BISBEE, Ariz. — Richard Hodges and Alex Mills are two landowners with distinctly different views about the U.S.-built border fence lining their properties.
For Hodges, the fence has been a godsend. It has been a big help in protecting his ranchlands near Bisbee from being overrun by immigrants crossing illegally from Mexico.
For Mills, it’s been a legal nightmare, an attempt, he says for the government to take his land without fair compensation.
Since a massive, border fence along the United States’ southern boundary was proposed, the federal government has attempted to take possession—temporarily or permanently—land near the Mexico border as part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Secure Border Initiative.
Some land owners have readily acquiesced while in other cases, the federal government has acquired the land through condemnation. While condemnation cases along the Texas-Mexico border have been fairly common, more are popping up for landowners along the Arizona-Mexico borderline.
Hodges, a 54-year-old rancher in Bisbee, Ariz., said the addition of the border fence to his land was a much-needed measure to improve his sense of security and promote the longevity of his cattle ranch that was homesteaded by his great grandfather in the 1800s.
Hodges feels that the addition of a fenced boundary to his land has significantly decreased illegal traffic on his property, a problem he and other ranchers in the area had struggled with prior to fence construction.
“As far as safety and security goes, it’s night and day,” Hodges said, adding that before the fence was in place, destruction to cattle fences, excessive garbage dumped on his property and even nighttime visits to his house from groups of illegal immigrants traveling from the south were the norm. “Having this fence up has really quieted everything down.”
Hodges has been a staunch supporter of a border fence, even allowing the Minutemen to build a portion of a fence on his property. But other border residents and land owners aren’t as supportive of the project.
For Canadian land developer, Alex Mills, the construction of a fence on the United States and Mexico border has been a cause for frustration.
Mills, whose family development company, the Alex Mills Development Corporation owns more than three acres of land along the border, has been working for close to 30 years to make his 1,800-lot property that runs along Arizona’s border in Santa Cruz County into a retirement community and ultimately restore part of the property to its original role as a historic ranch.
However, Mills said that he’s faced many roadblocks while trying to re-subdivide the lots into larger parcels and develop the property over the last three decades.
The most recent setback to Mills’ plans came with the United States government’s condemnation of a strip of land along the southern end of the property; a piece the U.S. government acquired to build a portion of the border fence and an auxiliary road beside it.
According to Mills, the fence is taking up a portion of valuable land and lowering the number of interested parties for Mills’ development property.
“Anyone who owns property within 1,000 feet of the fence will have a view of the 15-foot-high iron fence…the road beside it is unsightly, too,” he said. “The fence destroys the natural views of the border.”
The presence of the fence ruins the property value of the 1,800-lot commercial development parcel, he said.
Although the case for acquisition of Mills’ property to build the fence is still going through the litigation in federal district court, the portion of fence on Mills’ development property was “practically finished” as of the middle of November.
“The target for completion of the fence was the end of November and I think they will succeed,” Mills said. “And that’s just the way the process works.”
Mills’ ongoing aggravation is with the compensation that the government is offering for the possession of his land.
Although the intended use of Mills’ land is for development, the federal government is offering ranch land value for the compensation of the land.
“(We) need some reasonable settlement,” Mills said. “The U.S. government is offering us ranch land value for what, to us, is development land and that is disappointing.”
“The government has a legal right to proceed and (build the fence), and that is what they have done,” Mills added. “It is apparently the government’s right to do it and the only issue now is the compensation.”
Mills’ property wasn’t the only one along the border that has resulted in a legal dispute. The construction of the border fence also has resulted in the filing of formal complaints and lawsuits in the District court of Arizona for 24 Arizona landowners, since August 2008.
what, to us, is development land and that is disappointing.”
According to court records, 10 complaints were filed in the federal district court in Tucson regarding the acquisition of temporary rights of entry in connection with the border fence project. An additional 14 cases were filed in the Arizona district court in order for the federal government to permanently acquire property for the border fence project at the beginning of September 2008. The Mills property condemnation case is part of the batch filed in September.
Included in the filings in Arizona’s Tucson division is an action to acquire a nearly nine-acre strip of land owned by the City of Nogales.
The parcel, which was purchased more than 10 years ago, was developed as a firing range and is also leased as grazing land, Nogales Deputy City Attorney, Michael Massee said.
Like Mills, the City of Nogales is not opposing the condemnation action or the order granting the federal government possession of the parcel, which has already been entered. But instead, it is seeking “ just compensation” from the federal government for its land.
“The only issue left to be resolved is the fair market price to be paid to the city as adequate compensation for this strip,” Massee said via email.
Massee added that the city is in discussions with the Assistant United States Attorney to reach a compromise agreement.
Massee would not comment on what an adequate price for the parcel would be but said that the monetary value is “for the City Council to decide”.
In some areas of Arizona’s border, landowners are in agreement with the government’s request for access to their land. According to Santa Cruz County Assessor, Felipe Fuentes, there has not been much opposition to the government’s wishes in his county. “Most owners came to an agreement in our county,” he said. “Most of the property owners are giving the government access to their land on a right-of-way or easement basis.”
