May 12, 2009
by Emma Perez-Trevino
Amid negotiations with Brownsville on the proposed border fence between the city and Matamoros, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security moved Tuesday to take possession of the city-owned land for construction of the fence.
DHS on Tuesday filed a motion in federal court here for possession of 15,919 acres of land.
City Attorney Mark Sossi said it would be premature to comment on DHS' move and that he needs to speak with the City Commission first.
City Commissioner Charlie Atkinson said that DHS is acting in bad faith and is trying to "bully" the city from the land that would affect a projected riverwalk downtown and a loop to direct truck traffic to the Port of Brownsville.
A hearing is slated for June 1 before U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen, public records reflect.
DHS, on the other hand, stressed to city officials in an e-mail Monday that filing the motion does not mean that DHS is giving up on reaching an agreement with the city.
"To the contrary, it remains our intention and preference that we get a signed agreement with you. But the United States is facing delay costs if it does not proceed with construction on these parcels in the very near future," DHS' Assistant General Counsel for Litigation Nicholas D. Gray wrote to the city.
Gray said that although DHS remains optimistic that an agreement can be reached, it couldn't afford to wait to see how the City Commission might act, because if an agreement were not reached, deadlines would come into play and construction delay costs would begin to accrue.
Public records show that after mid-May, the federal government would have to pay contractors $30,000 per day in delay costs or alternatively, roughly $400,000 if the construction is stopped.
The federal government first filed the land condemnation action against the city Sept. 16 of last year. DHS also filed the declaration, noting it was taking the land and it deposited $123,100 into the court's registry, representing the value of the properties.
The process in federal court had been held at bay since March 27 when DHS advised the court that it was hoping to reach an agreement with the city.
"I think that they are going to do what they said they were going to do all along," Atkinson said of DHS' taking of the land.
"Everybody that has challenged possession has lost, but I hope that Judge Hanen sees that (DHS) has not negotiated in good faith," Atkinson said.
Despite the new filing in federal court, City Manager Charlie Cabler said, "I think we are still negotiating."
"They are still communicating with us. We feel that we can have a hearing and in all probability extend the final judgment on this from 20 to 30 days to find out exactly what our final ultimatum is going to be," Cabler said.
"The important thing is that we are still in negotiation and we are hoping that we can fine tune any agreement and hopefully present it to the commission in June," he said.