October 23, 2009
by Laura B. Martinez
In a few days, retired farmer and citrus grower Leonard Loop will say goodbye to about 75 of his citrus trees.
In the coming days, contractors hired by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will bulldoze the trees in the orchard and clear the area to continue construction of the border fence along South Oklahoma Road.
The government condemned about 1.73 acres of the land paying Loop more than $24,000 for it, Loop said on Friday, as he looked over a small map counting the number of trees that he will lose. The condemnation gives the government access to the land to continue construction on the fence — work which began earlier this year on the outskirts of Brownsville.
Kimberli Deagen Loessin, Loop’s attorney, confirmed in an e-mail that U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen granted the federal government possession of the land for the fence’s construction.
While 75 trees are what Loop will lose right now, he’s more concerned about additional acreage of land that will be located behind the fence once its construction is completed.
Although the land could be considered useless because it would be in an area known as "no man’s land," the government doesn’t believe so, Loop said.
"Just because they are giving me right (of access) to it they think everything is hunky- dory," Loop said.
Loop is among several private landowners who sued the federal government over the fence’s construction. The lawsuits remain unresolved. Loop’s lawsuit is set for a jury trial in May 2010. It’s a court battle that has been ongoing for 18 months.
Hanen in May suspended some of the border fence’s construction in Cameron County after learning that the landowners were concerned that access to their lands could be cut off and their concerns about the types of gates to be used.
Also in question is what land the government would pay for, including land in front and in back of the fence that some landowners believe could become worthless and hard to sell.
Much of the land is farmland.
In July, the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed to amend its land condemnation motions against several private property owners — to address questions posed by them.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has agreed to make clear what property the government plans to take and where access to the land will be located.
The fence’s construction is part of the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which is part of the government’s comprehensive immigration reform to help secure the nation’s border. The Department of Homeland Security is overseeing the fence’s construction.
Earlier this week, officials announced that the Sabal Palms Audubon Center will be closed for the rest of the year, partly due to the fence’s construction.
The 557-acre sanctuary is located behind the fence and officials are still trying to determine how this would affect visitor access to the center.
In Cameron County, 34.8 miles of fencing is planned. As of June 5, 11.7 miles of fencing had been completed, said Claude R. Knighten, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C. Roughly 9.3 miles of fence are slated to be built along South Oklahoma and Southmost roads, with 3.4 miles to be constructed on South Oklahoma and 5.9 miles on Southmost.
Current completion figures were not immediately available.