“At Patch of Heaven, we are very excited to learn that the … former President of Mountain States Legal Foundation, the folks representing us in our litigation with [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service], William Perry Pendley, is being considered as a Nominee for Secretary of the Interior by President Donald Trump,” Annette Fuentes and Victor Fuentes wrote on their website.
The couple own Patch of Heaven, a 40-acre Christian camp that sits inside the boundaries of the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada. The church is embroiled in a long-running dispute with the federal government over a water diversion project (Greenwire, April 23, 2018).
“Mr. Pendley is very aware of the struggles in the West and well qualified to fill that spot,” they added. “We have created the petition in order to provide to President Trump showing our support for his nomination of William Perry Pendley, for Secretary of the Interior.”
Anti-government activist Doug Knowles — who publishes the website It Matters How You Stand, which tracks news on the “Grass Roots Patriot Movement” — also sought to boost Pendley’s name with advertisements purchased on Facebook.
If nominated and confirmed, Pendley would become the third individual associated with Mountain States Legal Foundation to lead the Interior Department.
The Colorado-based law firm once employed James Watt, who went on to head Interior in the Reagan administration, and Gale Norton, who served in the George W. Bush administration.
Pendley, who served as a Marine in the Vietnam War before becoming a Capitol Hill aide — working for former Wyoming Sen. Cliff Hansen (R) and what was then the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee — helped to shepherd Watt’s nomination through his Senate confirmation.
Pendley then joined the Interior Department as deputy assistant secretary for energy and minerals (Greenwire, Jan. 2, 2014).
He did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Mountain States Legal Foundation’s executive vice president, Cristen Wohlgemuth, did not respond to a request for comment on Pendley’s departure from the foundation.
Attorney Christian Corrigan, who represents Annette and Victor Fuentes in their lawsuit, confirmed Perry is no longer with the foundation.
“His future plans are still in progress,” Corrigan wrote in an email. “Personally, I wish him the very best, whatever he does next.”
Perry had been listed as an attorney for cases the foundation is involved in as recently as last Friday, when he was formally withdrawn from a lawsuit over President Trump’s reduction of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah (Greenwire, Jan. 14).
“Please take notice that … William Perry Pendley hereby withdraws his appearance in the above-captioned matter as counsel for Defendant-Intervenors Garfield County, Utah and Kane County, Utah. The basis for this withdrawal is that Mr. Pendley is no longer employed with Mountain States Legal Foundation,” court documents state.
No statement on Pendley’s departure is available on the Colorado group’s website, although an archived website for Montana’s Fairfield Sun Timesindicates the foundation issued a press release in late December.
“The Board is very grateful for Perry’s decades of service,” CEO and board Chairman Roy Cohee said in the statement. “Perry’s passion and energy have led the foundation to prosper for nearly thirty years. His love of liberty will live on in the important work MSLF does. We wish him the very best in all that lies ahead.”
By Robin Hebrock | Pahrump Valley Times | December 12, 2018 – 7:00 am
On Nov. 8 a Nevada district court judge ruled that Nevada State Engineer Order #1293(A) be rescinded and now, a month later, the court order making that ruling official has been signed and filed.
However, the fight is far from over, with the receipt of the court order by the state engineer’s signaling a 30-day period in which it can file an appeal over that decision. According to office representatives, the engineer does indeed plan to seek an appeal and Pahrump residents will have to bide their time once again as they wait to see the ultimate result of this battle of the engineer’s office versus area property owners, well drillers and real estate agents.
“Given the significant potential impact of the court’s ruling on all Nevada water users, the state engineer intends to appeal the District Court’s decision to the Nevada Supreme Court and to simultaneously seek a stay of the decision,” Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Public Information Officer JoAnn Kittrell stated when reached for comment on behalf of the state engineer’s office.
Order #1293 was issued by Nevada State Engineer Jason King in Dec. 2017, following a request for such action by the Nye County Water District Governing Board. The order restricted the drilling of domestic wells in Pahrump’s Basin #162 by requiring that all new domestic wells have at least two acre-feet of water rights relinquished to the state in support of the well, prompting a wave of criticism and concern in the valley.
