Sunday, August 7, 2011

Sacramento Bee: High-speed rail proposal creates land owner conflicts

Rail plan, landowners to collide

Published: Sunday, Aug. 7, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
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About 1,100 pieces of property – farms, businesses and homes – lie along the potential routes for California's high-speed trains between Madera and Shafter, where construction is planned to begin in late 2012.

Within the next week or so, the California High-Speed Rail Authority will begin looking for companies to negotiate with property owners and seal the deals on rights of way for the first 120 miles or so of tracks in the San Joaquin Valley. It's a contract that could be worth up to $40 million.

It won't be an easy payday. However skilled the negotiators are, getting a foot in the door – never mind consummating a satisfactory deal – will be a challenge when some owners just don't want to sell.

"It's going to be the toughest possible reception we can give them," said Helen Vierra Sullivan, whose family farms almonds north of Hanford. "My land is not for sale. ... How can they take away my heritage, my livelihood, something my family has invested blood and sweat in for more than 80 years? It's wrong on so many levels."

Vierra is among vocal Kings County farmers and residents battling the project because of the impact it will have on their land.

That's where the professionals come in.

Unlike the state Transportation Department, which has its own corps of right-of-way agents to deal with property issues for highway construction and expansion projects, the rail authority's staff is too small to handle so many individual real estate transactions.

That's why it's in the market for one or more companies to deal with the process.

Right-of-way acquisition "is complex and it takes time, and it takes highly skilled people to do it," said Mark Rieck, executive vice president of the International Right of Way Association, a professional and trade organization based in Gardena. "It requires certified professionals who are skilled at dealing with the community (and) helping people see the importance of the project."

Rieck said agents "work for the agency that's driving the project ... but always keep in mind the best interests of the property owners."

Right-of-way companies handle property appraisals, negotiate a price for the land and other compensation, provide relocation services and prepare deeds and contracts. And, when push comes to shove, they go to court in eminent domain or condemnation cases for a judge to decide the price and terms.

Rieck said there are dozens of right-of-way companies big enough to handle the hundreds of individual real estate transactions needed for a major transportation project like high-speed rail.
But whichever company ends up with the contract will face a challenge as resistance and opposition to the project boil up in some areas of the valley.

That's likely to be particularly true in Kings County, home to about 28 miles of the route. Because trains traveling at 220 mph cannot make tight turns, some of the line will slice in an arc through farms rather than skim squared-off property lines.

Farmer Frank Oliveira said more than 300 individual parcels in the county would be affected by the high-speed tracks.

Oliveira and others along the line from Laton through Hanford and Corcoran want to either have the route moved elsewhere or see the project stopped altogether, despite pledges from the rail authority that they will be compensated for their property.

"People here don't really want their money. People just want them to go away," said Oliveira, who runs MELs Farms. The company has several farms in the path of the train line near Hanford.

Oliveira said he expects property owners will listen politely "to whoever shows up and knocks on our door."
"Obviously we're not happy or receptive to this process," he said. "But as far as not talking to these people, we'll listen."

But Oliveira believes some owners will take their battle for property into court as eminent domain cases. That's Sullivan's plan. The almond farmer said she's lined up the names and numbers of two attorneys "who fight eminent domain things like this."

"A lot of people won't fight. They'll say, 'I'll just take what they give me and go along,' " she said. "I won't do that."

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