Real estate attorneys are seizing a monumental opportunity as California lumbers ahead with its high-speed rail plans in the central San Joaquin Valley.
With 1,100 or more pieces of property in the path of the proposed route between Merced and Bakersfield, lawyers who specialize in eminent domain cases could see business spike over the coming months as the state's High-Speed Rail Authority starts trying to buy land for rights of way.
"I think there's going to be a lot of attorneys who have never handled an eminent domain case who will suddenly be experts," said C. William Brewer, an eminent domain specialist with the Fresno law firm Motschiedler, Michaelides, Wishon, Brewer & Ryan.
Up and down the Valley, the rail authority anticipates spending tens of millions of dollars to buy the land it needs in Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties. The agency hopes to begin construction next year on a stretch of about 30 miles from northeast of Madera to the south end of Fresno -- the first portion of what is ultimately planned as a 520-mile system linking San Francisco and Los Angeles.
But some vocal property owners, including farmers, are loathe to part with their property and have vowed to force the state to use its power of eminent domain -- a potentially costly and time-consuming ordeal.
Eminent domain, or condemnation, is a legal process by which a government agency can declare a public need for property and sue to acquire it if the government cannot reach agreement with the landowner. A judge decides whether the agency is entitled to the property; in a second phase, a jury decides the fair market value and other compensation due the owner.
Brewer, who has practiced eminent domain law since the 1970s, said he recognized early on the potential for the high-speed rail project to create business. In recent months, he's done television ads and postcards aiming directly at "protecting property rights affected by high-speed rail."
"This is the first time in 36 years of practice that I've ever advertised for anything," Brewer said. "This project will do a lot of harm to properties and businesses, and sometimes people don't know where to go or who to call."
Because the state has not yet begun buying property on the Merced-Fresno section of the rail route, "there really hasn't been a lot of business yet," said David Weiland, a real estate attorney and shareholder with Dowling Aaron Inc., a Fresno law firm. "It's difficult to judge whether or not, or to what extent, there is going to be a lot of legal activity generated by land acquisition."
The U.S. and state constitutions require that any agency taking land through eminent domain must provide "just compensation" to the owner.
But deciding exactly what "just compensation" means is the kind of sticky legal wicket that gets attorneys involved.
Because trains traveling at 220 mph cannot make tight turns, some of the line will slice in an arc through farms rather than skim the squared-off edges of properties or hug existing freight railroad lines.
For farmland, "just compensation" may encompass much more than the per-acre value of the land. Other factors may include the production value of permanent crops on the acreage, the effect that the rail line would have on the remainder of the parcel, whether any structures or irrigation systems have to be moved, and access to acreage that sits on the other side of the tracks and whether those leftover pieces can be farmed economically.
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