powell said, "I think we got a real win-win out of this. With the fire and the flooding no one could control, I think we ended up in situation better than I ever anticipated... It's definitely a big boost for the trust. It allows us to get land (in the expected trade with Cochiti Pueblo) that is unfettered land for commercial development.

Becky Mullane said she didn't have much to say after the long legal fight over what had been her family's home.

"It's been such a long haul and there's been so much wrapped up in it,"she said. "It's okay."

"We have mixed emotions," Mullane said.

Tom Hnasko, the Mullanes Santa Fe attorney, said "I think it's unfortunate that it's taken this long to come to place that is really a vindication of the Mullanes' position." But he added that his side "respects that Land Office for negotiating in good faith."

Copyright 2014 - Albuquerque Journal, N.M.