Valley properties in path of bullet train map

Owners worry high-speed rail could displace dreams.

February 19, 2011 

Aaron Fukuda bought his 2-acre country lot east of Hanford with hopes of building a dream home and starting a family.

Now he fears those dreams could be dashed -- and his neighbors' homes endangered -- by California's plans for a high-speed rail route through the Valley.

The Ponderosa Road residents are upset over a California High-Speed Rail Authority map drawn in August that shows the rails rolling straight through their backyards.

For the homeowners, it's an unwelcome departure from a published map showing the rail line going through a field hundreds of yards west of their homes. And it's a surprise, they say, because the authority never told them a newer map even existed.

"We feel like we've been misled and information was withheld," said Aaron Fukuda, one of the residents. "We're to the point where it's very difficult to trust what we're seeing and hearing."

The concerns being voiced in Hanford could easily arise in other parts of the state as the rail authority tries to assemble the land it needs for its tracks.

California hopes to start work next year on a 120-mile stretch of high-speed train tracks between Fresno and Bakersfield -- the first piece of what is planned as an 800-mile system. As many as 1,000 pieces or more of Valley property may need to be acquired, in whole or in part, along the way.

They'll include homes, businesses and farms in the path of the line.

Officials say a precise route remains undetermined. And that is creating uncertainty among landowners about whether their properties will be affected.

Rail engineers are looking for ways to reduce the effects on farming and irrigation in the area. But by making a map as part of that process, they created a potential nightmare for the Ponderosa residents.

It underscores the challenge faced by rail planners, who are drawing numerous maps to study options for every stretch of the rail line. Each option has the potential to upset a different group of officials or property owners along the route.

Conflicting messages

The Ponderosa Road residents and others who live nearby met early this month to scrutinize a map given to Fukuda by engineers working on the rail project. Fukuda said he got the map only after pestering officials over whether the proposed tracks might derail his plans to build a home on property he bought in 2006.

Fukuda said he talked to rail engineers in November because a map from January 2010 depicted the rail line and a possible passenger station about 1,100 feet west of his back fence.

Before designing his home, he said, he wanted more specific information about the tracks and how he could plant trees or change the design of his home to reduce problems from the trains.

"I was told in November that my property wasn't even in the area of impact," Fukuda said. He said he was assured then that his neighborhood was safe.

But when rumors began swirling later that a new map showed a new route threatening the neighborhood, Fukuda began making more calls and sending more e-mails.

Fukuda already was annoyed. Annoyance became anger last month when he discovered the new map was drawn in August. "They were telling me one thing in November, and they knew full well they were adjusting the alignment."

A spokeswoman for the rail authority said the map given to Fukuda "is just one iteration of a design" that may -- or may not -- be included in a draft environmental-impact report, or EIR, for the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section. That report, to be released soon for 45 days of formal public comment, is expected to include a preferred alignment for the rail route.

Rachel Wall, the authority's press secretary, said dozens of maps have been rendered for a 10-mile stretch near Hanford as engineers and consultants evaluate options for a route that bypasses the city to the east.

She said she didn't know why just this particular map was provided to Fukuda.

No one alignment has been set as the final route, she added.

While the map given to Fukuda shows a narrow line, Wall said it actually represents a much wider swath in which the railway might be located under just one alternative under consideration.

"I understand it takes you aback to see that line right over the property," Wall said. "But what we're actually looking at is 850 feet to the left of that line and 850 feet to the right."

The map is "a first stab at reducing the impacts on agriculture," Wall said, to address the concerns of farmers and irrigation officials. Engineers were trying to shrink the number of useless leftover parcels carved from farmland and considering how route options will affect dairies, power lines and irrigation facilities.

"As we go along in the analysis of alternatives, things change and are more and more refined," Wall said.

That's not much comfort to Fukuda and his neighbors, who say they were never warned that newer route alternatives were putting their properties and homes at risk.

Communication lapse?

While the draft EIR is the only legally required opportunity for public comment, Wall said there had been previous outreach to residents, the public and officials in and around Hanford.

Wall said representatives of consulting companies visited the Ponderosa Road neighborhood, and sent postcards and e-mails to residents there to give notice of public meetings on the rail project.

The authority held a public information meeting in Hanford in April, and another in Corcoran in May. The authority also met with city officials in June.

Fukuda said he knew of the April meeting but could not attend because of work commitments. But Fukuda and another neighbor, Diana Rapozo, said they've received nothing from the authority or its consultants since last spring.

"They've not contacted anybody yet," Rapozo said.

No public meetings have been held by the authority or its consultants in Kings County since the August map -- the one that has the Ponderosa Road residents riled up -- was drawn.

"The idea is, if the the authority is not letting us know what's going on, then people are living their lives as if nothing's going on," Fukuda said. "We're out here building homes and investing in our property" based on the maps available to the public.

Wall acknowledged that communication could be improved.

"When a line shifts and people are impacted, people should be contacted," she said.

"And definitely, the way the map was provided to him was lacking." Wall suggested that engineers erred in giving Fukuda the map without explaining that it was just one of numerous options.

In recent weeks, consultants for the authority have been "taking calls from those residents daily" to answer questions, Wall said. Authority officials and Fukuda said a private meeting between the Ponderosa residents and rail consultants is set for Thursday to discuss the project.

The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6319.

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