Looking for the latest stories? We're now at cironline.org

Powerful land owners pose obstacle for rail

Courtesy of Reed KaestnerThis planned resort area of Tejon Ranch in the hillsides of the Tehachapi Mountains is no longer at risk of being disturbed by high-speed rail, with the Grapevine alignment no longer being considered.

If you want to build a rail line between Anaheim and San Francisco, people are going to have to get out of the way. Literally. 

The proposed California High-Speed Rail would require a lot of land, meaning thousands of California families and businesses will have to move if the project is ever built.

At completion, the project calls for 800 miles of track crossing through 18 counties. The state authority planning the project doesn't know at this point how much private land it needs or what property acquisition will cost, but it plans to buy whatever parcels are necessary at fair market value.

Using preliminary and alternate rail alignments, The Orange County Register traced the proposed track through three counties (Fresno, Kern and Merced) and partway through a fourth (Los Angeles) and found some 2,000 affected properties with roughly 1,300 different owners.

Many of the affected property owners are people and businesses you've never heard of. Some, however, are high profile: land developers and campaign contributors, big businesses and Central Valley farms. Many are sure to be unhappy about losing their land.

Report an error: See something wrong in this story?
E-mail our editors.

For a project that has already known its fair share of conflict, land acquisition is almost certainly high-speed rail's next source of discord.

“It's not going to be pretty,” said Elizabeth Goldstein Alexis, co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, a Palo Alto group monitoring the high-speed rail project. “Some people are going to be happy with the buyout. Others are not going to go quietly into the night.”

Many of the properties needed for the project have yet to be determined, but according to current planning documents, the California High-Speed Rail Authority is eyeing land owned or used by an array of noteworthy interests, including:

  • More than four dozen properties in Merced and Kern counties owned by BNSF Railway, including 30 parcels originally held by one of BNSF's predecessors, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. Today, BNSF is one of the largest railroad networks in North America and is a subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway investment company.
  • The site of a Smart & Final warehouse store near Fresno's Chinatown district, assessed at nearly $1 million. The Smart & Final chain contains 250 grocery and foodservice stores in six Western states and northern Mexico.
  • Merced and Kern counties parcels owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., one of the largest natural gas and electric utilities in the United States.
  • Undeveloped farm land in Shafter owned by Farmland Reserve Inc., the agricultural investment arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  • The Fresno distribution center of C&S Wholesale Grocers, “the largest wholesale grocery supply company in the U.S.” That property has a total assessed value of more than $8 million.

Most of these businesses were not eager to talk to the Register about the coming rail line. But the state will have to negotiate, individually, for the rights to all of the lands. Ultimately, the state can buy whatever land it wants through the power of eminent domain. But a wealthy or motivated land owner unwilling to deal can stretch out the process for months or longer.

If enough of the land owners fight the project “at strategically chosen places along the route they could tie it up probably a year,” said John H. Blake, a real estate attorney in Redwood City. “It could be less, it could be more, depending on the nature of the issue and how seriously the court takes it.”

History of conflict

The fight over land acquisition is the next battle awaiting high-speed rail if it can survive a torrent of opposition in Sacramento and Washington. For months now, the future of the project has remained in the balance as politicians on both sides of the aisle have questioned the project's viability and costs, though Gov. Jerry Brown has signaled his strong support.

From April 2010 through May 2011, the California High-Speed Rail Authority was the subject of three scathing reports that criticized its ridership projections, its accounting practices and its management. State lawmakers and project opponents accused the authority of being unrealistic in its cost projections.

At the beginning of November, the authority responded to its critics by releasing a sober business plan, which was praised for its frank assessments and practical figures but raised eyebrows over a revised $98 billion price tag.

Since then, new obstacles have emerged.

In mid-November, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives eliminated future funding for high-speed rail in California. Then Kings County sued to stop the authority from going forward with its initial plan to build a 130-mile stretch of track from Fresno to Bakersfield, which isn't long enough to accommodate high-speed trains.

Then the Legislative Analyst's Office said the rail authority's plans are still too speculative to deserve state money. Then the high-speed rail's Peer Review Group, chaired by Orange County Transportation Authority Director Will Kempton, told lawmakers they shouldn't authorize funding for the project. Then the state auditor released another scathing report, saying the authority's “funding situation has become increasingly risky.”

There's a chance the Legislature will balk this year when it's asked to appropriate $2.7 billion in bond funds for the high-speed rail. The bonds have already been authorized by voters, but the Legislature still controls their purse strings.

During his State of the State address in January, Brown urged legislators' approval and compared critics of the project to critics of the Interstate Highway System and even the Panama Canal.

“The critics were wrong then,” Brown said, “and they're wrong now.”

Land grab

Stretched over 270,000 acres between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, Tejon Ranch is just too big for the high-speed rail to avoid. The historic ranch, which was founded as a Mexican land grant in 1843, is the largest contiguous piece of private property in California. Its 422 square miles encompass farming and ranching operations, a commercial/industrial center and a proposed resort community in the Tehachapi Mountains.

The Tejon Ranch Co. has spent more than a decade planning the resort. Called Tejon Mountain Village, it is envisioned as an idyllic place for a second home or a restful vacation, with 3,450 homes, up to 750 hotel rooms, a couple of 18-hole golf courses and 75 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

Coutesy of Randall BarkerBarry Zoeller, Tejon Ranch vice president of corporate communications and marketing

“We don't believe that mixes well with a high-speed rail,” said Barry Zoeller, vice president of corporate communications and marketing.

The high-speed rail faced a big problem with the Tejon Ranch Co. In May, the California High-Speed Rail Authority announced it would explore the I-5 corridor at the Grapevine as a route between Bakersfield and Los Angeles. Under that plan, the high-speed rail would have passed right by the mountain resort.

