Homeland Security backs off plan to seize Vt. farmland for expanded border station

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Score one for David. Goliath decided it just wasn't worth the fight.

The federal government has decided to close a tiny U.S.-Canada border station rather than push ahead with a controversial plan to expand it by seizing a dairy farmer's land, officials announced Thursday.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection had sought to renovate the sleepy Morses Line port of entry in Franklin — which gets about 2½ vehicles an hour — by seizing a 2.2-acre parcel from the Rainville family dairy farm, which adjoins the station.

"This means my father can harvest his crops and go about his business without having to worry what his farm is going to look like a month down the road," said Brian Rainville, 36.

By any measure, the Depression-era border station — a small brick building surrounded by pastures and hayfields — was a better candidate for closure than a big-ticket renovation.

Sitting on a half-acre of land, its agents sometimes get so bored waiting for business that they hit golf balls or shoot skeet out back.

But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which got $420 million from the federal bailout to modernize land ports like it, wanted to make it a project.

Customs officials initially wanted to take 10 acres from the dairy farm, then cut it to 4.9 acres, warning the family in a letter that if it didn't agree to sell for $39,500, the land would be seized through eminent domain. Last month, officials reduced that to 2.2 acres.

The plan drew opposition from the Rainvilles, Sen. Patrick Leahy and many along the quiet border.

In a public hearing last month, about 150 people packed into Franklin Town Hall, some carrying signs that read "Eminent Domain Equals Federal Land Grab" and "Save the Rainville Family Farm." Of the 18 people who spoke, none favored the plan. Some called it wasteful, an abuse of eminent domain or worse.

On Thursday, Leahy announced that Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano had agreed to close the station instead, calling it the only appropriate course of action.

The decision was based on "extensive consultations with the local community and our partners in Congress," as well as "independent analyses by security and construction experts," spokesman Clark Stevens said in a statement.

The process will take about a year, to accommodate public comment, consultations with stakeholders and assessments of safety and traffic patterns, he said.

"It makes good sense," said Leahy, D-Vt. "It was too much for too little."

Rainville, who had said the loss of the land could put his family's dairy operation out of business by eliminating one of the feed sources for its dairy cows, said it was clear that upgrading the station wasn't essential to national security.

A civics teacher by profession, he said the decision restores his faith in government.

"I don't see this as a victory for my family as much as I see it as an absolute affirmation of the democratic process," he said.