Forestieres in dark on how high-speed rail would affect Underground Gardens

Owners of Fresno underground gardens say high-speed rail information is scarce.

The Fresno BeeMay 22, 2012 

More than a century ago, Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere began the painstaking task of carving himself an underground home out of the hardpan north of Fresno.

By the time he died in 1946, Forestiere's compulsive digging had expanded his subterranean labyrinth -- known today as the Forestiere Underground Gardens on Shaw Avenue between Highway 99 and Golden State Boulevard -- to more than 50 rooms connected by tunnels and encompassing about 10 acres.

Now, some of Forestiere's descendants fear that California's proposed high-speed train project could threaten his creation -- either through the vibration of heavy equipment during construction or by eliminating much of the on-street parking for the historic landmark.

Mainly, though, they're confused by the lack of information from the state High-Speed Rail Authority about how the project would affect them.

A spokeswoman for the rail authority said last week that a revised construction plan released this month should take care of the construction and parking problems.

But family members say they've received no details from the authority addressing their concerns.

The Forestiere Underground Gardens attracts thousands of visitors each year from around the world and is listed on national, state and local historic landmark registers. Those are factors that Baldassare's nephew, property owner Ric Forestiere, and Ric's daughter Valery Forestiere, who co-manages the business, say should count for additional consideration from the rail authority.

"You would think that because we're a landmark at the national, state and local level, someone would have come out and talked to us," Valery Forestiere said. "Those kinds of discussions that we thought we were entitled to as a historic landmark, and that we expected, did not happen."

Anthony Forestiere, whose mother, Mary, owns the land just east of the Underground Gardens, said his side of the family also was not informed how their property might be affected by high-speed trains or related construction on nearby roads.

"It's just amazing. We've received nothing -- not an email, not a phone call, not a mailer or anything," Anthony Forestiere said. "I just don't get it."

Communication issues

The Forestieres' concerns over notification for their historic property is like other communication complaints up and down the San Joaquin Valley.

Despite mailers, public meetings and extensive news coverage, many property owners whose land could be affected by the project say they remain in the dark about plans for the high-speed tracks and related structures.

Authority spokeswoman Lisa Marie Burcar said the agency has done what is legally required, and more, to notify property owners about the project. The authority has mailed notices to owners and bought newspaper advertisements to announce public meetings and hearings, and to promote the availability of detailed environmental documents for public review.

After a May 2-3 meeting in Fresno, the board asked its staff to reach out to the Forestieres to provide more details about the train plans. That meeting has yet to take place, Valery Forestiere said.

Burcar said the agency expects to meet with the Forestieres in Fresno "in the near future."

Authority board chairman Dan Richard said that while the agency has met its legal requirements for public notification, "I think the authority needs to do more."

Listening to the Forestieres emotionally describe the lack of communication from the authority at a hearing earlier this month was "a grave concern," Richard said Tuesday.

"It's not acceptable to have that happen when we're building such a huge project that affects many, many people," Richard said. "We have to go far beyond the legal requirements, to be in a situation where we're not only doing outreach, but encouraging active community involvement."

When the authority hires a new chief executive officer in the next couple of weeks, Richard said, communication and outreach will be a major performance measure in the contract for the position.

Historic disruption?

The proposed high-speed train tracks, which would carry trains between San Francisco and Los Angeles through the San Joaquin Valley at speeds up to 220 mph, would pass within about 900 feet east of the Forestiere Underground Gardens. The line would cross Shaw Avenue between the nearby Union Pacific Railroad freight tracks and a rerouted Golden State Boulevard.

It's not necessarily vibration from passing trains that worries the Forestieres, but construction of an overpass to carry Shaw Avenue traffic over the existing UP tracks, the proposed high-speed tracks and a realigned Golden State Boulevard.

They also fear that the new overpass would impinge on the six-foot space between the attraction's entrance and Shaw Avenue and hamper visitors' ability to park on the street in front of the gardens.