Shortly after the initial order was signed off, Pahrump residents and property owners banded together to form Pahrump Fair Water LLC, which immediately filed suit to challenge the engineer’s order. Six months after the original order, an amended version, Order #1293(A), was issued and the state engineer’s office attempted to have Pahrump Fair Water’s lawsuit thrown out, arguing that Order #1293(A) superseded Order #1293 and therefore the lawsuit was moot.
However, Pahrump Fair Water was not about to let this create a stumbling block and the group, represented by attorney Dave Rigdon of Taggart and Taggart LTD, entered into a settlement agreement with the engineer’s office in which the suit against Order #1293 was dropped and a new petition was filed against Order #1293(A). In return for this action, the engineer’s office agreed to an expedited case schedule.
On Nov. 8 district court Judge Steven Elliott ruled in favor of Pahrump Fair Water and tasked Rigdon with drafting the court order that would effectively rescind Order #1293(A). Rigdon submitted his draft to the courts on Nov. 21, but his was not the only version for the judge to consider.
Rigdon explained for the Pahrump Valley Times that the state engineer’s office disagreed with the language of Rigdon’s proposed order and had decided to take what Rigdon described as a “rather unusual step” by submitting a proposed order of its own. In the end, however, it was Pahrump Fair Water’s proposal that judge Elliott put his pen to and signed off on Dec. 3. The document was officially filed on Dec. 6.
Court order language
In the 10-page court order, Rigdon outlines Pahrump Fair Water’s stance that the state engineer’s office overreached its authority and violated constitutional due process by its lack of notice to affected parties. Furthermore, the court order details that Order #1293(A) is not supported by any substantial evidence.
“The language of NRS 534.030(4) is plain and unambiguous. The statute grants the state engineer general supervisory power over all groundwater wells except domestic wells. The history of this particular provision, and of groundwater law in general, demonstrate that the Legislature purposely intended to exempt domestic wells from the state engineer’s regulatory authority except in certain limited circumstances inapplicable to the present case,” the court order composed by Rigdon reads. “Accordingly, the amended order is an invalid exercise of authority that the state engineer does not possess.”
“The Nevada Supreme Court has ruled that prior to issuing a regulation affecting an interest in real property, a regulatory body must provide personal notice to each affected property owner,” the document continues. “Said notice must include the content of the regulation so that affected parties can adequately prepare to oppose it. Finally, the regulatory body must hold a hearing and allow affected property owners the opportunity to provide testimony and evidence related to the regulation.
“A failure to follow these steps is a constitutional due process violation that renders the regulation invalid. Because the orders impair a vested property right, and because the state engineer failed to provide notice or hold a hearing before issuing the orders, the orders are hereby deemed invalid,” document also said.
The court order prepared by Rigdon also lays out Pahrump Fair Water’s belief that the state engineer does not have any significant evidence to show that Order #1293(A) is necessary. “…the Pahrump basin is not currently being over-pumped, groundwater pumping in Pahrump has declined since 1969, as a result of this reduction in pumping, water levels in some portions the basin have leveled off or significantly rebounded (in some cases by as much as 45 feet), and the Amended Order contains no scientific analysis of whether the drilling of additional domestic wells impact existing wells in the basin.”
The engineer’s office argued against each of these claims during the hearings held in the matter but to no avail. The court order states that the court determined that Pahrump Fair Water’s arguments to this effect were valid and the engineer’s office “arbitrarily and capriciously” issued Order #1293(A).
“It is hereby ordered that petitioners’ petition for judicial review is granted,” the court order concludes. “It is hereby ordered that the respondent’s amended Order #1293(A) is reversed.”
As for the question of where drilling of domestic wells in the Pahrump Valley stands today, Kittrell replied, “The Office of the State Engineer is awaiting results of its request for a stay, and appeal while reviewing new requests to drill domestic wells in Pahrump.”
