Crossing the Line
Homeland Security wants eminent domain over a Vermont farm at the border
Every day at 4:30 p.m., the Holsteins of Rainville Farm begin their amble down from their hilly pasture to the big red barn for their evening milking. The 90-milker herd rarely needs prodding by the farmer; the cows know the routine. The scene is so quintessentially Vermont, it's as if the state tourism board orchestrated it for the benefit of passerby.
Not far away, nearly at the end of the half-mile Route 235, stands a stout red brick building a few hundred feet from a simple barbed-wire fence marking the United States’ northern border. On a recent weekday afternoon, five cars in an hour drive south through this station — the Morses Line border port. Each bears right into the driveway to check in with a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer, who examines the driver’s passport and waves him or her along.
That’s a lot of traffic for this sleepy northern terminus, which sees an average of three cars per hour, 43 per day, and 16,000 per year. Department of Homeland Security officials say that, without necessary upgrades to the tiny port, one of those crossings could allow danger into the country. Using money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the federal government plans to construct a new and bigger border crossing.
The Rainvilles’ Franklin farmland, which the family has occupied since 1946, surrounds the Morses Line border port on three sides. Its northernmost edge brushes up against the Canadian border. The federal government may invoke the doctrine of eminent domain to appropriate as much as 10.5 acres of the Rainvilles’ cropland, which an impact study calls “negligible.” Brian Rainville, son of farm owner Clement Rainville, says those acres are essential to the small dairy farm’s livelihood.
Rainville first learned of the possibility that the border port would be expanded in late April, when a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers representative told the family the project would consume just three acres of their property. After that, he says, the family heard nothing about potential construction plans until two weeks ago, when he happened on a notice for public comment on the project in the St. Albans Messenger.
Rainville can hardly hide his contempt for the actions of various government agencies that, he feels, neglected to include his family and other stakeholders in the planning process. Now the Rainvilles are searching for answers, uncertain whether their 240-acre dairy farm will survive if Homeland Security’s plans go through.
If you’ve never heard of Morses Line, you’re not alone. The two-lane sliver of road is not a popular way to cross the border. The ports of entry at Highgate Springs and Alburgh Springs see far more traffic in an hour than Morses Line sees in a day.
Nonetheless, the structure here was slated for upgrade, along with 39 other Customs and Border Protection-owned ports of entry, after the ARRA was passed in February. Thanks to $420 million of ARRA funding, several border ports were fast-tracked for reconstruction, including four in New England — two in Vermont, one in New Hampshire and one in Maine.
Brian Rainville doesn’t deny that the current Morses Line structure is inadequate to the needs of CBP. When it went up in 1935, no one could anticipate the role that border security would play in the post-9/11 world. The one-and-a-half-story colonial revival building does not have a holding facility, parking for government personnel or facilities for up-to-date communications equipment, and it doesn’t meet the Americans with Disabilities Act standards. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the place was a private residence and not a border port of entry.
That won’t do for the Department of Homeland Security, under which the CBP falls. According to a DHS official involved with the project, who asked that her name not be used, the Morses Line port of entry and 22 other border ports are in desperate need of an upgrade. “They can’t do what they need to do now,” she says.
This brings up a question: What do these micro ports need to do? Further-more, why do they still exist? Brian Rainville says he would have expected CBP to close the Morses Line port before spending $15 million to enhance it.
But Middlebury College professor Allison Stanger, who is the director of the Rohatyn Center for International Affairs, says micro ports such as Morses Line play an important role in deterring international terrorism “These micro ports have not been secure,” Stanger says. “In the past, they just waved people through.” She believes they need to be seen as capable of handling a potential threat.
Stanger admits it may sound far-fetched to think Al-Qaeda would or could smuggle enriched uranium through a border port of entry like Morses Line. But porous borders are attractive to terrorist groups, she says. “If I were Al-Qaeda, that’s the route I’d take,” Stanger says. “It’s a serious threat. It really is.”
Rainville, who grew up on the farm and now lives during the school year in Randolph, where he teaches government, law and civics at Randolph Union High School, says he understands the importance of security, but it doesn’t make the potential expansion plans any easier to swallow. Those preliminary plans suggest that, through eminent domain, the government would be able to use a 10.5-acre patch of the Rainvilles’ cropland for the new LEED-certified building, which the DHS’ draft environmental assessment puts at approximately 4500 square feet. The plans also outline a rerouting of Route 235 onto the Rainvilles’ property.
The Rainville Farm was started by Brian Rainville’s grandfather, an enterprising farmer with a third-grade education who moved down from Québec as a young man. Over the years, Wilfred Rainville accumulated five farms in Franklin County and became known as the fellow to go to if you needed a loan. Once the local parish priest asked Rainville for a loan to fix the church roof. The farmer pulled out a box of money and counted out the requested $9000 on the kitchen table. On occasion, Rainville would check cars through the border crossing when an officer was busy.
For the Rainvilles, dairying is a family enterprise. Brian Rainville’s 69-year-old father Clement took over the farm from his father and has every intention of passing it down to his three sons. Thirty-eight-year-old Tony Rainville currently manages the farm’s woodland and maple sugar operation. Craig, 32, has taken over the herd and crops. Brian Rainville takes care of the farm’s 13 buildings, most of which were built before the Civil War, including his parents’ 1830 residence. Tony and Craig Rainville live with their parents in that house.
