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Texas town ordered to give up land for border fence

January 17, 2008|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Leaders in a small Texas border city said Wednesday that they felt blindsided after learning that a judge had ordered public land turned over temporarily to the federal government as it works on a fence along the border with Mexico.

U.S. District Judge Alia Moses Ludlum ordered Eagle Pass to surrender 233 acres of city-owned land. The Justice Department had sued for access to the land Monday. Ludlum's ruling came the same day, before the city could muster a challenge.

The Homeland Security Department is trying to build 370 miles of border fence by the end of the year. A law signed by President Bush in October and supported by both of Texas' U.S. senators mandated a total of 700 miles of fence along the border.

The government had warned the city, which opposes the fence, that it would sue under eminent domain laws to secure access to the land. The judge's order, issued in the Texas Western District Court, Del Rio division, said the United States was entitled to possession or control of the property for 180 days.

"Well, that seems a little heavy-handed," Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster said Wednesday.

Foster is chairman of the Texas Border Coalition, a group of border mayors, city officials and business leaders who oppose the government's border fence plans and have complained that they haven't had enough input on the effects of the fence on their communities.

Foster said he was confused by the "aggressive action" because city attorneys had been drafting paperwork for an easement for federal officials to build a road and erect 15 light towers along the border on city land.

Such swift rulings are typical in land condemnation cases involving the federal government, said H. Dixon Montague, a lawyer specializing in land condemnation and use with Vinson & Elkins law firm in Houston.

The judge can rule as soon as the federal government has notified the court that money is available to compensate the owner for using the land, Montague said.

The Justice Department is expected to file more than 100 lawsuits against landowners in Texas, Arizona and California.

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