12/09/2007

Border fence holdouts hit with eminent domain threat: Houston TX Chronicle, 12/7/07

150 landowners in Texas have yet to grant access to build the barrier

By Michelle Mittelstadt and James Pinkerton

Taking aim at the Texas holdouts refusing to allow surveyors onto their property, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff made clear Friday that he would use the government's power to seize land needed for the border fence.

"We would, of course, like to reach an agreement with the landowner," he said. "But if we are not successful, we are prepared to use (the legal principle called) eminent domain."

On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security mailed letters to about 150 Texas landowners who refused to let surveyors onto their land or have not responded to requests.

The letters give them 30 days to come forward and negotiate, warning that the department will go to court to gain access to the land if they don't.

Federal officials say that government surveyors must examine by February land where a fence and a high-tech "virtual" fence will be built.

Chertoff pledged to complete 370 miles of fencing in Texas and other border states by October 2008. About 130 miles of fences are planned for Texas.

Leonard Loop, who farms hundreds of acres along five miles of the Rio Grande below Brownsville, expressed resignation. "I guess they can do it if they want to, but what is this country coming to?" he said.

Loop, who hasn't allowed surveyors on his property, said government officials still won't tell him where they want to locate the fence on the land where he was born 70 years ago and which his parents settled in the 1920s.

Edward Mathers and his father Robert are allowing the survey of the 2,000 acres their family has owned since 1880 on the river north of Brownsville.

''They're going to take it no matter what, so it's best to cooperate now or they make it harder later," said Edward Mathers, who contends the fence won't work.

Chertoff said that only 10 percent of the landowners who may be affected by construction of fencing, roads or lighting have refused access. Most of the holdouts are in Texas, where opposition to the fence has been the strongest. Texas, unlike Arizona and New Mexico, has most of its border land in private, not government, hands.

Some 408 landowners are affected in Texas. Sixty-three percent, or 258 property owners, have granted right of access to their land. Another 110 haven't responded or can't be located. Forty have refused to allow surveyors on their property.

Sen. John Cornyn, who met with Chertoff earlier in the week, said he is encouraging the government to keep the lines of communication open with the recalcitrant property owners. "His hope is that the vast majority of these cases could be resolved without litigation," Cornyn said.

Chertoff made clear that he's feeling pressure to build the fence swiftly.

"That is a big step forward in answering the public outcry to have some protection at the Southwest border," he said.


Houston TX Chronicle: http://www.chron.com