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Homeowners get soaked by hot springs traffic in Taos

July 14, 2018

TAOS — If the first sight a tourist is likely to visit near Taos is the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the second might be the nearby Manby Hot Springs.

The most direct route from the bridge to a trail that leads to the popular natural springs, down in the gorge along the river, is Tune Drive, a private, unpaved road that for years has been well-traveled by visitors hoping to soak.

A group of neighbors tasked with maintaining the road has had enough of the traffic.

In June, they posted a sign near the turnoff to Tune Road from U.S. 64, directing drivers to another route to the hot springs, one that adds 10 miles to the trip. So far, the effort hasn’t been effective, they say. Nonresident drivers continue to wear down the road as the neighbors struggle to keep it navigable.

About 40 homeowners on the northern two miles of Tune Drive often pass around a basket at their annual meetings and dinner parties, collecting a few thousand dollars for road upkeep, an increasingly demanding job.

Hot springs traffic has become “the bane of our existence,” resident Mary Lane Leslie said.

Tune Drive is rough — with teeth-rattling, cheek-flapping washboards, potholes and “break-your-axle ruts,” as resident Janelle Palma described it.

The rough ride breaks windshields and sends hubcaps flying.

Leslie moved to the area in the 1990s, not long after the land was subdivided. Back then, she said, only 10 homes dotted the road. Now there are 80.

In the past two decades, traffic on Tune Drive has jumped from four or five vehicles a day to at least 15 an hour. And the perpetual traffic has increased since the designation of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in 2013 raised its profile as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

The Manby Springs, also called the Stagecoach Hot Springs, are a series of small, warm pools at the bottom of an easy hike down the inward slope of the gorge that offer an iconic experience and breathtaking views.

The springs are within the national monument, but the parking area, a few dirt turnarounds on the edge of the gorge with no infrastructure aside from a single port-a-potty, is not. It’s private land under a conservation easement from the 1980s, according to Bureau of Land Management spokesman Zachary Stone.

“The easement allowed the BLM to preserve the view shed of the scenic rim area from future development and … also allowed for BLM access for inspection purposes but provided no access for the public,” Stone said. “At the moment, all routes the public can drive are at least in part on private roads/routes.”

Indeed, the route through Arroyo Hondo includes a stretch of dirt road that’s in worse shape than Tune Drive.

George Tune, a recently deceased land developer, kept ownership of the two miles of Tune Drive nearest to U.S. 64 “but did not include himself or his successors as legally obligated to be part of the road maintenance of Tune Drive,” according to Leslie.

A provision written into the original neighborhood charter set homeowners’ roadwork fees at $10 an acre — not enough to cover the costs of replacing culverts and dumping truckloads of new gravel. The neighbors can afford only two gradings a year to smooth out the washboards.

And despite all the dinner parties, the small group hoping to improve Tune Drive hasn’t been able to rally enough buy-in from other neighbors to raise the road fees.

The neighbors have spoken with Taos County officials, hoping to convince them to make Tune Drive a county road that gets county-funded maintenance. But those conversations stalled.

“No petition has ever been filed,” County Commissioner Tom Blankenhorn said, “but I have had discussions with the neighborhood association about their options, including a possible partnership with the county that would continue to collect the current road fees.”

Leslie and the neighbors think that’s a raw deal.

They’re now considering asking the state to take over the road, thinking the state could piggyback off the monument designation to get federal funds for improving — even paving — Tune Drive.

Another option, they said, is instituting a voluntary toll: posting a link to a PayPal account at the start of the road asking drivers to pay a dollar or two from their phones.

The last remedy would be to put up a gate and close public access altogether.

But, Leslie said, “We’ don’t want to hurt people that way.”

For now, they’re putting out a public appeal: Take the county-owned road from Arroyo Hondo to get to the springs.

If you insist on taking Tune Drive, they say, slow down for the safety of pedestrians, dogs, kids, horses and hikers.

“We’re stuck, and the road’s going to get worse and worse,” Palma said. “If the public wants to use it, we need the public’s help.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Taos News, a sister publication of the Santa Fe New Mexican.

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