Editor's Note: The following article was written by Christine Souza, assistant editor of the California Farm Bureau Federaton's Ag Alert newsletter.
Now that county Farm Bureaus in Madera and Merced counties have reached a settlement with the California High-Speed Rail Authority regarding the Merced-to-Fresno section of the project, those affected say they expect property appraisals to come next.
Madera County Farm Bureau President Tom Coleman said he expects the rail authority will soon start sending appraisers out to properties to conduct land valuations.
"Our biggest concern is that the authority follows through with what it has committed to, and that is to provide mitigators or facilitators," Coleman said. "As a result of this settlement, (the rail authority) is supposed to now have people available to consult with the landowners, both prior to and after an appraisal, to help walk them through the process and be an advocate. This is not something that happens every day and landowners are concerned that they get all of the information that they should."
The settlement was signed last week by Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley. The county Farm Bureaus in Madera and Merced counties said the settlement includes:
- Creation of an Agricultural Lands Mitigation Fund of $5 million to purchase additional conservation easements elsewhere in the region, beyond what is already required to make up for the loss of farmland for the railroad right-of-way.
- An option for landowners to require the state to purchase the whole of any affected parcel where the remainder created by the project is less than 20 acres.
- A requirement that the state consult with affected property owners in the area of the "Central Valley Wye" section, which branches off from the north-south route in Chowchilla as the rail heads toward San Jose.
- Legal fees incurred by the plaintiffs.
All joint petitioners in the lawsuit joined in the settlement agreement, including the Chowchilla Water District, Preserve Our Heritage and the Fagundes Brothers Dairy entities.
Although Coleman describes the settlement as "far from being perfect," he added he believes "this settlement forces the authority to compensate and mitigate individual landowners for agricultural impacts that this project will have on the farming community in Madera County."
The two county Farm Bureaus and the other plaintiffs filed suit against the rail authority in June 2012, claiming the mitigation measures provided in its environmental documents were not adequate to address agricultural impacts or to analyze properly the project's total impact.
"The settlement actually increases the amount of mitigation the authority is going to be required to provide to property owners and towards agricultural impacts," said Anja Raudabaugh, Madera County Farm Bureau executive director. "It also provides for appropriate severance damages towards properties affected by the alignment of the high-speed train."
Merced County Farm Bureau President Jean Okuye said the agreement "will not only reflect the section from Merced County south to Fresno but for all future routes in Merced County under consideration." Specifically, this would include the proposed "Wye Section" and a future section from Merced to Sacramento.
For the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section of the $68 billion high-speed rail project, authority engineers recommended earlier this month a route that travels along the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railway and bypasses the city of Hanford to the west, around Corcoran, Wasco and Shafter. The other main alternative bypasses Hanford to the east, although there are at least a dozen other alignment alternatives and variations. Final environmental documents for the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section are expected to be released soon.
That section of the project also prompted a legal challenge, filed by plaintiffs in Kings County and due to be heard May 31 in Sacramento County Superior Court. The suit challenges the project's funding plan and consistency with Proposition 1-A, the statewide high-speed rail initiative approved in 2008.
"The immediate settlement applies in Merced and Madera counties only," California Farm Bureau Federation environmental policy analyst Justin Fredrickson said. "However, it seems that the way the settlement addresses some of the issues of agricultural mitigation, agricultural impacts, severed parcels, landowner participation and the land acquisition process, for example, could suggest a partial roadmap for better addressing impacts to agricultural lands elsewhere in the state."
Information about land acquisition and eminent domain processes may be found on the CFBF website at www.cfbf.com/issues/landuse/eminentdomain/.