Path of high-speed rail worries Valley farmers

January 8, 2011 

California's ambitious plan for high-speed trains is drawing sharp criticism from San Joaquin Valley farmers who fear the project would carve their property into useless pieces, disrupt their work and drive down land values.

Others accuse the California High-Speed Rail Authority -- the agency tasked with building the 800-mile system over the next decade -- of ignoring their concerns and steering the proposed rail line into the countryside as the path of least resistance.

"I have been able to deal with immigration officials, the United Farm Workers union and Congress," said Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League. "But these guys [at the rail authority] don't want to talk with us. Their attitude is, 'We are going to put this through and we don't really care about these farmers.' "

Not so, said Jeff Barker, the authority's deputy executive director.

"Agriculture is absolutely being listened to, and it will factor into the decisions we're making," Barker said. "You can't build a piece of infrastructure like this without affecting agricultural land, and we want to work with agriculture to mitigate those effects."

If the project is built as planned, about 170 miles of dedicated high-speed tracks would carry passengers between Merced and Bakersfield at speeds of up to 220 mph across some of the world's most fertile farmland.

That worries not only farmers whose land is likely in the path of the tracks, but also growers who have property on either side of the route.

"I'm a family farmer, and I want to stay a family farmer," said Brad Johns, a tomato farmer north of Hanford who fears the rail line would slice through his farmland "and right through the front door of my house."

"But I am acquiescing to reality," Johns said. "This [train] is coming ... and I just have to learn to live with a new neighbor."

Beyond lost acreage

Between Fresno and Bakersfield -- where the first $5.5 billion section of tracks is supposed to be built starting in 2012 -- one primary route is being considered by the rail authority. It generally runs alongside the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks. Exceptions include a sweeping arc to take the tracks east of Hanford and several options to bypass Corcoran, Allensworth, Wasco and Shafter.

Two route options are being evaluated between Fresno and Merced. One parallels the Union Pacific railroad tracks and through the cities of Chowchilla and Madera along Highway 99, while the other tends to run alongside the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks a few miles to the east.

Depending on the route that's ultimately set between Merced and Bakersfield, the rail line may displace about 1,900 acres of property, according to the rail authority. Of that acreage, about 1,460 acres is farmland -- about 2 one-hundredths of a percent of the more than 7.5 million acres of agricultural land in Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties.

But farmers say the effects would be out of proportion to the acreage affected.

Johns owns 320 acres, some of which has been in his family for more than 60 years. He estimates he would lose about three acres if the tracks go where he believes they will. He's not happy about it.

"This was never part of my game plan," he said. "But I'm not going to take these lemons and make lemonade. I'm going to make margaritas."

Johns said he'll negotiate with the authority for the best possible deal to compensate for lost land and possible loss of his home.

Johns said coming through farmland naturally makes more sense for rail planners than disrupting businesses and industries in cities.

"I get it," he said. "There are fewer obstacles to come through out here."

Agriculture advocates believe the high-speed trains will affect farming well beyond the trackside right of way.

Not only will farmland be lost, Cunha said, but farmers could see the value of their land decline if they cannot use it to grow crops.

Because of the tremendous speed of the trains, there can be no at-grade road crossings on the high-speed tracks. That means even farmers whose land is cleaved by existing freight rail tracks no longer would be able to use many of the county roads or other rural crossings to get across.

Instead, they would have to drive their tractors and other equipment to the nearest new undercrossing or overpass, which could be several miles out of their way, said Julia Berry, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau.

"That's a major concern," Berry said. "It's an increased cost, and it's incredibly inconvenient for farmers and the people who service growers, like custom haulers or harvesters."

Tracks cutting across land at a diagonal would create isolated and odd-shaped parcels that are too difficult or too expensive to farm and drive property values down, Berry added.

Plentiful concerns

Other concerns are less obvious, but no less worrisome for farmers:

  • Irrigation ditches. A new high-speed track could displace ditches and require pumps to move water to the other side of the tracks. Irrigation districts would face greater fuel costs just to tend to canals. Berry said the rail authority has pledged to pay for the improvements, but questions remain about who would pay to maintain them in the future.

  • Water pumps. Some farmers may have to dig new wells or install new pumps if their old ones are in the way -- a cost that could reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Diana Peck, executive director of the Kings County Farm Bureau.