By Daria Sokolova Pahrump Valley Times
January 13, 2016 – 10:37 am
Victor Fuentes’ 40-acre property in the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge turned from a sprawling oasis in the desert into a dried up patch of barren land in a matter of a mere few years.
In August 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service diverted the creek from the property where Victor and his wife Annette Fuentes, the leaders of the Ministerio Roca Solida had founded the Patch of Heaven church camp, citing the need to preserve endangered species including the Ash Meadows speckled dace the that inhabit the refuge.
“Sometimes, I don’t sleep over this,” Victor Fuentes said recently, overlooking the grim picture from one of the church’s camp buildings.
The Fuenteses purchased the property in 2007 for $500,000 after they were drawn to its beauty. Victor Fuentes, a Cuban exile-turned a Christian pastor said they poured money and labor into the project, turning it into a gem in the desert complete with amenities and a babbling brook — its main treasure. Victor Fuentes still remembers the days when they were doing baptisms at the camp.
Affected by the excessive heat and deprived of water, the vegetation at the camp soon withered, leaving a thin line of dead of trees near where the creek used to be. A flock of Canadian geese and other birds that had been attracted to water don’t come to the Fuentes’ property anymore. The only thing that grows along the perimeter of the church camp now is weeds.
Victor Fuentes describes the view outside the windows of his church camp as “depressing.”
The December 23, 2010 rainfall resulted in $86,000 damage to the property after torrents of water gushed across its perimeter when the channel built by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wasn’t able to accommodate it. The property incurred additional damages when a heavy storm swept through southern Nye County in October 2015. The damage estimate is now close to $225,000.
On a recent tour through the property, Victor Fuentes surveyed the damage that had been wreaked by the last October flood. Cell phone videos recorded by Annette Fuentes show the floodwater rushing across the road leading to their property, something the Fuenteses claim wouldn’t happen if the direction of the creek hadn’t been changed.
Joseph Becker, Fuentes’ attorney who also serves as a director and chief legal officer for NPRI Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation in Reno said the federal government had violated multiple constitutional rights in one swoop by diverting the creek away from the Fuentes property. After filing an administrative claim against the government in late 2011, they had to wait 13 months until the government acknowledged the filing and said it wouldn’t pay anything.
The case grew complex over the last four years, frustrating both Becker and the Fuenteses, who said that fighting a governmental agency in court has been a tough task. The seemingly simple case, as Becker put it, now involves several legal claims including negligence and free exercise violation.
“We (also) asked for injunctive relief to restore the land to what it was before, to put the water back,” he said.
Becker said they are now awaiting a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on whether former refuge manager Sharon McKelvey, who resigned upon being sued, may be held liable for damages to the church camp.
Christy Smith, project leader for the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and several other representatives declined to comment, citing a pending legal case.
Becker said they are also awaiting a decision from the Federal District Court on cross motions for summary judgment on the tort, free exercise and due process claims.
Becker also argued that the failure of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get the Clean Water Act permit and moving vested water rights away from the camp prior to diverting the creek constitute due process violations.
“In some ways, the reasons for doing what they did are legally irrelevant, but I do think they tell the story,” Becker said.
In a way, Becker said the Fuenteses are bearing the brunt of excessive government presence in Nye County where it controls more than 90 percent of the land.
Expert report conducted by Blaine Reely, a civil engineer and hydrologist regarding hydrologic impacts to private property said that the construction of the dam and the channel located north and east of the Fuentes’ property resulted in a significant change to hydrologic regime and character of the property.
“The USFWS, their consultants and contractors, did not follow reasonable standards of the industry during the planning, design, engineering and construction of the Carson Slough Diversion Channel project,” the report said. “Specifically, the USFWS failed to consider potential adverse impacts to the plaintiff’s property which resulted in flood damage, a continued increased risk of flooding and the potential for future loss of property as well as injury and/or loss of life to residents and visitors.”