Those concerns are based on a report from March that shows the overpass starting near the gardens entrance -- and within 25 feet of some structures on the gardens property. But the report suggested that the project would have no adverse effects on the gardens.

Valery Forestiere wonders how the authority or its engineers could reach such a conclusion without visiting the property and examining the underground features.

"It looks like they just sat across the street and decided, 'Well, it's all underground, so there's no impact,' " she said.

Burcar, the authority spokeswoman, said the agency's representatives did visit the gardens in January along with Fresno city officials and met with Marc Forestiere, Valery Forestiere's brother, "and confirmed that the project would have no adverse effect on the property."

Marc Forestiere has a different recollection of the Jan. 7 meeting, arranged for members of the city's Historic Preservation Commission to discuss the historic status of Mary Forestiere's adjacent parcel.

"There was one lady who tagged along who may have been from the high-speed rail authority, but I don't remember," Marc Forestiere said. "But the meeting was requested by the Historic Preservation Commission for a specific topic, and it was not high-speed rail.

"There was no discussion of high-speed rail plans at all, absolutely not. If someone is trying to portray the Jan. 7 meeting as sometime when we discussed the impacts, that is not what happened."

Mike Lukens, a spokesman for Fresno City Hall, said it's his understanding there was "a brief discussion" of high-speed rail on Jan. 7, but agreed it was not the topic of the meeting.

"Regardless of whether the authority has met or talked with the Forestieres in the past, it's clear that the discussions have not been satisfactory," Lukens said Tuesday. "The city will step in and make sure that [the authority] and the gardens are talking and that their concerns are resolved."

Changes of plans

Baldassare Forestiere's original earthworks were dug by hand, mostly with picks and shovels, digging beneath a few feet of topsoil through a concretelike layer of hardpan. While the hardpan made the property nearly useless for fruit orchards, the four- to six-foot-thick layer provides a sturdy ceiling for chambers hewn from the earth below.

In some areas, Forestiere used chunks of hardpan to line the walls of his caverns and create archways. His relatives worry that the vibrations from construction could dislodge or damage those features.

"This is not modern building material," Valery Forestiere said. "It's hardpan, and in some areas it's just dry-stacked."

The rail authority acknowledged that in its draft EIR, published last fall, the gardens "was previously in the direct path of roadway changes" on Shaw Avenue. The proposed overpass "would have resulted in a direct adverse effect on the northeast corner of this historic property."

Burcar said the plans have changed in recent months and the overpass no longer poses a threat to the Forestiere property. Instead of starting near the attraction's gate, the overpass has been shifted east of Cornelia Avenue.

"The closest place of any construction on the overpass is 133 feet east from Cornelia Avenue," Burcar said. "Our findings are that there won't be any negative effects, and we don't think anything will happen."

Parking is the other big concern. The Underground Gardens used to have its parking lot on the land next door -- before legal battles through the 1980s between brothers Ric and Joe Forestiere divided the property into two parcels.

Ric owns the western portion with the Underground Gardens business, and Joe's widow Mary owns the eastern parcel. Visitors now park along Shaw Avenue and side streets including Cornelia and Forestiere avenues.

If the overpass extended west of Cornelia, much of the Shaw Avenue parking would be eliminated and access to Cornelia Avenue would be cut off. "What's the good of preserving the gardens if no one can come out and visit it?" Valery Forestiere asked.

In the revised plans, "there are no lane configuration changes, no effect on Shaw Avenue west of Cornelia, or on Cornelia," Burcar said. "We will not be affecting those streets where the on-street parking is happening now."

Valery Forestiere welcomed the changes, but is waiting to hear it from the rail authority itself: "It's too bad that I'm hearing about them [from a reporter] instead of from the authority."

The side of the family that wants to sell the eastern parcel also is disappointed by the lack of communication. Said Anthony Forestiere: "I guess if they didn't tell us we were going to be impacted, they didn't feel a need to tell us we would not be impacted."

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

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