  • Pesticide restrictions. A pesticide-free buffer zone may be created around the tracks, said Fresno County Farm Bureau executive director Ryan Jacobsen, whose family farms grapes in the Easton area. But how large those zones may be is unclear. "That could make farming in those properties very difficult, if not impossible," Jacobsen said.

  • Bee pollination. "Bees are very picky about wind and weather," Berry said. Farmers who grow nuts and tree fruit need bees to pollinate their crops and wonder what kinds of wind vortices would be created by 220-mph trains flying by every 10 minutes or so during peak periods, and how bees could be affected.

  • Compensation. Whether the authority acquires land through negotiation or by condemnation, farmers don't know whether they would be paid only for the value of the land or also for future lost income from permanent crops like grapes, nuts or fruit crops. If a farmer is forced to relocate and plant new trees or vines, it could take several years before a crop could be harvested, Peck said.

"All of these things need to be taken into consideration and, as far as we are concerned, none of these questions have been addressed yet," Peck said. "It is not as though we are opposed to high-speed rail. We know this will create jobs and be an economic benefit, we just don't want it to go through ag land."

Barker, the rail authority official, said he understands that farmers are anxious.

"They have legitimate questions about bees, pesticides, how they're going to get their tractors across," he said. "Those are real concerns about how they're going to be able to continue using their property."

But, he added, the authority cannot provide more specific answers until environmental reviews are completed on the route options. A draft of the environmental documents is expected to be released in February, after which farmers and the public will be able to comment.

Those reports, and the final versions that will emerge after comments are considered, will spell out how the state plans to minimize the high-speed trains' effects on agriculture, transportation and the environment.

"We have to go through an objective, unbiased process, and we have to study and weigh the alternatives," Barker said. "Of course farmers should be engaged and concerned ... and I'm 100% confident that comments from the agriculture community will have an effect in shaping the final documents."

Some successes

Berry said Madera County farmers already have had some success dealing with the rail authority. Last year, the objections of growers prompted the authority's board to scrap a route option that looped away from any existing freight railroad line and into farmland west of Highway 99.

"We know agriculture needs to compromise, but we'd like to see something good come out of it," Berry said.

Now, farmers in Madera County are turning their attention to lobbying for the rail line to follow the Union Pacific line near Highway 99, instead of the Burlington Northern tracks a few miles to the east.

Jim Erickson, the past president of the Madera County Farm Bureau, farms almonds, olives and grapes along Highway 99 on land his grandfather bought in 1920.

"I've got three-quarters of a mile of property along 99, right on the [Union Pacific] route," Erickson said. "We've got five generations on this property, and it means a lot to me."

He's not a fan of the high-speed rail plan. But if the train must go somewhere, Erickson said he believes it should follow the UP line instead of the Burlington Northern. Farmers along Highway 99 already have to contend with limited access across the freeway.

But like Cunha, Erickson is frustrated by a lack of responsiveness from Sacramento. And that frustration, he said, breeds mistrust.

"We're having the same problems that they are in Kings and Tulare counties, that it's hard to get any answers out of them," Erickson said of the rail authority. "If they're going to affect property, we want to know how they're going to make it right."

"They're saying it will all be taken care of in the [environmental impact] process," he added. "What we're saying is, 'Until you actually set it on paper, we don't trust you.' "

Art of the deal

When any large public-works project gets ready to roll, all of the potential effects on private property can end up on the bargaining table to negotiate a fair value, even if the property is taken through eminent domain or condemnation, said Chris Campbell, a real-estate attorney with Baker Manock & Jensen, a Fresno law firm.

In a condemnation, property owners receive compensation for what's taken.

"For a permanent easement, that's the value of the land, plus the trees or any improvements like pumps or pipelines," Campbell said. "If a corner of a property gets cut off and strands three acres, then you get compensated for the worthlessness of that piece."

What doesn't typically get counted, he said, is the loss of future income from crops on the affected property.

"It's just as if you sold that piece of property," Campbell said.

Compensation can also be paid if there are additional restrictions on property rights, such as a "no-pesticide" zone that affects a farmer's ability to use the land, or to account for the cost of restricted access across the tracks to additional acreage.

"The whole concept is to fairly compensate the property owner for land that's taken for public benefit," Campbell said.

"There will be a lot of elements in figuring the value of what the public is taking away from that property owner."

Bee staff writer Robert Rodriguez contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6319.

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