What a View!

Developer Alex Mills says the border wall has destroyed his property values

Alex Mills walks along the bed of the Santa Cruz River.

On a beautiful day at Kino Springs, five miles east of Nogales, Ariz., Alex Mills is examining the southern end of his paradise, now lost to the border fence.

His view to the north includes high-desert mesquite and grassland all the way up to Rio Rico, a speck on the landscape. And to the east, the Patagonia Mountains loom in all their remoteness and mystery, faintly purple under the winter sun.

But to the south, where Arizona meets Mexico, a dark metal wall grips the land, roller-coastering over the hills, plunging into washes and dominating the straight-aways in both directions.

The fence stands 18 feet tall and consists of rectangular panels spaced four inches apart, with an east-west dirt road below it, allowing the Border Patrol to roar in should it be penetrated.

"Now do you see this lot here?" asks Mills, pointing to a piece of land on raised ground just back from the border. "This would be the perfect place to build. But who's going to move 10 miles out into the country, buy an expensive lot and build an expensive home to look at that?"

He points to the fence. "Nobody."

Mills doesn't fit the image of a real-estate developer. He's a soft-spoken 79-year-old Toronto native with six grown kids, and he'd rather be playing golf than fighting the federal government in court.

But he believes the border fence, three miles of which edges his property, has left him no choice.

Before work began on the fence in the fall of 2008, Mills met with representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who'd oversee the independent contactors doing the actual construction. They informed Mills of their plans to take a strip of his land—an action legal under federal law—to build the fence. The strip measured 125 feet wide by about three miles long.

Mills, whose family owns most of the 1,800-acre Buena Vista Ranch, knew for some time the fence was going in. Since he believed homeland security was important, he had no philosophical objection.

But he also says the fence would damage plans to develop the southern end of his property, construction on which he hoped to start following the completion of a new development plan in February 2009. He showed the Corps' real-estate reps his problem and explained how he could change the plan to minimize the fence's impact.

These modifications, however, would reduce the number of saleable lots near the border from about 80 to 20, costing Mills an estimated $2 million in future earnings. He wanted to be compensated.

"They didn't exactly tell me I was dreaming in Technicolor," says Mills. "They just went away and started their condemnation proceedings on the 125-foot strip. Their real-estate people are as hard-nosed as anybody, and they offer you the minimum they think they can justify."

Citing ongoing litigation, Andrew Ames, spokesman for the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the Department of Justice, which handles such cases for Border Patrol and the Army Corps, declined to comment.

Mills says the Corps explained to him that even though the Buena Vista Ranch had been subdivided for development some 60 years ago, nothing had happened since then. If Mills had already sold lots, which he hadn't, and if construction were underway, which it wasn't, their assessment of the damage might have been different.

How far apart were the two sides? In assessing a strip of Mills' land—a quarter-mile back from the border, along his entire three miles—a government appraiser pegged its value at $79,000. Mills' appraiser valued the same strip at $800,000.

In the end—while insisting the property was still ranch land, not development land—the government paid Mills $53,000 for the 125-foot strip, roughly 31 acres.

"There are a lot of good reasons why nothing has happened out here," says Mills of the Buena Vista's seemingly cursed history.

The original developer vanished in the late 1950s, and it took 20 years to clear up his company's bankruptcy. As a broker for Canadian developers, Mills first came to the property in 1978, and soon thereafter put together an investment group.

They spent $4 million buying the land and installing the infrastructure for a small-lot development. But the Arizona Department of Water Resources stopped the project cold by refusing to allow Mills and his partners to use the water on the property.

At this point, in 1985, the investors bailed out, and the Mills family became the sole owners of the bulk of the ranch.

Mills spent the next 10 years hiring lawyers and unsuccessfully fighting the water wars, running out of money in 1995. His brother, Donald, a lawyer, stepped in and made good progress on other legal issues. However, he died in a helicopter crash in January 2008.

The fence at Kino Springs was completed late in 2008.

Like the border fence everywhere, this section raises questions of effectiveness. Does it actually stop people from crossing the border illegally? Is the security gained from it worth scarring the land?

Is the fence at Kino Springs worth its average cost of $4 million a mile?

In Mills' view, the fence is as much about appearing to provide border security as actually providing it. Before it was built, he suggested to the Corps of Engineers and Border Patrol that they string barbed wire across the top to prevent people from scaling it.

He'd traveled to Sasabe to inspect the fence, and was told by a Border Patrol agent there that it didn't work. With no barbed wire, the agent told him, illegals simply shimmied over it.

Mills' suggestion was shot down by a telling argument: We can't put barbed wire on the fence, because women and children will be climbing it.

But Mills notes that virtually every industrial complex in the world is surrounded by barbed-wire fencing. If national security is paramount, why put up a border fence you know won't be as effective as it could be?

The answer, Mills concluded, was politics.

