Associated Press / Houston Chronicle
November 29, 2008
McALLEN, Texas — As Rio Grande Valley property owners gird for hearings that will determine how much the government pays for the land it takes to build the border fence, some are struggling to find a key witness — an appraiser.
The limited supply of qualified appraisers for this sort of work in the Valley, the cost of importing an appraiser from elsewhere and the fact that the government grabbed the Valley's premier appraisal firm for its side could ultimately lead to fewer landowners holding out for a trial, said lawyers involved with the cases.
"I don't think there are enough appraisers and a lot don't want to get involved," said lawyer Albert Villegas, who is representing several properties. Some appraisers Villegas approached were uneasy about determining the impact of a yet-to-be-built 18-foot fence on property value and others still hoped to get a piece of the government work, he said.
"They've pretty much negated everyone else," Villegas said. He was talking to appraisers in San Antonio and Houston.
But pulling in appraisers from outside the Valley to prepare a report and potentially testify if the case goes to trial becomes cost prohibitive for many owners.
Villegas has received quotes more than $10,000 for the work. For small landowners "that's a prohibitive amount," he said.
The Justice Department expects about 270 condemnation lawsuits against Valley landowners. Most have settled, but federal lawyers say about 80 holdouts could carry their cases all the way to trial. Trials are scheduled to begin in March and April, but the government can begin construction beforehand.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is trying to complete 670 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. It will not meet its end-of-year deadline, but has promised to have all sections under contract by then.
Some landowners in the Rio Grande Valley, where the project has been delayed by litigation, hope that a new administration will rethink the controversial project. Earlier this month Customs and Border Protection announced it was putting off three fence sections totaling about 14 miles in the Valley to further study their impact on Rio Grande floodwaters.
Richard Schell, another attorney representing border fence property owners, said he usually turned to the firm of Robinson, Duffy & Barnard LLP in Harlingen for appraisals involving litigation, but the government had them sewn up. So far the firm has been included on the government's witness list in only one case in Cameron County. No one from the firm returned calls for comment.
If appraisal work for these cases costs more than $10,000, Schell said one client would have to forego the outside expert and testify to the value himself.
Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen extended the deadline for naming experts by a month for a group of cases, including those handled by Villegas and Schell. They are scheduled to go to trial in March if Hanen opts for jury trials rather than a court-appointed land commission to determine compensation.
Bud Campana, a Brownsville appraiser not handling any border fence cases, said he was approached by a landowner this summer but was not comfortable with the job.
"The problem with these appraisals is it's a unique circumstance," Campana said. A big part of an appraisal is comparing the property to the sales of similarly affected pieces of land. But there is still nothing to compare the fence to, he said.
Some of the properties are further complicated by issues involving hunting leases, access to the Rio Grande and the value of land accessible — but in a more limited fashion — on the Mexican side of the fence.
"Based on what I've seen and generally heard I think it's a shame the way some property owners have been run over and treated," Campana said.
Not everyone is having problems though.
Norton Colvin, who is representing six properties in Cameron County, said the appraisals on his clients' land are nearly finished. He used an appraiser from Austin.
John Malcolm, president of Professional Appraisal Services in McAllen, said his firm will do appraisals for some landowners and possibly the government, too.
"I don't think there's a particular conflict in doing work for both the government or an individual property owners," Malcolm said. His appraisers would do the same job either way. "It doesn't matter who the client is."