July 31, 2008

Texas university, feds reach deal on border fence

By CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN – 28 minutes ago

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) — The planned fence along the U.S.-Mexican border will no longer cut off a large chunk of a South Texas university, according to an agreement that the school and the federal government presented to a judge Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, who had ordered the University of Texas at Brownsville and the Department of Homeland Security to work on a compromise, accepted the deal in principle and ordered both sides to submit it in writing by Tuesday.

Under the agreement, the government will not condemn any university land and will not build a fence on campus. In exchange, the school will enhance an existing fence that is in disrepair so that it will stand 10 feet tall next to the levee that runs north of the campus golf course.

The university will also invest in additional surveillance cameras and allow the Border Patrol to install its own cameras and sensors on the fence.

It is a far cry from the original proposal for a 15- to 18-foot steel fence that school officials said could have disrupted the university's access to its golf course, threatened plans for expansion and sent the wrong message across the border.

"There will be absolutely no additional impediment to the golf course," a jubilant university President Juliet Garcia said, adding that the improved fence "can be a very friendly fence."

"I see it with bougainvillea and vine growing all over it," she said.

The University of Texas System agreed to pay for improving the university's fence.

Garcia commended Homeland Security and the Border Patrol for working toward a compromise.

The Border Patrol will also support the university's efforts to win approval from the International Boundary and Water Commission to move the levee to allow expansion toward the Rio Grande.

The university on June 30 accused the government of violating an earlier court-approved agreement to study alternatives, and Hanen ordered both sides to find a solution that would meet the Border Patrol's security needs without disrupting the school.

The judge thanked both sides for working out a compromise that "allows both parties to fulfill their mission."

The university and its two-year sister school, Texas Southmost College, have been among the most formidable opponents of the border fence, which is widely unpopular in the Rio Grande Valley.

The university, with 17,000 students, is part of the nation's second-largest university system.

The Department of Homeland Security is racing to finish 670 miles of barriers along the border by the end of the year to comply with a congressional mandate.

But that goal was dealt another setback later Thursday, when the judge put off the government's request to take possession of 16 disputed properties for the fence and instead scheduled trials for March.

Most of the disputes center on the price the government has offered for land, which in many cases bisects valuable agricultural land.

By setting deadlines, Hanen appeared to try to motivate both sides to reach agreements without going to trial. The number of cases that go to trial is expected to fluctuate as some are added, removed or consolidated.

While Hanen scheduled jury trials, he said he would also consider the government's suggestion to establish a commission to settle land value disputes. He ordered the government to provide legal surveys of the land it expects to condemn and specific information about how the government developed the prices it offered.

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