"Part of the problem is that for security reasons, the government has to be seen to be stopping the immigrants," he says. "But for the economy, they have to be letting them through, because the U.S. economy is very dependent on these workers."

What has the fence changed for Mills and his neighbors? Well, not much.

Mills' home, almost a mile back from the line, was rarely, if ever, menaced by illegal aliens or drug-smugglers. They walked into the country along the bed of the Santa Cruz River, 750 feet west of Mills' house.

Now, with the fence built, they still walk up the Santa Cruz, because the fence stops at the river's east bank and doesn't pick up again until the west bank. This roughly 1,500-foot gap is blocked by a double layer of so-called Normandy barriers.

They deter drive-throughs, but those on foot simply step over them.

"I think the fence has stopped most people coming over to work, but it hasn't stopped the drug-smugglers," says Barbara Johnson, a neighbor of Mills' who raises goats on 30 acres right on the Santa Cruz. "They still come up the river and cut the barbed-wire fence around my property."

She doesn't like the border fence, either. Her solar house, a quarter-mile from the line, has its major windows facing south, and they afford a full view of it. "It'd be nice if it wasn't there," Johnson says. "But I don't have any control over the government."

The same gap problem exists three miles to the east of the river, where the fence ends again, at the Coronado National Forest boundary. The international line there is also blocked by Normandy barriers.

Johnson says cattlemen have benefited most from the fence, and Mills agrees. He used to lease property to a rancher who spent a lot of time putting the old wire fence back up, and shooing Mexican cattle back across the border.

The communal ranch on the other side was so badly over-grazed, the campesinos would cut the wire fence and shove their cattle onto Buena Vista land to eat for free. "The new fence has helped with that, because they can't cut it," says Mills with a wry laugh. "But that's all it has done for us."

Gerri Arevalo, who until recently lived just east of Mills, says that before the fence went in, illegal aliens had a straight walk up to the road connecting Kino Springs to State Highway 82.

Now, to avoid climbing the tall fence, they come up the riverbed, turn east and get to that road by a more indirect route—past Arevalo's house. But before moving away, she wasn't seeing big numbers of them, she says, adding that the fence, invisible from her house, didn't bother her.

This funnel effect is a key aspect of the fence fight: A fence will stop the majority of foot traffic where it stands, although a few determined individuals will always find a way over it. And it doesn't prevent people from walking until the fence ends, then hopping over the old barbed-wire cattle fence.

But where there is a tall people fence, conditions on the American side improve, says Keith Graves, who worked for 10 years as head ranger for the Nogales District of the Coronado National Forest.

He cites the 3.9 miles of tall, bollard fencing that now stands west of Nogales. The problems once plaguing that land—people pouring across a torn-down barbed-wire fence, piles of trash, cattle drifting back and forth across the line—are mostly gone.

"Those miles are no longer a significant problem for the Forest (Service) or for the ranchers who have permits there," says Graves, now a liaison between the Forest Service and the Secure Border Initiative.

Pushing people out into remote areas is part of the Border Patrol's strategy.

"It gives them more time to make arrests," Graves says. "It forces people to make a decision: Do I want to go out into that rough country, or will I just not cross?"

But it comes with a tradeoff: In return for reducing the damage to property close to town, and to the psyche of citizens suffering break-ins and 3 a.m. door knocks, you get more damage to natural resources—and more alien deaths—in what had been mostly untrammeled land.

If the border fence west of Nogales has pushed crossing traffic into the boonies—and the rancher who lives there says it has—has the 8.7 miles of bollard fencing east of Nogales through Kino Springs pushed traffic onto the Coronado National Forest?

District Ranger Annette Chavez declined to answer that question, referring the Tucson Weekly to Cheri Bowen, the forest's patrol captain. Bowen says she tried and failed to get permission from bosses in Albuquerque, N.M., to speak publicly.

Chavez did, however, issue an order in December 2008—right when the fence was finished—barring her employees from working that forest area alone. "I didn't do it because of the fence," Chavez said. "I did it because of the amount of illegal activity."

And that activity has only worsened since the fence went in, say three ranchers with grazing permits on the forest east of Kino Springs. Susan Blair, whose husband, Duncan, ranches there, says they've noticed more drug-smuggling using pack horses.

"We see the hoofprints," Susan says. "And when they cut our ranch fences, we find the barbed wire peeled back to get their animals through. So we fix our fence, fix it again, and fix it again. It's pretty bad."

For its part, Border Patrol argues that the funnel effect at Kino Springs directs traffic to areas where agents can concentrate, such as up the Santa Cruz River, creating a higher likelihood of arrest. It also eliminates drive-throughs by heavy pickup trucks, packed with either drugs or people, which do great damage to the land they cross.

Some illegals still climb the fence, to be sure, but its height cuts the population of those able to do so—mostly young men—and eliminates the mad rushes of large numbers of illegals.

