Saturday, August 1, 2009

Showdown: Landowners return to federal court to seek answers

Brownsville Herald
July 31, 2009
by Laura B. Martinez

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has agreed to amend its land condemnation motions against several private property owners in an effort to address questions posed by landowners near the controversial border fence.

The modifications include outlining what property the government plans to purchase or take and where access gates to private property would be located.

U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen said federal officials are only trying to construct a border fence as dictated to them by Congress; however, he added that the landowners should be able to sleep at night and know what the fence would look like and its location.

The issue was addressed Friday before Hanen during a status hearing, on pending lawsuits the government has filed against five groups of landowners.

"I don’t expect you to be singing kumbaya or having a camp fire together," Hanen told the attorneys representing the government and the landowners. However, Hanen added that he expected the attorneys to work together and address any flaws in the ordered amended motions.

Hanen in May suspended some of the border fence’s construction in Cameron County, after learning that landowners were concerned that access to their lands could be cut off and worried about the types of gating to be used.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Hu said the amendments should clarify what in the past had been described as problems. The government expects to take three to four weeks to amend the motions.

Attorney Kimberli Loessin, who represents landowners, said attorneys would work with the government attorneys to resolve problems.

Hanen also said he would "draft a charge" and provide a copy to attorneys on both sides should the land commendation lawsuits go to trial — that is, if the parties involved cannot reach a settlement.

Should the lawsuits go to trial, the first case is expected to be tried in January.

The landowners also want to know what land the government plans to pay for, including that in front and back of the fence. Some landowners believe land close to the fence would become worthless and hard to sell.

Much of the land near the fence is farmland.

The fence’s construction is part of the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which is part of the government’s comprehensive immigration reform and plans to secure the nation’s border. The Department of Homeland Security is overseeing the fence’s construction.

Hanen said amending the motions would be helpful to the landowners and would provide them with more specifics about the government’s plans.

"Once and for all we will all know" what the government plans to do, Hanen said.

The initial motions or declarations were said by some people to be "ambiguous" because they didn’t adequately address the issue of gates. For example, some landowners fear they and their homes might be locked behind the fence. They’re afraid they may not be able to get out from behind the fence when they want or duing an emergency.

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