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Land owners balk at selling for bullet train

High-Speed Rail Authority

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 Central 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 effects it will have on their land.

That’s where the professionals come in.

A complex business

Unlike Caltrans, 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 whoever ends up with the contract has their work cut out for them as resistance and opposition to high-speed rail boil up in some areas of the Valley.

Putting up a fight

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 the squared-off edges of properties.

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 rail project stopped altogether, despite pledges from the rail authority that they will be compensated for their property, crops, homes or businesses.

“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” to negotiate for their land. “Obviously we’re not happy or receptive to this process,” he said. “But as far as not talking to these people, we’ll listen.”

“There are people who will and should try to ensure they are adequately compensated for what the state is trying to do to them,” he added. “That’s only fair and right.”

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.”

Potential players

Despite the challenges, there will likely be ample competition for the job.

At least 11 companies expressed interest in providing real-estate services for the project at an industry forum in Los Angeles in April, authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall said. They include small realty firms as well as large companies that have worked on transportation and other jobs nationwide.

Among the companies knocking on the agency’s doors are Overland, Pacific & Cutler, headquartered in Long Beach; Associated Right of Way Services Inc. in Pleasant Hill, and HDR Inc. from Nebraska.

In a budget of more than $6 billion for the first stretch of the route, the $40 million contract is a mere drop in the bucket. But for companies in the industry, it’s a healthy payday.

“That’s a sizable contract. I think it would be very attractive to right of way companies,” said Rieck.

The contract doesn’t count the compensation to property owners for their land, relocation costs and other expenses. Wall said that between 7 percent and 10 percent of the overall $6.3 billion budget for the Central Valley segment is earmarked for right-of-way acquisition.

The authority expects to publish its call for formal bids within a couple of weeks, with hopes of signing a contract in January.

“I anticipate there are going to be several large firms from around the country who provide a full range of right of way activities,” Patricia Jones, the agency’s right of way director, told the authority’s board members in Bakersfield last month. “There are many companies out there that would be interested in what we’re proposing.”

Jones added that smaller companies may join up with larger firms, or submit their own proposals, to offer such specialized services as relocation assistance or property appraisals.

The authority is also moving ahead with plans to seek construction bids for the Valley section. Construction contracts will be separated into five different bundles: one large package for street overpasses, bridges, tunneling and elevated structures in Fresno; three smaller packages for overpasses and other structures from Fresno to Corcoran, Corcoran to Wasco, and Wasco toward Bakersfield; and one large contract for trackwork for the entire length of the section.

Tim Sheehan is a reporter with the Fresno Bee. He can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or 559-441-6319. This story was produced as part of a joint initiative involving the Fresno Bee, Bakersfield Californian, San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, Orange County Register, Riverside Press-Enterprise and California Watch.

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