October 15, 2012

Landowners on border say they were shortchanged

Hundreds of landowners on the U.S.-Mexico border say the money they got for their land to make way for a towering security fence was far below market value.

Paul J. Weber / The Associated Press

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — When the federal government began seizing private land along the U.S.-Mexico border to build a towering fence, Teofilo Flores was offered $1,650 for a slice of his backyard.

click image to enlarge

A tractor works a cotton field along the border fence that passes through the property in Brownsville, Texas.

AP

At first, it seemed like a square deal. But then the cotton grower learned that his neighbor had received 40 times more for a similar piece of land. And another nearby farmer pocketed $1 million in exchange for his cooperation.

Since 2008, hundreds of landowners on the border have sought fair prices for property that was condemned to make way for the fence. 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.

"You get angry. But that's the way of life, I guess," Flores said of the bigger payouts won by other landowners. "You know, people that got more money can afford to do more things."

The disparities raise questions about the Justice Department's treatment of hundreds of landowners from Texas to California who couldn't afford lawyers and must now live with a massive steel barrier running through their farms, ranches and yards.

The wide variation in price "underscores how unfair these original offers were," said attorney Corinna Spencer-Scheurich, who represented poor and middle-class landowners when the seizures began.

The federal government "is using its power, its clout, to try to take land from people at a price that is unfair. I think that is clear based on the settlements," she said.

Federal attorneys say the initial offers represented only a starting amount that would permit the seizures to begin and could be adjusted later.

In 2006, Congress ordered construction of 670 miles of heavy metal fence to help curb illegal immigration. The project required landowners on the border to give up property that ranged from the size of a driveway to much larger farms and commercial lots.

The Constitution requires the government to provide compensation whenever it takes property for a public project using a process known as eminent domain.

About 400 landowners have been affected. Most are in Texas, because that state has more private property along the border than do New Mexico, Arizona or California, where much of the border land is already in federal hands.

An Associated Press analysis of nearly 300 Texas land cases found that most of the settlement money went to a small group of owners, all of whom had attorneys. The legal help appeared to pay off: Of nearly $15 million that has been paid out, 85 percent has been awarded to just a third of the property holders.

There are other reasons for the larger settlements beyond the advantage of legal representation. Many of the best-compensated landowners oversee large citrus groves or other commercial operations on land that is inherently more valuable.

They also stand to lose more from the rows of 18-foot rust-colored steel posts that now divide their land. Farmers, for instance, have complained that the fence slows down their work because large agricultural machines now have to drive around the bulky barriers.

Most of the fence construction was completed two years ago, but the government is still negotiating for land surrounding the project.

One recent case involved 8 acres at the entrance to a sable palm grove managed by The Nature Conservancy. The government initially offered $114,000, but in August the matter was settled for nearly $1 million.

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