Editor's Note: The following article was written by Christine Souza, assistant editor of the California Farm Bureau Federaton's Ag Alert newsletter.
With several large regional or statewide infrastructure projects in the planning stages, government eminent domain issues have surfaced for rural landowners in many parts of California. Public works under consideration range from water and flood-control projects to utility upgrades to major transportation projects such as California High Speed Rail, a statewide train system for which construction is slated to start in the Central Valley.
Agencies planning such projects may attempt to acquire land through eminent domain, the power of a public agency to take private property for a public use under the Fifth Amendment.
Third-generation farmer Samuel Curran of Madera describes his property as "ground zero" for high-speed rail. He is among landowners in the path of a 30-mile stretch of the initial construction segment known as Construction Package 1, from south of Madera to Fresno.
Curran's family has been farming and ranching on the property since the 1890s, producing everything from cattle and wheat to alfalfa and grapes. Curran said he hopes his grandchildren will be given the opportunity to farm the same land that his grandfather did many years ago.
But, he said, "The high-speed rail is going to come through and tear everything up."
The state is spending about $360 million to purchase hundreds of properties along the route, including part of Curran's farm, and may use eminent domain to do so. Central Valley landowners in the path of the rail line gathered at the Madera County Farm Bureau office last week to learn more about the eminent domain process, including how to protect their legal rights and ensure they are paid a fair price when private lands are taken for a public project.
Eminent-domain attorney Andrew Turner of Turner Law in San Mateo told the group that a first step for any landowner faced with a potential eminent domain situation is to speak with a qualified attorney. In providing landowners with an overview of eminent domain, he added that private property may not be taken for public use without just compensation.
"The government can take your property, but it must pay just compensation and it cannot pay anything less," Turner said. "Just compensation is the fair market value of the property being taken and is determined by a jury, unless (that) is waived by both the government and property owner. At the end of the day, the law is supposed to make you whole."