Thursday, December 18, 2008

Texas landowners win small victory on border fence

Associated Press / Houston Chronicle
December 18, 2008

McALLEN, Texas — Dozens of South Texas landowners whose land is being condemned for the border fence scored a victory when a federal judge ordered that juries will decide the value of their property rather than an appointed land commission as the government had requested.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen set the stage for a series of trials to begin in March with his order signed Wednesday. While the trials will be restricted to determining how much the government pays landowners for the property, it gives Texas landowners their first opportunity to take an issue related to the border fence before a jury.

"I'm proud of him, he's doing his job," Eloisa Tamez, a landowner facing condemnation near Brownsville, said Thursday. "To have this kind of news before the holidays is like a Christmas gift for me."

The federal government has filed more than 300 condemnation lawsuits against South Texas landowners to make way for portions of the 670 miles of fencing it is building along the U.S.-Mexico border. So far about 500 miles is up, but it has been slow going in the Rio Grande Valley, where opposition is widespread.

Federal prosecutors had argued that the number of jury trials would swamp the courts, result in uneven payments and be extremely complex. A panel of land experts appointed by the court would be a more efficient option and more fair since it would be difficult to find enough unbiased jurors in an area where the fence has been a hot-button issue for months, the government said.

But Hanen, based in Brownsville, sided with landowners, 28 of whom are set for trial next year and all requested juries. The U.S. Attorney's Office did not immediately return a call for comment.

"This court is a firm believer in the jury system and the ability of everyday citizens to set aside their personal beliefs, biases and prejudcies to decide cases solely on the evidence presented within the context of a court's instructions," Hanen wrote in his order.

Hanen also cast doubt on the government's claim that about 80 cases will eventually need juries to determine land values. He suggested that even among the 28 cases scheduled for trial so far, similar parcels could be clustered in groups of three to be heard by the same jury. Most property owners settled with the government out of court.

The condemnations range from a quarter acre to more than 12 acres, but in many cases those are just slivers taken from tracts covering hundreds of acres north of the Rio Grande. Land commissions are generally believed to award lower compensation than juries, eminent domain attorneys say.

Each case will offer its own complexities, from calculating the impact on hunting leases to the value of the land left in the no-man's land between the fence and the river.

Kimberli Loessin, an attorney representing some of the landowners, wrote in an e-mail, "Landowners are pleased and believe that Judge Hanen did the right thing."

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