Private landowners can build unregulated border wall under proposed legislation

Private landowners can build unregulated border wall under proposed legislation

In this March 30, 2017 file photo, Workers use a crane to lift a segment of a new fence into place on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico, where Sunland Park, New Mexico, meets the Anapra neighborhood of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, As President Donald Trump's administration fights to fund a new, multibillion-dollar border wall, government lawyers are still settling claims with Texas landowners over the fence Congress approved more than a decade ago. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
(AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

A top Republican lawmaker wants to allow people who own property along the border to build a wall without first getting any building permits.

House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said he fears that overzealous local officials will block construction by erecting procedural barriers.

The exemption in HB 2084 would mean that walls could go up without any requirement to comply with local building codes or safety inspection. But Petersen said it’s a question of balance.

“On the other side of the risk is dangerous drug cartels,” he told Capitol Media Services.

Warren Petersen
Warren Petersen

“We have every crime that you could imagine coming across these borders,” Petersen continued. “And people that live along these properties that don’t feel safe should have every right to protect themselves, including erecting a wall if they need to.”

The legislation has caught the attention of some county supervisors who question the need − or the advisability −to exempt private wall construction from local regulation.

Bruce Bracker of Santa Cruz County said there are processes in place for situations where the federal government desires to build a wall along the international border. He questioned why there needs to be any sort of additional exemption from local ordinances for individuals who want to erect their own barriers.

Yuma County Supervisor Tony Reyes called the proposal “pretty dumb.” He said he was concerned about “that liability issue about building something without a permit without anybody checking, making sure that the public is protected.”

The question, Reyes said, is what happens if the structure falls.

“This is not a property rights issue,” he said. “It’s a health and safety issue.”

And Cochise County Supervisor Tom Borer said he sees no reason to grant a blanket exemption from existing regulations governing construction of barriers and fences just because it would be erected on private land near the border. More to the point, he questioned why the Legislature would intercede.

“As far as I’m concerned, I would not support anything that took the county’s rights away to govern their own county,” he said.

Petersen, however, said any concerns about safety are addressed by his belief that those who do the actual construction will recognize that they remain financially liable if someone is injured due to improper construction or installation.

The Gilbert lawmaker acknowledged that, to date, no Arizona county or city actually has sought to block a landowner from building a wall along the border.

But he cited an incident last year in Sunland Park, N.M., near El Paso, Texas., where a privately funded group erected 1,500 feet of bollard-style fencing over the Memorial Day weekend along a tract of private property without first going through that city’s review process.

City officials issued a cease-and-desist order against We Build the Wall Inc. halting further construction.

The Texas Tribune reports the city ultimately issued permits for lighting and construction, along with a warning to have the company come into compliance with all city ordinances.

Petersen said his measure would protect Arizona landowners from similar delays.

“It’s a great property rights bill,” he said of the legislation.

“It’s something we want to prevent from happening,” Petersen continued. “Sometimes you don’t think cities will do something like this.”

But he said there is evidence of hostility to border security issues in Arizona, specifically citing the efforts by some to have Tucson declared a “sanctuary city.”

That proposal was rejected at the ballot. And Petersen acknowledged that, even if it had succeeded, no part of Tucson is adjacent to the border.

Bracker sniffed at the idea of enacting a new state law here based on what has happened elsewhere.

“That’s New Mexico, that’s not Arizona,” he said.

“So we haven’t had any issue in Arizona yet, we’re trying to put legislation into place,” Bracker continued. “That just doesn’t make any sense.”

Anyway, Bracker said, the federal government is busy building walls on its own property along the border. Petersen, however, said that privately constructed segments will help fill the gaps where there is no federal funding.

But Bracker, beyond the issues raised about Petersen’s bill, questions the whole premise for more border barriers built by anyone, including the federal government.

“The focus should really be on trade and commerce and tourism,” he said. “They should be putting the billions of dollars into ports of entry.”

Tom Belshe, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns said his legal staff is still reviewing the proposal. But he said that, in general, cities oppose any efforts by lawmakers to preempt local control.

Clarification: The 13th paragraph of this story has been rewritten to eliminate an erroneous statement attributed to Rep. Warren Petersen that he was unconcerned about safety.