Apple farm dispute goes to hearing

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Orchard: Owners try to resurrect previously rejected plan

By Associated Press

SANTA FE (AP) — The operators of a historic New Mexico apple orchard that was destroyed by fire and flooding last year are locked in a battle with the state over the future of the land.
The longtime operators of Dixon’s Apple Orchard began efforts Monday to resurrect a previously rejected plan to lease the farm to San Felipe Pueblo, the Albuquerque Journal reported Tuesday.
Becky and Jim Mullane appealed State Land Commissioner Ray Powell’s rejection of their $2.8 million lease proposal involving the pueblo and hope ongoing hearings on the issue might bring a reversal.
Powell, in rejecting the pueblo lease deal, said continuing the 75-year lease agreement reached with the farm by then-Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons in 2007 is not a good deal for the state land trust, which benefits public schools and other entities.
The leased property includes 8,500 acres adjacent to the orchard for which the Mullanes pay just $100 a year, a rate that would be locked in for decades if the lease assignment with the pueblo is accepted, Powell noted.
Former state District Judge James Hall is scheduled to hear testimony this week and will make a recommendation in the form of a report to Powell, who can accept or reject the findings.
The flooding of the Dixon orchard’s scenic canyon near Cochiti Pueblo was a result of the giant Las Conchas wildfire last year that burned into the orchard site and denuded the landscape around it. Mud, water and fire took out many of the trees and ruined or destroyed buildings and the orchard’s irrigation system.
The Mullanes, who recently moved to Wisconsin to work an orchard, decided after the flood they couldn’t continue to operate the New Mexico orchard. It had been run by Becky Mullane’s family for decades, first under arrangements with the University of New Mexico and then under a lease with the Land Office issued in 2007 under Lyons.
Becky Mullane testified at a hearing Monday that Powell’s staff initially and repeatedly encouraged negotiations by the Mullanes with San Felipe Pueblo, and indicated the pueblo’s involvement was a good fit. But she also acknowledged that neither Powell nor others at the Land Office ever promised to approve the San Felipe deal.
“We didn’t feel like we needed a promise,” she said. “We had encouragement.”
Powell said San Felipe officials have made it clear their main interest is in the 8,500 acres that include many sites considered sacred or culturally important to area pueblos. But Mullane testified that pueblo leaders were enthusiastic about taking over the apple operation after many pueblo members worked at the orchard.
Powell says the Land Office can make as much as $250,000 a year by directly leasing the 8,500 acres to area pueblos or the National Park Service.
The Land Office got the orchard and adjacent acreage in a 2005 trade with the University of New Mexico, which received 3,000 acres in Albuquerque’s Mesa del Sol area.
Powell also maintains that trade was a bad deal for the Land Office because it gave up prime commercial land in Albuquerque that would have made a lot more money for state trust beneficiaries.