Three environmental lawsuits rooted in the central San Joaquin Valley challenging high-speed rail plans got a boost last week when Gov. Jerry Brown dropped efforts to limit legal challenges to the controversial project.
And attorneys in one of the cases scored another early point with the disqualification of a Sacramento Superior Court judge after they alleged that he could not impartially hear the case.
A farming advocate said she is pleased that agriculture won't be blocked from using the same tools to fight train plans that environmental interests have long used to challenge development in or near sensitive wildlife habitats.
Strong objections from environmentalists prompted the governor's decision Wednesday to abandon legislation that would have prevented judges from blocking construction on the $68 billion train project, except in the most serious cases of potential environmental harm. Such court orders against the state High-Speed Rail Authority could create significant delays and threaten more than $3 billion in federal money allocated to start building the train system.
"We're happy that the governor has seen the light of day and is now pursuing a logical course of action," said Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, which is being joined by the Merced County Farm Bureau, Madera County, the Chowchilla Water District, Preserve Our Heritage and the Fagundes farming family in Madera and Merced counties in its suit against the rail authority. "We want our case to have its day in court.
"We're not opponents of high-speed rail, but we are really disappointed with the process."
The Farm Bureau's case is one of three that hopes to derail the proposed statewide high-speed train line on environmental grounds. Another was filed by the city of Chowchilla, and the third by owners of properties in the path of high-speed tracks in Madera and Fresno counties.
Each suit alleges that the rail authority failed to fully address concerns raised in almost 33,000 pages of an environmental impact report for the Merced-Fresno section of the line before approving the route last month. Each seeks an injunction to prevent the authority from building the project. The agency hopes to begin construction late this year in the Fresno area.
Raudabaugh described the proposed litigation limit as an affront to the idea of a balance of power in state government: "It's offensive that the executive branch was asking the legislative branch to tell the judicial branch what to do."
While it was opposition from environmental groups that apparently turned back the idea, "it is very appropriate that everyone should have access to these [legal] protections, that agriculture can use them just like fairy shrimp or vernal pools or wetlands," Raudabaugh said. "We'd like to see our rights respected just like any other limited resource."
Douglas Thornton, a Fresno attorney representing landowners in Madera and northwest Fresno, was also pleased with the change of course: "It means there is an even playing field. It would be very unfair for the government to take its pet projects and eliminate environmental issues that would apply to any other project."
The high-speed rail authority has not commented on any of the lawsuits or on the governor's about-face on lawsuit limits.
Oakland attorney Jason W. Holder, who represents Madera County and the two farm bureaus in their lawsuit, alleged in court papers that Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly "is prejudiced against the petitioners, their attorneys, or [their] interests." The case was initially assigned to Connelly after the suit was filed June 1.
The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, email@example.com
or @tsheehan on Twitter.