A Yavapai County Superior Court jury awarded the Mabery Ranch Company, owner of Cottonwood’s Blazin’ M Ranch, $770,000 in a case stemming from the long-standing dispute with the Arizona State Parks Board.
The dispute centered on two access roads to the ranch that pass through property belonging to the Arizona State Parks.
The jury had been convened in Superior Court Judge David Mackey’s court to assess damages and reaffirm the rights of access, resulting from two rulings handed down by the judge.
A ruling in 2002 confirmed the Maberys' right to use two different roads for access to their ranch, one off of the 10th Street Bridge and one off of the Tuzigoot National Monument road.
The second ruling, issued by Judge Mackey in 2003, cited the State Parks Board for clouding the title to the Maberys' property by inserting a non-transferable and non-permanent clause into an access agreement with the ranch.
“The nightmare is over,” said Chuck Mabery, expressing his relief over resolving the dispute, which has gone on for 11 years.
The conflict with the Arizona State Parks began in 1993 when the Maberys decided to change their property, an island of private land surrounded by Dead Horse Ranch State Park, from a farm/ranch to a cowboy supper/stage show establishment.
Floods in 1993 had destroyed their vegetable farm when the Verde River overflowed and wiped out their irrigation system.
The new business, the Blazin’ M Ranch, opened in October 1994, after receiving a conditional use permit from Yavapai County and obtaining a limited five-year license to use the 10th Street Bridge access road, historically used by the Mabery ranch.
State Parks granted the original license while at the same time objecting to the use of that road for commercial purposes.
Under the license, the State Parks charged the Maberys $2,000 per year for use of the road, with additional charges for using the easement more that 160 event days per year.
Prior to the expiration of the license in 1999, the Maberys obtained a permanent conditional use permit for the Blazin’ M from Yavapai County, which was eventually assumed by the City of Cottonwood when the property was annexed.
At the same time they received the permanent conditional use permit, they requested a re-negotiation of the access license agreement with State Parks so they could acquire financing for the project and move forward with expanding the facilities.
Lending institutions and the Maberys themselves had refused to fund the expansion until the issue of long-term road access could be resolved.
It was the intention of the Maberys to expand their operation to include overnight accommodations, including cabins, RV spaces, a convenience store and a laundry.
State Parks refused to renegotiate the license agreement, arguing again as they had originally that access to the property for a commercial purpose “unreasonably expands the scope of the easement.”
The Maberys argued that use of the road was historically theirs, and whether or not it was for commercial use had no bearing on their access right.
The Maberys had owned their ranch prior to the Ireys family selling the Dead Horse Ranch to the State of Arizona for a park.
Unable to come to terms, in spite of attempts by the City of Cottonwood to mitigate the situation by assuming maintenance and liability for the road, the State Parks Board filed suit against the Maberys in March of 2001.
The State Parks Board asked the court for an interpretation of the restriction on the Maberys' access to their property, and they asked for an injunction to halt the Maberys' use of the roads without the park's permission and the payment of a fee.
The Maberys immediately filed a counter suit, claiming damages for lost income and reduction of their property value.
“First it was dust, noise and traffic. When that became a non-issue, State Parks claimed it was a liability problem. When the City of Cottonwood offered to take over the maintenance and the liability, Parks decided that was not sufficient.
“It all boiled down to Parks wanting to control the use of our property,” Mabery said.
“We have always gotten along with the staff at Dead Horse and the Verde River Greenway,” Mabery said. “They have been great to work with, and we do not want our problems with individuals at the State Parks in Phoenix to reflect adversely on the local State Parks personnel.”
The jury was asked not only to establish a monetary value on the losses resulting from the restricted use of the 10th Street Bridge access, but they were also asked to delineate the access road from Tuzigoot National Monument.
During the dispute, the State Parks had installed a gate at the Maberys' access point to the Tuzigoot Road. They installed a lock on the gate and gave the Maberys a key
However, when the Maberys lost their key, the State Parks refused to give them a new one, effectively terminating their access to the road, which had served as the high-water access to the property for over 100 years.
The jury went into deliberation July 16, and delivered the verdict around noon the next day, along with a map the judge had requested them to draw of a permanent access to the Tuzigoot Road.
Camp Verde resident Sam Sharp, a juror in the case, said, “after hearing the evidence, I felt, and I am convinced I was not alone, that the State Parks people needed to have their butts kicked up between their ears.
“They [the State Parks Board] had no credibility, and the way they had treated the Maberys was, well, it was simply bureaucratic arrogance.”
Neither the State Parks Board, the Attorney General’s Office or counsel for the Maberys had any comment on the jury’s decision, as the proceedings have yet to be finalized.