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.