Brian Rainville, a 36-year-old with a goatee and a ready smile, is the first of his immediate family to go to college. He recently earned a master’s degree in history from the College of William and Mary, so his interest in his family’s and the region’s farming heritage is more than a hobby. He couches his understanding of the need to preserve farmland in academic terms. Over the years, the family has had many offers from people looking to develop their property, but they haven’t entertained any. “We’re the custodians of the landscape,” Brian Rainville says. “You never own land. You just take care of it.”
Rainville’s views of land ownership could put him at loggerheads with the government’s national security interests, which seem poised to remove the family from their stewardship position. The family recognizes the need to cooperate with Homeland Security, says Rainville, and they’ve done their best to be accommodating neighbors. Two years ago, the Rainvilles allowed local, state and federal law enforcement agents to use their property for a large-scale weapons-of-mass-destruction drill.
But the scope of the $15 million federal project concerns Rainville. He says he thinks a structure that large is unnecessary for the traffic the border receives: “The proposed footprint is just overwhelming.”
A CBP officer stationed at Morses Line agrees with Rainville’s assessment of the scope of the proposed project. “It’s a bit much for me. A trailer would do just fine,” says the officer, who doesn’t want to give his name because he is not authorized to speak for the CBP.
The Rainvilles and the anonymous official are not the only ones questioning the expansion of micro ports along the northern and southern borders. Two weeks ago, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano suspended new border construction projects after facing criticism of the project selection process. Senior Senate Democrat Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, whose state stood to gain $128 million for border improvements, told the Associated Press it defied common sense to put so much money into upgrading facilities that inspected “five vehicles an hour.” As a result of Dorgan’s and others’ criticism, Homeland Security set up a 30-day review of how projects were chosen.
This latest development has made Brian Rainville breathe a small sigh of relief, though the Morses Line checkpoint project is still in the planning phase. Much is still unknown, but preliminary plans suggest the government is taking into account the historical integrity of the area, as well as the effect new construction would have on the Rainvilles and two surrounding properties.
At most, the DHS would need 10.5 acres of the family’s cropland, where they currently grow hay for feed. For that the Rainvilles would be compensated at fair market value, says the DHS official, though it’s too early to talk numbers. Rainville estimates that the 10.5 acres are worth $500,000.
Federal construction projects must meet certain criteria to ensure they do not adversely affect environmental and cultural resources. The National Historic Preservation Act requires that federal agencies study a project’s impact and take measures to “prevent or mitigate adverse effects.” Like most of the 15 Vermont border checkpoints, the Morses Line port building is considered historic by National Register of Historic Places standards. For the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation to sign off on the plans, the DHS had to agree to leave the historic border checkpoint intact and “explore adaptive use opportunities.” That means the current border port building will remain in the middle of the Rainville property, and the proposed construction will occur about 300 feet from the existing checkpoint.
Devoted as he is to historic preservation, Rainville is concerned about whether his family will be able to continue farming if an expansion larger than three acres goes ahead. At the moment, the agency is still determining how much land it needs for the project. A draft environmental assessment required by the DHS outlined the potential impact on the Rainvilles’ property. The purchase of 10.5 acres for a 4500-square-foot structure is a maximum projection, not the final size and scope of the project, the DHS official says.
That is something the federal agency failed to communicate to the Rainvilles. Senator Patrick Leahy’s office is now working with CBP and the family to make sure everyone is up to speed. David Carle, Leahy’s press secretary, says the plans outlined in the environmental assessment reflect a standard port and roadway design, not the actual design. No one argues with the need to replace a border facility that is now more than 70 years old, but it needs to be right-sized for the purpose and location. Both Leahy’s office and the DHS admit that not enough was done to keep the Rainvilles in the loop, and both have pledged to maintain better communication. “We thought this was just a concept,” Brian Rainville says of the delayed notification. “We thought we would have been consulted.”
And the Rainvilles are still worried about that 10.5-acre figure, “maximum” or not. The federal environmental assessment of the project found that the removal of 10.5 acres from agricultural use would be “considered minimal conversion of land in the context of available agricultural acreage in Franklin County, which is approximately 180,000 acres. Therefore this would be a negligible impact.” In another part of the report, Homeland Security finds “the direct impact of acquisition will be relatively minor given the location of the new station in what constitutes a small area in the northeast corner of the extensive acreage that makes up the farm.”
While the Rainvilles do own “extensive acreage,” as the study puts it, much of that is pasture or woodland. The Rainvilles have no extra cropland that is not in production. There is no available farmland close by to purchase, and it is not economically prudent for them to buy hay from another farm. With 60 acres of cropland currently in production, a loss of 10.5 acres would be substantial.
Brian Rainville scratches his head as he discusses the government’s take on his family’s property. He says he finds it ironic that a project funded by federal stimulus money has the potential to hobble a family farm. If the Rainvilles cede 10.5 acres to the DHS, he doesn’t think they’ll be able to make it. “If this thing goes through, we’re done,” Rainville says. “Everything would go to auction. We’ve worked too hard to have this undone.”