The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol said that they have followed the same property acquisition procedures used by the federal government for the construction of federal highway projects in regards to property acquisition near the fence, and have had involved communication and negotiations with border property owners.
“The land is surveyed, assessed and the owners are paid fair market value for their property,” Assistant Chief of Border Patrol for border security operations, Lloyd Easterling said of the process. He added that if property owners are unsatisfied with the government's offer, the case would go forward for a hearing in federal district court.
According to Easterling, many of the cases that were filed by the U.S. Department of Justice relative to the fence in Arizona were “not adverse”, but that due to “faulty property records” in some cases, it was necessary for the buyer and seller to utilize the court system to establish a clear title to the property.
Overall, Easterling said that the majority of the 14 condemnation cases filed in Arizona are for small parcels of land needed for access, not fence construction.
“In some cases, we are unable to locate the owners and have to file in federal court in order to obtain a clear title to such properties,” he said. “The Border Patrol needs to be able to drive its patrol vehicles to the fence line and the patrol roads that run parallel to the fence.”
The government is able to proceed with the border projects in cases where the litigation is still pending (like on Mills property and the city of Nogales’ parcel) because the courts have granted the access in question to the government, and the pending litigation centers on the financial compensation due to landowners, he said.
The construction of the border fence has not only impacted property owners but has brought tension to the borderlands, some residents say. But they also note that the tension caused by increased enforcement has been building over decades.
Longtime Bisbee resident and visitor center employee, Michael London, recalled a time when tension in the city was at a peak.
“In the early 90s you could see (the tension) noticeably,” London said, who mentioned that it was around that time that crossing the border to visit Naco and other border cities in Mexico became unpleasant.
To London, Bisbee is an alternative and open city that turned uncomfortably regimented due to Border Patrol and the presence of other authority figures in town.
Although the 59-year-old remembers a time when the Border Patrol’s presence was a “total stress for Bisbee residents”, London’s main concern now is with the attitude of the Border Patrol agents in his town.
“The personality of a Border Patrol man leaves a lot to be desired I think,” he said. “Border Patrol is needed, but the individual is the problem.”
Other border town residents feel tension with the border fence and patrol presence in the area as well.
For 60-year-old bar-and-restaurant owner Mike Kasun, the Border Patrol and fence existence in Bisbee is bothersome.
Kasun perceives the Border Patrol as a group of people who do not respect Bisbee landowners.
“They think they can do what ever they want to do,” he said, while explaining that a Border Patrol incident on his property resulted in a broken gate that he is now responsible for.
“They brought people right through my back yard and broke my gate trying to get it open,” he said. “And you can complain all you want but they are a government organization, so it doesn’t matter.”
Kasun, a Bisbee resident for nearly 35 years, also questions the functional and financial considerations of the fence construction.
“I think (the fence) is maybe a deterrent, but I don’t think that the money we spent on it was worth it,” Kasun said. “A lot of money and work went into it and I think that money could have went somewhere else.”
Kasun’s unenthusiastic viewpoint is not unmatched.
Gil Nelson, a 49-year-old Bisbee resident who was serving a three-year of probation after he was found guilty on charges of assault on a federal officer following an incident in which a Border Patrol agent shot his dog in April 2007, thinks that the border fence and patrol are not effective ways to solve the issues surrounding his border town.
“I think the fence is completely ineffective,” he said. “I think it is a political statement, and for citizens of this country who are law abiding, the fence is a place to keep us in and under surveillance.”
Another concern for Nelson, as a resident in the border town of Bisbee, is the increase of Border Patrol in the Bisbee area.
“The aggression of Border Patrol agents and increase in the amount of agents is a big change here,” he said. “There are more Border Patrol vehicles in the area and the majority of the time the vehicles driving down roads do not even pay attention to things like the speed limit.”
Although landowners and property owners near the border and in Arizona’s border towns feel that the fence and Border Patrol are the center for much tension in the cities, Border Patrol officers and representatives say that it is not the case.
The Tucson sector of the Border Patrol operates a Rancher Liaison Unit, which serves as a platform for communication between ranchers and patrols in Arizona border towns like Douglas, Naco, and Nogales, Esmeralda Marroquin, Supervisory Border Patrol agent for the Tucson sector said.
While the job title of “Rancher Liaison” is one that has come into existence in the past decade, the Border Patrol has always had some form of community relations with local ranchers in the Tucson sector, Border Patrol Special Operations Supervisor Gustavo Soto said.
Soto added that Border Patrol officers meet with local ranchers weekly and that some ranchers even hold training sessions for new agents to voice their concerns and preferences.
“Our Rancher Liaison has been instrumental in easing tension between local ranchers that own property next to the International Boundary Line as we work on completing requirements under the Secure Fence Act,” Soto said in an email.
“All of our liaison units are concerned with improving the quality of life for the public we protect. We want to remove the ‘clutter and chaos’ along the border to concentrate our efforts on the criminal elements,” Soto noted.