El Paso Inc.
October 21, 2012
by David Crowder
The 18-foot-high border fence intended to seal the U.S.-Mexican border from San Diego to Brownsville will soon close a half-mile gap just west of Downtown El Paso.
The new section will run right through the spot where many historians believe Spanish explorer Don Juan de Oñate crossed the Rio Grande in 1598.
Rancher Chip Johns, who owns the property, recognizes the inevitability of the fence. But he doesn't like much about it - not the damage that will be done, not the presence of the heavy-gauge steel barrier and not the price the government is offering.
"They're trying to put that ugly fence right through the property," said Johns. The land on West Paisano Drive near the Yandell Drive overpass includes historic monuments, the former La Hacienda Restaurant and several buildings from the 1890s that were the first Fort Bliss. The fence picks up again near the site of the former Asarco smelter.
Just when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will start construction to fill the gap is uncertain, said Ramiro Cordero, a Border Patrol special operations supervisor.
"There's still a lot of things that need to happen with the property owners and right of entry before they give us the green light to do it," Cordero said.
Documents Johns provided El Paso Inc. indicate he is being offered $22,300 for 19,608 square feet, or about half an acre, along the southern property line parallel to the American Canal.
"I understand that we need a fence and all that, but I'm not going to accept the high-handedness of what they're trying to do to us," he said. "We need something that is more esthetically pleasing than that damn ugly fence, otherwise I'm going to have to get kinda Western with them."
Johns, who runs the 250,000-acre JCJ Ranch along the border in New Mexico, thinks having the fence across the back of the Hacienda property will diminish its possibilities for redevelopment.
The property should be a tourist attraction, he said, given the history of the old Hacienda Restaurant building. Built in the 1850s by pioneer El Pasoan Simeon Hart, it was described by a traveler of the time as a large and luxurious residence built in the Mexican style.
But the restaurant has been closed for years, the Fort Bliss buildings are now low-income apartments and the historical monuments have been vandalized.
"I still feel that between Old Fort Bliss and the Hacienda and the Oñate crossing site, there's a viable attraction that needs to be developed by the city, the city or somebody," he said. "But I'm 68, and I'm tired of it."
Johns said he is haggling with the government over the price of the land it intends to buy with his agreement, or condemn without it.
"I have been told if I do not acquiesce to their demands, they will put a condemnation suit on me," he said. "So that is a done deal."
The border fence was greeted with opposition and protests when work began in El Paso County in 2007. The county challenged the fence all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost in 2009.
The controversy has died down since, and some attitudes about the fence have changed.
In El Paso County, the biggest disputes with Homeland Security involved area farmers and the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1, better known as the irrigation district.
Jesus "Chuy" Reyes, general manager of the district headquartered in Clint, said one battle focused on Johns' property and plans to leave an important irrigation head gate on the south side of the barrier.
"That head gate is very important to the irrigation district's movement of water," Reyes said. "Any failure of those gates could potentially flood downtown El Paso in a crisis like the one we had in 2006."
That was the year a major storm flooded many areas of the city.
Another problem, Reyes said, would have been the theft of vital irrigation works.
"We're always battling thievery by people coming across the river and stealing parts," Reyes said. "There are some scary aspects about leaving the American Canal on the south side of that fence."
But Reyes' brother, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, was able to procure $16 million that will be spent to put the American Canal works and part of the canal itself underground.
"That would let Homeland Security route their fence so they could leave those structures on the north side," Chuy Reyes said. "We're happy now."
Some area farmers have also changed their opinions about the fence.
"Our farmers down here on the river are happy because they no longer have that illegal traffic coming through their fields," Reyes said. "They no longer have the danger of the drug smugglers because it's really curtailed now.
"It is working. We hear of drug smugglers coming over the fence, and Border Patrol is always dealing with cuts in the fence, but the community that lives along the border is very happy that the fence is there now. I get those comments all the time."
There's a new controversy over the border fence in the Brownsville area. Recent reports show huge disparities in the prices property owners have been getting from Homeland Security.
"Since 2008, hundreds of land owners on the border have sought fair prices for property that was condemned to make way for the fence," the Associated Press reported last week after conducting an investigation. "But many of them received initial offers that were far below market value.
"And dozens accepted those amounts without seeking any legal help, only to discover neighbors had won far larger settlements after hiring attorneys."
In one case, a south Texas farmer accepted the government's offer of $1,650 for a slice of his back yard and then learned that one neighbor was paid more than $65,000 for a similar lot while another got $1 million, according to the AP.