La Joya hits pause on proposed cemetery expansion

A measure to rezone property for purposes of expanding the city’s cemetery failed during a city commission meeting Tuesday after residents were concerned they had not received proper notice and because of lingering issues over whether the city has the proper documentation for the property.

At the recommendation of City Attorney Robert Jackson, the city commissioners took no action on rezoning the lot, telling the commissioners that residents who might be affected needed to receive at least 30 days notice.

This followed a similar decision by the planning and zoning board during their meeting on Monday, which saw neighboring residents show up to voice their concerns about the proposal.

The proposal to expand the city cemetery includes the rezoning of a lot located at 600 Reyna Farias St., which is adjacent to the cemetery. The property, however, is the subject of an ongoing federal investigation.

In February, former La Joya Mayor Jose “Fito” Salinas was arrested on wire fraud charges related to two alleged schemes — one relating to a public relations contract and the other related to the purchase of real property.

Federal prosecutors allege that from January 2016 to about July 2016, Salinas devised a scheme that led to the city purchasing property that he owned at a “highly-inflated” rate, according to a news release issued at the time of his arrest.

The charge is also listed against Salinas in a superseding indictment, labeled as part of a cemetery property scheme.

Hidalgo County property records show that in July 2016, the city purchased the lot at 600 Reyna Farias from the mayor and his wife, current City Commissioner Mary Salinas.

Fito Salinas has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. Commissioner Mary Salinas has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

But despite the purchase, current Mayor Isidro Casanova said there were issues about whether the city legally owned the property.

“We still don’t have the right legal documentation stating that it belongs to the city,” he said. “I just found out yesterday because they did some research and we still don’t have a title to the property.”

The absent title and the federal investigation, Casanova said, will likely keep the expansion from moving forward at this time.

“And we might even have to get the feds involved and get some advice from them as to where it’s at,” Casanova said, explaining the city didn’t want to start the project only to be told later that other legal issues prevented them from completing it.

“So we just want to take our time and we’re going to take a step back and analyze all this and get all the information we get first,” he said. “Then we can decide as to what we’re going to do.”

Following the city commission meeting, Commissioner Laura Mendiola Macias said they received documents from the title company but said they were not signed or sealed.

“It’s not a certified document,” Mendiola Macias said. “Our main concern is that everything was done correctly. If so, then we can go ahead and move forward.”

Regarding the concerns from residents living near the property, Casanova said he respected their concerns and assured the city commissioners would not be taking action on rezoning the lot for the time being.

“We’re just going to go ahead and hold off on it until we get some more information,” Casanova reiterated. “As of right now there’s no decision as to that.”