Now, those who do scale the tall fence must do so one at a time, a laborious process that gives agents time to respond. And once inside the country, they can't flee back into Mexico if spotted—because the fence keeps them in.

Mills says he trusts the word of Border Patrol on all this. But he wonders how much one family should sacrifice for border security?

He calculates it this way: A 700-mile fence, at $4 million a mile, comes to $2.8 billion. Divide that by 300 million people, and the cost comes to about $9.33 for every American.

"That's not a lot to pay for national security if it does the job," Mills says. "But why should it cost our family $2 million?"

Martin and Karen Hopkins of Rio Rico ask a similar question.

When they bought their six acres along the border at Buena Vista in July 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers had already sought permission from the previous owner to go onto the land to conduct surveys in advance of the fence project.

After their purchase, Martin and Karen informed the government that the land had new owners, and asked to be kept in the loop about future developments.

Fifteen months later, in October 2007, they received a letter from Border Patrol seeking permission to access the land again for more fence-related studies.

The letter said that "by signing this right of entry form, no permissions for construction are inferred or granted." Martin and Karen agreed, and heard nothing more.

Then, in January 2010, while watching the National Geographic special Border Wars, part of which was filmed east of Nogales, Martin said, "Hey, that's where our property is. Let's go out there and see what's going on."

To their shock, they discovered the feds had built a fence along their property without notifying them.

Asked their reaction, Karen responds with a grim laugh, saying if the water problems were solved, and development had been allowed to proceed at Buena Vista, their six acres would be worth a minimum of $60,000, probably closer to $90,000.

But it's practically worthless now.

"The land is not salable," Karen says. "It has a southern-facing slope where homesites go, so you could build a beautiful home with a big picture window to stare at the wall. And there's a road the Border Patrol drives up and down that goes right across the bottom end of the property.

"As far as we're concerned, when they put the wall and the road in, they pretty much took over the land."

Karen acknowledges there's some question about whether the bottom of their six acres falls within the 125-foot strip the government appropriated. She believes it does, and reads the Border Patrol's letter, and the earlier one from the Army Corps, as admission that it does.

"But even if they decided it doesn't fall within the 125 feet, they should've notified us they were going to build," says Karen. "I find it disturbing that we weren't told anything."

The problem isn't with the fence alone, say Mills and Hopkins. They believe the road underneath the fence diminishes the value of their property as well.

What homeowner, they ask, would want their backyard privacy violated, at any moment day or night, by a Border Patrol truck driving along the east-west road, barely 600 feet away? What homeowner would want their property engulfed by the dust these trucks throw up?

Mills and I got a taste of that on his recent ranch tour. As we stood on the east side of the Santa Cruz River, a Border Patrol agent far to the west spotted us and mashed his accelerator to begin speeding in our direction.

It was a little surprising. Earlier, Mills had said that if you drive that road, and agents do not intercept you, it probably means they've already checked you out. "I'm told they have eye-in-the-sky cameras that can read license plates from several miles back," Mills says. But that apparently didn't happen in our case.

The agent kept on at pursuit speed until he was close enough to see that his targets—a silver-haired 79-year-old and a fellow jotting in a notebook—weren't a problem. As he pulled up, the agent rolled the window down. "I thought I had something," he said.

Pleasantries exchanged, he drove on.

It had taken us two hours to get noticed.

But that didn't seem as remarkable as the lingering dust bomb the agent's truck raised, and the condition of the road. Mills says the Army Corps built it only to bring in equipment to construct the fence, and once the work was done, they walked away.

The road is now un-maintained and developing serious ruts, and plans to upgrade it have thus far not been carried out.

It looks to be a few monsoon storms away from being a 10 mph road, which will surely diminish the dust problem. But a lousy access road makes the fence less-effective.

And on it goes on the border.

Mills claims all of this—the fence, dust, peering cameras and lasers—has made the lots at the southern end of his property un-sellable.

As he awaits the outcome of his lawsuit—which will likely be tried before a jury by early 2011—he is working on a new plan. He wants to combine lots at the northern end of the property into larger parcels and sell those.

"We've invested $5.5 million here, and I have to try to salvage whatever I can of that," Mills says. "My family thinks I'm throwing good money after bad, but I'm pressing on to do this, once we can get the roads in, and the market improves."

He spends two weeks a month at Buena Vista, poring over maps and legal documents in the beautiful, 1937 headquarters house, complete with wood-beamed ceilings and 36-inch adobe walls.

Asked if he would've involved himself with the property more than 30 years ago knowing what he knows now, Mills blurts an emphatic, "Never!"

But now he says he has no choice but to fight.

"The government knows that for the average guy, they can take his land and offer him nothing, and he can't afford to fight their endlessly deep pockets," says Mills. "Their literature says their goal is to be open and fair, but they weren't fair with me. They offered $53,000 compensation for something that's going to wipe out a quarter of my property, and maybe a lot more."