Kings County vents frustration to state high-speed rail officials

The Fresno BeeApril 3, 2012 

HANFORD -- A day after celebrating the release of a new business plan in Fresno, leaders from the California High-Speed Rail Authority learned that there still is much skepticism and discontent in neighboring Kings County.

County supervisors and a packed room of residents asked some tough questions of authority chairman Dan Richard at a special meeting Tuesday afternoon. They thanked authority leaders for showing up and trying to mend fences, but were disappointed it had taken so long.

For months, Kings County officials have complained that the rail authority has ignored their concerns about the effects high-speed electric trains will have on their county. Two routes for the proposed 220-mph trains through the county are being considered. One runs east of Hanford, and the other west of the city.

Former authority chairman Curt Pringle of Anaheim didn't help matters when, at a meeting in Sacramento last May, he scolded Kings County Farm Bureau executive director Diana Peck and cut off her comments as she voiced the frustration of farmers whose land and livelihoods would be affected by the rail line. Video of the exchange showed up online, further inflaming opposition in the Valley and across California.

With Pringle no longer on the rail authority board and other shake-ups among the agency's leadership in recent months, Richard is trying to pick up the pieces and salvage a relationship with Kings County.

Richard acknowledged Tuesday that the authority has not paid proper attention to Kings County's concerns. He pointed out that in May 2011 -- several months before he was appointed to the authority's board by Gov. Jerry Brown -- county officials sent a letter with 61 specific questions to the authority.

"Those questions were never responded to; let's just get that right out there," Richard told the supervisors. "That was not a proper way to interact with you or this community that you represent. ... It was wrong, and I want to see where we can start from here."

The county wants the rail authority to engage in "coordination," a formal process of planning collaboration required under federal environmental regulations.

County counsel Colleen Carlson said that because the high-speed rail project is largely funded by federal money, federal law requires the authority to work with the county.

Richard told supervisors that the authority's attorneys disagree with that interpretation of the law. He added, however, that he wants to work with Kings County to address their concerns and answer questions as thoroughly as possible before this summer, when the authority expects to issue a new draft of environmental reports for the Fresno-Bakersfield stretch.

That may not be enough to satisfy supervisors or other county officials.

County planner Greg Gatzka said the county never received answers to how the authority expects to make up for potential economic effects. In a presentation to the supervisors, Gatzka said the east-of-Hanford line would cut across parcels totaling more than 8,700 acres, with several thousand more acres on parcels that would be affected by overpasses and other high-speed rail structures.

While some of those parcels may only be minimally affected by the line, Gatzka said, their total farm production value was more than $8.2 million in 2008. He added that dairies potentially affected by the rail line accounted for another $50 million in economic effects for the county.

Residents said they were glad to see even belated overtures from the rail authority. But they also spoke for more than an hour to voice concerns or express outright opposition to the plans.

"There's a real simple solution," said Joyce Cody, whose property along 13th Avenue would be disrupted by the west-of-Hanford route. "Don't bring it through Kings County. We don't want it here. ... High-speed rail in Kings County is wrong on so many levels."

County Administrative Officer Larry Spikes said he is grateful for the authority's newfound commitment to discuss the county's concerns. "We have to look at this as a positive development," he said.

But Spikes remains wary of how much can be accomplished, given how far along the rail authority's planning process has come with its only two options south of Fresno running through the county, over the county's objections.

When asked if the routes through Kings County are inevitable and the only things left to discuss are minimizing the effects, Spikes paused for a moment: "I think that would be the authority's position. I don't think we would necessarily agree with that."

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

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