Becker said he doesn’t charge Victor Fuentes legal fees as a nonprofit, yet he has to bill for their out-of-pocket expenses such as traveling to various courts across the country and filing fees. The figure is in the tens of thousands of dollars.
“Any amount of money that we have, we have to use it for the case,” Victor Fuentes said.
On July 22, 2014, Nye County officials passed a resolution that references the Fuentes case asking the director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Dan Ashe to resolve the dispute by remitting damages and restoring surface waters to Ministerio Roca Solida’s church campgrounds.
In a follow-up letter on Jan. 5, 2016, Nye County commissioners said the agency’s conduct and action in Fuentes’ case caused many in Nye County to view federal management actions over land within the county and state with a “mixture of distrust and anger.”
“Nye County is perturbed and irritated that your agency has not only ignored us, but has also conspicuously dismissed and delayed owning up to and remediating the damages caused to Ministerio Roca Solida for almost five years,” the letter reads.
The Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge owns all of the bordering land around the Patch of Heaven. The Fuenteses are among a handful of people who still own properties in within the refuge boundaries that stretch across 23,000 acres.
Several maps that date back to the 1800s and 1900s show that the creek has always been on the land where the Fuentes’ property now stands.
Refuge officials cut off the water and moved it to a higher elevation in the name of historic restoration, but Becker argued that the action contradicts historical records.
“What they have done is they’ve cut off the water in the name of historic restoration even though there’s no history to indicate that ever happened, they moved it to a place where it’s never been to a higher elevation side of the church’s property and they made a channel that hardly accommodates a spring flow, let alone any heavy rain,” he said.
“There’s no history that where those buildings are has ever been flooded before until after they moved the water,” Becker said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asserted that what they have do was to protect the endangered fish, but Becker claimed that in fact, the number of fish decreased as a result of those actions.
“It doesn’t seem like what they did had any benefit on the fish population at all,” he said.
Becker said they have done a lot of depositions, filed cross motions for summary judgement. They had a hearing on a cross motions for summary judgment in July 2015, but Victor Fuentes said he had been very frustrated with the dragging.
“Much has been done,” Becker said. “We have gone all the way up to Supreme Court on the takings issue, but they didn’t hear it yet. They may still do it.”
The case has garnered attention over the years that the Fuenteses had been trying to prove in court that the brook belongs to their property. But Becker said it’s not unique as conflicts between government and individuals on property rights occur fairly often.
The reason the Fuenteses liked the babbling brook is because it served for meditational and recreational purposes and they wanted water for baptisms.
Without water, the property is worth significantly less, Victor Fuentes said, although they don’t have an estimate.
Now, if the government isn’t going to restore the property to how it was, then it’s resolved in a complete taking of the property, as Fuentes can’t operate a camp that is constantly subject to flooding, Becker said.
Since diversion of the creek, the amount of donations have diminished as did the number of groups visiting the church camp. Staying at the camp during the rain is now dangerous, Annette Fuentes said.
“Fortunately, the two times that this has happened, nobody’s been here. But when they bring them in the buses, they drop them off Friday night, they come back Sunday,” she said.
While the injunctive relief filed by Becker said the government needs to restore the watershed to where it was before, he said the price could be too high.
“It’s not really clear what will happen,” Becker said.
“If the water could be restored to its pre-August 2010 situation, we’d love to keep the camp, because this was their vision. It’s not clear that that can still physically be done,” he added.
Becker said he fears that if the restoration costs are going to be high, the government may just file a condemnation action and take the property. In that case Becker said the government should pay its market value.
Ultimately, Fuentes is also fighting to get reimbursement for his legal expenses.
“We are trying to get justice. If they are ultimately going to take it, then they should also pay for the damages that they caused in the meantime, the loss of use in the meantime and all the costs that we’ve incurred trying to ensure the justice is done,” Becker said.
But the property also has a lot of emotional value, as Fuentes said his family and members of the church and the community “poured their soul” into the place.
“Not only our labor, but our own finances, we put it over here to make this happen,” he said.
“That was our vision.”