Associated Press / CBS
July 31, 2009
by Christopher Sherman
BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) ― A federal judge has ordered the U.S. government to clearly tell property owners affected by the fence along the Mexican border how they will be able to access their land.
It has taken weeks for the government to hammer out such an explanation for five landowners east of Brownsville who have been fighting in court for specifics and clearer language.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen told Justice Department lawyers they need to do the same for the approximately 255 other South Texas landowners who have not settled their cases.
"I think the landowners deserve that," Hanen said. If the government is taking their land they should know exactly what is being taken and how they will get to it, he said.
Nearly all of the promised 670 miles of vehicle and pedestrian barriers are complete, but the government has run into stiff resistance in South Texas. While the fence segments in the area run in relatively straight lines, the Rio Grande twists and turns — leaving thousands of acres of land stuck between fence and river.
Friday's status hearing, a step toward trials scheduled for early next year in which juries will decide how much the government should pay landowners, also revealed a significant change by the government as it tries to finish one of the last segments of the fence seven months after it was supposed to be completed.
Until now, the government had purchased for the border fence only strips of land running on the north side of levees that protect the low-lying areas of South Texas from the Rio Grande. But after struggling to sort out access rights for property owners, many of them with commercial farming operations, the government decided it will also condemn the land directly under the levee.
Kimberli Loessin, an attorney for several property owners east of Brownsville, said the government planned to take the land under the levee for the easternmost 13-mile border fence segment. It was unclear if the government planned to condemn the levee land in other areas, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Paxton Warner said the government hoped to begin filing amended papers to condemn land by the end of August.
While Border Patrol and other federal agencies have the right to drive along the top of the levee, they did not own it. That made it impossible to guarantee property owners rights to drive along portions of the levee to access land that was stranded in the no man's land between the fence and the Rio Grande.