Vermont residents berate feds over plan to seize farmland for US-Canada border station

FRANKLIN, Vt. (AP) — Outraged by plans to seize land from a Vermont dairy farm to expand a little-used U.S.-Canada border station, dozens of people turned out Saturday to berate U.S. Customs and Border Protection representatives, many suggesting that the port be closed instead.

Toting signs that read "Eminent Domain Equals Federal Land Grab" and "Save the Rainville Family Farm," about 150 people packed Franklin Town Hall, with about 18 standing up to speak — none in favor. One by one, they criticized the plan as wasteful, misdirected, an abuse of eminent domain or all three.

"If this goes forward, it'll be Vermont's 'bridge to nowhere," said Pat Crocker, 48, of Essex. "And it'll be disgraceful."

The Department of Homeland Security, which got $420 million from the federal bailout to modernize land ports like this, wants to spend about $5 million to renovate and expand the Depression-era Morses Line border station, a small brick building surrounded by pastures and hayfields owned by the Rainville family.

The building occupies about a half-acre of land, and is badly outdated. Its detention area consists of a bench with a set of handcuffs attached to one end, just inside the glass front door.

To upgrade it, federal officials have proposed taking an adjoining 4.9-acre parcel now used to grow hay and corn, offering the family $39,500 for it. The family, which says it needs the land to grow feed for its dairy cows, doesn't want to sell.

It was recently notified that the land will be taken via eminent domain if no sale is agreed on.

The government, which initially proposed the project at 10 acres and then scaled it back to 4.9, now plans to take 2.2 acres of Rainville property, according to Trent Frazier, director of port modernization projects for CBP.

He announced that change Saturday at the public hearing, and said the proposed "taking" is on hold for now.

No monetary offer for the smaller parcel has been made, since the family says it no longer wants to negotiate, Frazier said.

The changes did little to assuage the opposition, nor did his assertion that about 90 temporary jobs would be created by the renovation. Opponents said they understand the need for beefed-up borders, but that the Morses Line crossing doesn't represent a terror threat.

The money? Send it to Arizona, or give some to struggling dairy farmers, several suggested.

"Do me a favor, take it back," said Dick Storz, 72, of Barre, referring to the money. "We don't want it, we don't need it. To serve 50 vehicles a day and affect the Rainville family like that? It's unconscionable."

"This community can see, as I do, that this project is neither needed nor wanted, based on the needs of this community," said Glen Gurwit, a retired Customs inspector who worked at the station for decades.

Frazier, who spoke on the project's behalf alongside Customs and Border Protection director of facilities John Batt, sought to assuage opposition but was jeered at times and corrected by the crowd over several points.

He said afterward that closing the port is an option that remains on the table, but didn't know how quickly a decision would be made.

Sitting on the steps of the 135-year-old white clapboard Town Hall after the hearing, Brian Rainville, 36, said the community had sent a unified message.

"This was a civics lesson administered in the woodshed," he said, sitting on steps of the Town Hall.