Thursday, September 11, 2008

Border-fence funds short; land condemned anyway

Arizona Daily Star
September 11. 2008

A lack of funds — the Department of Homeland Security may need another $400 million to finish its fence along the U.S.-Mexico border — hasn't stopped the agency from condemning land for the project.

The department has filed condemnation suits against 11 property owners in Santa Cruz County. Five of the suits were filed last week in the Evo A. Deconcini Courthouse in Tucson. The rest were filed at the end of August.

Many of the condemnation claims are for small pieces of the failed Buena Vista Ranch development, about 10 minutes outside of Nogales. The property was, for the most part, never developed because of water-use issues along the border.

One stretch of land, about 8.5 acres, is owned by the city of Nogales, and officials said they have no problem with the condemnation.

The condemnation suits come just as the Bush administration has said an extra $400 million, and possibly more, will be needed to complete the 670-mile fence along the Southwestern border. About half the fence has been built and officials have said more money is needed because of spiking costs for labor, fuel and materials.

Justice Department spokesman Andrew Ames said that since January, more than 240 condemnations have been filed for the project and more than 100 of those have been approved. It's unclear how many of the property owners in Santa Cruz County were contacted by officials before the filings.

"Border Patrol has been doing most of the contacting to go out to the land," Ames said.

He noted, however, the Justice Department has filed some condemnations "in other districts where we haven't been able to track down the owners."

Efforts to reach many of the property owners or their attorneys were unsuccessful.

But Nogales City Manager Jaime Fontes said the city has no problem transferring an 8.5-acre stretch of land to the Department of Homeland Security.

"They are trying to achieve a secure strip on the border for border-security purposes," Fontes said. "We don't have a problem, and we are going to come to some equitable conclusion."

The only reason the transfer went to a condemnation was over questions about ownership and boundaries for the tract, Fontes said. The ownership dates back to the Gadsden Purchase, which made finding proper paperwork and determining certain boundaries to the land difficult.

Many of the properties are tied to the Buena Vista Ranch, which was developed by health enthusiast Howard Inches, who sought to create a spa there. Although he sold a number of lots, he never produced any deeds. He was convicted of fraud and died mysteriously in Haiti, according to Star archives.

The lots were distributed to the heirs of the people who originally intended to buy them, until Canadian Alex Mills and his brother bought out some owners in the late '70s or early '80s.

Alex Mills told the Star in 1997 that he had nearly given up on the Buena Vista development because of water-supply problems and conflicting ownership claims.

Many of the properties the government is condemning are quarter lots from that development that edge right up to the border.

To U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat whose district includes Santa Cruz County, the condemnations are an affront to property rights, and the fence will not make the border region safer. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on fencing, Grijalva said that money could have been spent on expanding the ports of entry and "beefing up Customs."

"This whole fence, virtual or otherwise, is becoming the biggest waste," Grijalva said. "It's not going to make us any more secure. It's not going to lock down the border."

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