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In A 'Fishbowl': Vermont Border Towns Fight Feds' Push For Surveillance Towers

A man stands in a grassy field with hills and blue sky behind him.
Peter Hirschfeld
/
VPR
Bryan Davis stands on his family farm in Derby Line. He's among those who would be impacted by a proposal to install surveillance towers in five Vermont border towns, and he's worried about both privacy as well as property devaluation.

Federal officials won’t say yet whether they’ll give Vermonters more time to weigh in on a controversial plan to install surveillance towers on the Vermont-Canada border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection wants to erect 199-foot “Remote Video Surveillance Systems” in five northern Vermont communities. Mike Niezgoda, a public affairs officer with the federal agency, says high-resolution cameras affixed to the tower tops will help agents detect illegal border entries.

“And this will streamline our agency’s capability to be able to effectively patrol," Niezgoda said. "Especially up here on the northern border, where we don’t have as many agents as we do on the southwest border."

Residents of the five towns in which CBP wants to install the towers — Derby Line, Highgate Center, North Troy, Richford and Franklin — have raised concerns about the impact on privacy and property values.

Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, as well as Rep. Peter Welch, say they share residents’ concerns, and have asked CBP to extend the pulic comment period for the proposal by 60 days. The original 30-day window closed earlier this month.

Niezgoda said the agency hasn’t decided whether to grant the extension.

“At this time, I would not know if there is going to be an extension, only because the law that it is coming from does not dictate anything more than 30 days,” he said.

"[T]his will streamline our agency's capability to be able to effectively patrol. Especially up here on the northern border, where we don't have as many agents as we do on the southwest border." — Mike Niezgoda, U.S. Customs and Border Protection

 

The surveillance tower proposal caught Derby Line locals like Bryan Davis by surprise earlier this month. Like a lot of other residents here, he didn’t know about CBP’s plan until he heard it in the news.

Davis, 66, has lived on his family farm in Derby Line his whole life. He said he’s never really minded the level of scrutiny that comes with living in a border town.

“I’m all for security, border security — I don’t care if it’s cameras, walls, fences, people on the ground, cameras in the woods. I think border security’s important,” he told VPR recently.

A U.S. Customer and Border Protection sign in Derby Line.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
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VPR
A U.S. Customer and Border Protection sign in Derby Line.

But when Davis found out a couple weeks ago that U.S. Customs and Border Protection wanted to put a surveillance tower at the top of the quiet hill that overlooks his property, he said he started losing sleep.

“You know, who’s to say they can’t zoom in on a backyard or a porch or the driveway or even look into someone’s houses, you know?” David said. “I’m not saying they’d do that, but certainly the possibility is there.”

And Davis said if he’s uncomfortable with the prospect of high-resolution cameras that rotate 360 degrees in his backyard, he can only imagine what a prospective buyer might think, if he tries to sell some of his land off.

“What I’m getting at is, if big brother’s up there with cameras, because of this privacy thing, I think for all intents and purposes, our farm value would be reduced drastically,” Davis said.

"You know, who's to say they can't zoom in on a backyard or a porch or the driveway or even look into someone's houses, you know?... I'm not saying they'd do that, but certainly the possibility is there." — Bryan Davis, Derby Line

Niezgoda, who works out of a field office in Buffalo, New York, said legal residents of Vermont needn’t worry about CBP monitoring their lives.

“The camera systems are there to locate and detect individuals that are illegally entering the United States, not for monitoring U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents,” he said.

Niezgoda added that the Remote Video Surveillance Systems his agency wants to install will help the feds crack down on people smuggling drugs or humans into the U.S. The cameras, he said, will act as a “force multiplier” that will allow the same number of agents to cover far more ground than they’re able to now.

And according to Niezgoda, Customs and Border Protection has been talking with affected communities about the plan.

“[We] had town hall meetings within the jurisdictions of the areas of the proposed towers, such as over in Champlain and Derby Line,” Niezgoda said.

"The Border Patrol said that they had consulted several entities, municipalities, including Derby Line, which hadn't happened — that was not true." — Keith Beadle, Derby Line trustee

Keith Beadle, who serves as a town trustee in Derby Line, challenged that assertion.

“The Border Patrol said that they had consulted several entities, municipalities, including Derby Line, which hadn’t happened — that was not true,” he said.

Beadle says he didn’t hear about the surveillance tower CBP wants to install until he saw an item on television news a few weeks ago. And existing border patrol activities, he said, already test the limits of what locals are willing to tolerate.

“Apparently they … feel that having all kinds of border patrolmen in the area, and having closed the side streets in Derby Lines with gates, having put cameras up on these side streets, having put boulders across the lawn at the Haskell Library, isn’t enough,” Beadle said.

Put up a 20-story surveillance tower, he added, and people in Derby Line may as well be living in a “fishbowl.”

“With border patrolmen behind every tree and towers with cameras and everything else, you know, they’re showing absolutely no respect for the people that live in these communities,” he said.

More from NPR: Vt. Town's Way of Life Fades as Border Tightens

"I've dealt with scores of complaints of local residents in border regions who've had to deal with this, and have seen their communities transformed to the point that they look like into war zones. They're not recognizable any longer." — James Lyall, Vermont ACLU

The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a formal objection to the tower proposal, and argues that the structures will have “profound, negative impacts on local communities.”

James Lyall, executive director of the Vermont-ACLU, formerly worked at an ACLU branch that served border communities in Arizona. Lyall said those communities were forever altered by the installation of surveillance towers like the ones CBP wants to put up in Vermont.

“I’ve dealt with scores of complaints of local residents in border regions who’ve had to deal with this, and have seen their communities transformed to the point that they look like into war zones,” Lyall said. “They’re not recognizable any longer.”

Bryan Davis recently stood on top of the hill where CBP wants to install one of the towers. The 100-foot-by-100-foot plot of land the tower would stand on abuts 330 acres of pristine pasture and sugar bush Davis owns.

Last fall, CBP erected a 65-foot temporary tower on the spot.

“This is our land, right here,” Davis said.

Bryan Davis looks up at at temporary surveillance tower U.S. Customs and Border Protection put up in Derby Line last fall.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
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VPR
Bryan Davis looks up at at temporary surveillance tower U.S. Customs and Border Protection put up in Derby Line last fall.

Davis has a 180-degree view, bisected down the center by a thin line of clear cut that is the international border. He can see snow-covered mountains and spring grass valleys of the U.S. on his left, and an almost identical landscape in Canada on the right.

“My dad used to love to come up here and just sit down and just relax and enjoy the view,” Davis said. “And he always used to tell me, ‘Bryan, you got to take a few minutes once in awhile and just go up there and enjoy it and appreciate what you have.'”

Davis said he still appreciates what he has. Now that he knows what the federal government has in mind for this spot, it’s gotten a little tougher to relax and enjoy the view.

“We’re wondering what to do with the farm,” he said. “Well, now, this kind of stuff has a huge impact on what we might want to do with the land.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

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