Zoeller pledged that “should (high-speed rail officials) make the decision to move ahead with the Grapevine alignment, they would find a strong opponent in the Tejon Ranch Co.”

Last month, the authority decided to abandon the Grapevine idea and instead go with a route farther east, near highways 58 and 14. That route also crosses Tejon Ranch property, but the company doesn't oppose it.

The high-speed rail may have avoided a showdown with the Tejon Ranch Co., but the case illustrates the sort of battles the project could face as it moves into the property acquisition phase.

Rachel Wall, spokeswoman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said the agency knows it has an “enormous responsibility” to protect the rights of land owners as it acquires property for the project. To do that, the authority will follow a modified land acquisition process developed by Caltrans that Wall said will provide owners with ample opportunities to assert their rights.

The authority has also factored into its schedule the potential for land owners to slow down the process during the land acquisition phase. Wall said the authority is prepared for all the contingencies it may face, but acknowledges, “There's certainly a lot of work to do.”

On the farm

Farmers are expected to be among the high-speed rail's biggest opponents if the project ever reaches the land acquisition stage. No matter what alignment is eventually chosen, the rail will pass through prime agricultural land in the Central Valley, some of which has been tilled by the same families for generations.

To the agricultural communities affected, the high-speed rail feels like an attack on their world and their bottom line, said Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, which is concerned about the high-speed rail having an excessive impact on agricultural lands.

“If you change these farmers' way of life, they're going to squawk,” Raudabaugh said. But this is about more than convenience, or even tradition. There “is a monetary cost,” she said.

First, there is the cost of the land itself. Much of the land targeted by the high-speed rail in the San Joaquin Valley is precious for its physical properties, Raudabaugh said. The soil there is uniquely high in nitrogen and phosphorous, which yields pomegranates, pistachios and almonds of a quality that can't be duplicated elsewhere, she said. For farmers, no amount of money can replace such special land.

Then there's the cost of farming around the high-speed rail. Unlike a regular train, the tracks of the high-speed rail will be walled off from the surrounding environment by fences or barriers to prevent cars, people or animals from crossing in front of 220-mph train. The alternative is gruesome: In April 2008, a German high-speed train traveling 124 mph struck a herd of sheep, which caused the train to derail and injured 19 passengers (and killed 20 sheep).

To avoid such an accident, the only way you'll be able to cross the California High-Speed Rail is at designated crossings. That's not a small matter for farmers, who make numerous trips across their fields in a single day. If the rail line cuts through your property, you'll have to drive four to seven miles out of the way just to get to other side of your field, estimates Frank Oliveira, general partner of MEL's Farms, a Kings County farming operation. The high-speed rail is eyeing land on five properties owned by MEL's, Oliveira said.

“They're going to be tearing up everybody's farms and make them not profitable,” he said.

Oliveira said farmers are upset about the project because few in state government seem to recognize its impact on the agriculture community. Construction of the rail line will ruin carefully planned farms with laser-leveled fields and buried irrigation systems, he said.

The authority may tell farmers it only wants a 100-foot strip of their land, but Oliveira said that could ultimately cost farmers 170 feet of usable land because farmers also need space to reverse their tractors. The farmers are angry because they feel the state isn't listening to them, Oliveira said.

Wall, the spokeswoman for the high-speed rail authority, said planners will try “as much as possible” to address the impacts on farms during the design process.

Economic development

Not everyone fears the train, however. For some, the California High-Speed Rail represents the hope for a better future. And at least one community was willing to fight for it.

In July, Palmdale filed a suit in federal court to prevent the California High-Speed Rail Authority from moving forward with the Grapevine plan, which would have bypassed the city. Palmdale officials desperately want a high-speed rail stop in their city for the economic activity it's thought to bring.

“The majority of people I have heard from are in support of the high-speed rail,” said Palmdale Chamber of Commerce CEO Stacia Nemeth, when asked if even Palmdale's affected land owners are in favor of the project. “There's a lot of job potential there.”

The federal suit was dismissed in September, and the California High-Speed Rail Authority has since abandoned the Grapevine option, but until the very end, the city indicated it was willing to keep fighting. Residents there say they want the high-speed rail to come to their city of 152,000.

“I don't see how it couldn't benefit us,” said Marsha Furman, a 27-year resident of Palmdale who is active in community affairs.

Furman said she's never heard affected land owners in Palmdale complain about losing their property to the project. “We see the high-speed rail as just another opportunity to see what the Antelope Valley has to offer,” she said.

Residents and officials believe a high-speed rail station will help Palmdale by attracting new businesses and boosting local tourism. It's also thought that Palmdale residents will use the high-speed rail for daily commutes to jobs in Los Angeles or Bakersfield. A faster commute home means the people who already live in Palmdale will have more opportunities to spend their money locally.

“Having a station here, I know it would improve the area economically,” said Bill Pappas, a resident of Palmdale since 1990.

For Palmdale, the fight may be over. But for land owners in the path of the high-speed rail, the fight may be just beginning.

Brian Joseph is the Sacramento correspondent for The Orange County Register. Contact him at 916-449-6046 or bjoseph@ocregister.com. This story resulted from a partnership among California news organizations following the state's high-speed rail program, including The Fresno Bee, The Sacramento Bee, California Watch, The Bakersfield Californian, The Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle, The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise, U-T San Diego, KQED, the Merced Sun-Star, The Tribune of San Luis Obispo and The Modesto Bee.


Comments are closed for this story.

via Twitter

© 2013 California Watch   /  development:  Happy Snowman Tech   /  design: