Crime and Justice

Congressional delegation wants longer public comment period for border towers

Border Patrol Agent Erik Lavallee, center, speaks to a group of residents and reporters near the site of a proposed surveillance tower Wednesday morning in Derby. Photo by Justin Trombly/VTDigger

DERBY — Vermont’s congressional leaders have “serious concerns” with a federal plan to line the Canada border with video-surveillance cameras, they announced Wednesday, calling for an extension of the public comment period. 

“Community members have expressed concerns over what they feel has been limited outreach and communication related to privacy intrusions, property rights and environmental hazards,” according to a joint statement released by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. “The congressional delegation shares these concerns.”

According to the statement, the three intend to request an extra 60 days for members of the public to comment on the proposal. The original 30-day period ended Monday.

The statement comes one day after Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan announced his concerns with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection plan. 

The plan calls for eight camera sites in Vermont and two in New York. Towers equipped with video cameras would be installed in Derby, Franklin, Richford and Troy. Antennae bearing the equipment would be added to existing buildings in the village of Derby Line and in Highgate.

The highest tower, in New York, would reach 180 feet. Towers in Vermont would reach a maximum of 120 feet, according to the plan.

The next step is issuance of a final environmental impact statement. No date for that has been set, and no timetable for construction has been issued.

Border officials say the cameras — part of a program used by federal agents since 1996 — would let the agency watch over remote areas without sending Border Patrol agents into the field.

“Without the 24/7 surveillance capability, there is the probability that cross-border violations will increase,” border officials wrote in a draft document.

But now, local, state and federal representatives have voiced concerns about how the towers could intrude on residents’ privacy.

Along with allowing more time for the public to comment on the plan, Leahy, Sanders and Welch indicated that the extension would offer a chance for congressional input.

A temporary video-surveillance tower, standing on a hillside in Derby, is mobile and smaller than the permanent tower U.S. Customs and Border Patrol wants to build. Photo by Justin Trombly/VTDigger

In Derby, residents have peppered local Border Patrol leaders with questions and expressed concern for the privacy of residents living below the tower. Agents have maintained that they’re interested in illegal border activities, not backyard barbecues. 

After a Derby Selectboard meeting Monday, about 20 people gathered Wednesday at the intersection of Goodall Road and Valley Road to meet with agents below the site of a proposed tower. Right now, a smaller mobile tower stands in its place, fully functional. 

The site sits atop hills overlooking open fields — “pristine farmland,” according to the congressional delegation. It’s about a third of a mile from the border, and within easy sight of a few homes.

Selectboard member Brian Smith, who is also a Republican House member, asked whether “blinders” or other devices to limit the cameras’ field of view could be installed. Like others present, his concern is privacy rights.

But Erik Lavallee, the acting Border Patrol agent in charge of the Newport station, said limitations like that would impede agents’ ability to catch people crossing the border illegally.

“What happens when we do start tracking somebody?” he asked. “We need to be able to follow them” with a camera. 

Lavallee said he wasn’t comfortable restricting the camera system’s pan-tilt functions. Sometimes, he said, a camera operator might need to look at someone’s property if that’s where a suspect headed.

“To be quite frank, I don’t care what’s going on in people’s backyards,” he said, a message he repeated several times. He said other surveillance systems on the border have helped track down murder suspects, firearms smugglers and human traffickers.

The outdoor gathering on Wednesday became, at times, a dispute between neighbors.

Phil Letourneau, whose land border officials are leasing for the site, voiced support for the project. 

“We need the tower there for security,” he said.

But Bryan Davis, who owns land directly adjacent to the site, said he can’t understand why Letourneau and officials chose a spot right next to the property line.

“You put it right up in the corner — I don’t like that, Phil,” said Davis, who expressed worry that the tower would lower his property value “to zero.”

Bryan Davis, who owns land adjacent to the tower site, believes the project would lower his property value “to zero.” Photo by Justin Trombly/VTDigger

One resident, whose home is below the tower, asked Lavallee if a camera operator could decide to zoom in on his windows. The agent declined to say — doing so could expose limitations or security issues in the system, he said.

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Justin Trombly

About Justin

Justin Trombly covers the Northeast Kingdom for VTDigger. Before coming to Vermont, he handled breaking news, wrote features and worked on investigations at the Tampa Bay Times, the largest newspaper in Florida. He grew up across Lake Champlain in upstate New York, where he worked for The Buffalo News, the Glens Falls Post-Star and the Plattsburgh Press Republican. He studied English and political science at the University of Rochester.

Email: [email protected]

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