Port closing must follow DHS timeline
FRANKLIN — Prior to the closure of the Morses Line port of entry there will be a 180-day public comment period, according to a timeline provided by the Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
That period will begin when Customs and Border Protection (CBP) formally notifies Congress that it intends to close the port. Area residents, who have collected 800 signatures in favor of retaining the port, are expected to play a role during the comment period.
Proponents of retention of the Morses Line port earlier this week said they believed they were making inroads with Vermont’s Congressional Delegation in a bid to reverse the government decision to close the port.
Leahy’s office this morning provided a copy of DHS timeline and an accompanying letter from its leader.
“During this year-long review process, these consultations with DHS will be an opportunity for the community to come together and work with DHS to identify a workable solution to upgrade the security of the port in a way that is cost effective for taxpayers,” Leahy said this morning.
“I have asked DHS to continue to listen to and carefully consider the community's wishes and the community's ideas,” Leahy added.
CBP asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for permission to close the port after a meeting in May at the Franklin Town Hall in which a handful of people from the community and people from other parts of Vermont spoke in favor of closing the port and against using eminent domain to take land from local farmers Clement and Elizabeth Rainville in order to expand the port at a cost of $5 million.
Initially, the government proposed building a 10-acre port on the Rainville land. That proposal was later reduced to 2.2 acres. The current 0.5-acre port is located in the middle of the Rainville farm.
“The Morses Line Port of Entry is U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) oldest land port and does not have the infrastructure to support the national security or operational requirements needed today,” Napolitano wrote in a letter sent Thursday to Leahy, which accompanied the timeline.
The letter added, “Senior career officials from across the Federal Government, Congress, the GAO, and the DHS Inspector General have all expressed alarm that, without new construction, aging ports, such as Morses Line, fail to provide the tools needed to guard against terrorist threats, endangering law enforcement personnel and falling far short of post-91l security standards.”
Napolitano also cited a report issued last fall by a committee she created to examine plans to upgrade small ports along the northern port. Morses Line was among the ports visited by the committee.
The committee recommended that DHS consider closing low-volume ports located near larger ports.
However, the plan to close the port has triggered opposition on both sides of the border -- from farmers, businessmen, recreational users of the port, such as snowmobilers and cyclists ,and some public officials, such as the mayor of St. Armand, Quebec.
The total closure process may take a year. In addition to the public comment period, CBP also must negotiate the fate of the building with the Vermont State Historic Preservation Officer because the port, originally built in 1934, is on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
Following the initial 180-day comment period, a rule proposing the closure of the port will be published in the Federal Register. That publication will trigger a second, 60-day comment period. It is at this point that Canadian officials will be formally notified of the plan to close the port.
That notification will trigger a similar process in Canada, according to CBP. Canadian officials could decide to keep their port open, even if the U.S. port of entry is closed.
The fate of the roads around the building will be negotiated by CBP with the Vermont Dept. of Transportation and will be influenced by the Canadian decision, according to CBP.
Following closure, “CBP will likely put up railing or barricades to block off the roadway,” according to the document.
The building itself may be offered to the Border Patrol, depending on negotiations with the state.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. and Democratic Rep. Peter Welch also have responded to inquiries by port proponents, said Bill Mayo, of Franklin, co-owner with his wife, Susan, of the Frankin General Store.
Mayo has told Vermont’s representatives that the decision to close the port caught many in Franklin off guard. He has expressed regret that he and others of a like mind did not attend the DHS hearing on May 22, saying, “We did not believe that closing the border was a serious option on the table to be considered, well knowing the business that is generated both north and south of this border.”
A factor in the decision to close the port, which became a key point at the Franklin public hearing, were allegations that traffic crossing the border at Morses Line was not sufficient to keep it opened.