Madera County drops suit against high-speed rail

The Fresno BeeApril 2, 2013 

A train travels through a wind farm in an illustration from the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

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A divided Madera County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to drop the county's lawsuit against the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

The county was one of several parties that sued the state agency last year over its environmental approval of the Merced-Fresno portion of the proposed statewide rail system.

Manuel Nevarez, appointed to the board last month by Gov. Jerry Brown and a vocal supporter of high-speed rail, tipped the supervisors' scales.

He joined Max Rodriguez and Tom Wheeler in voting to abandon the lawsuit filed last June. They outnumbered Supervisors David Rogers and Rick Farinelli.

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Tuesday's vote removes the county from the litigation, but other plaintiffs in the case said they plan to press forward with the lawsuit.

They include the Farm Bureau organizations in Madera and Merced counties, the Fagundes farming family in Madera and Merced counties, the Chowchilla Water District and Preserve Our Heritage, a Chowchilla-based farm advocacy group.

A Sacramento County Superior Court judge will hear the case April 19.

Two related lawsuits against the rail authority over the Merced-Fresno section were dropped this year -- one by the city of Chowchilla, the other by owners of property along the proposed railroad right of way in Madera and Fresno counties.

The rail authority welcomed news of Tuesday's vote.

"We appreciate the Madera County Board of Supervisors' willingness to work with the authority to resolve any outstanding items and issues," said Jeff Morales, the rail authority's CEO. "The authority is pleased to end this part of the litigation and will continue to work with Madera County to make this a success for the county."

Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, said she was disappointed with the supervisors' vote.

"Regardless of the county's decision," however, the other plaintiffs "are hoping for a knockout on April 19th," she said. "If we don't fight, there's not going to be anything to fight for, the way we see it."

The lawsuit challenges the adequacy of environmental impact reports that the authority certified last May when approving the Merced-Fresno portion of the statewide rail project.

It focuses largely on allegations that the rail authority failed to fully assess the effects on agriculture of building and operating the train system or provide sufficient measures to make up for those effects.

Besides the environmental challenge, the suit charges that the authority members violated provisions of the Bagley-Keene Act, an open-meeting law that governs state agencies, when they approved the route last year.

"I've always been in favor of dropping the lawsuit, or at least ending our part in it," said Rodriguez, a longtime supporter of high-speed rail. "I know that the others worry about how it will affect the Valley, that they fear this project. But I see it as a project of the future, a new beginning for this impoverished part of the Valley."

"I think we did the right thing," he added, "but I know there's a lot of people who think different. So be it."

Farinelli issued a written statement Tuesday afternoon in which he vowed to continue to oppose the project "at every crossing, every turn and every route through Madera County."

"I am deeply concerned that businesses right here in Madera County will be closed, jobs will be lost, agriculture will suffer and our way of life forgotten as a result of high-speed rail," Farinelli said. "I refuse to stand by and watch as our future is compromised for the benefit of Southern California and the Bay Area."

Raudabaugh said she anticipated that the county might withdraw from the lawsuit after Brown appointed Nevarez to fill a vacancy created when Supervisor Frank Bigelow was elected to the state Assembly.

As a member of the Board of Supervisors, Bigelow had been critical of the high-speed rail project and voted to support the lawsuit.

After his appointment by Brown to replace Bigelow, Nevarez voiced his support for high-speed rail at a teleconference meeting of the rail authority in Fresno.

Rogers agreed that Nevarez's appointment was a tipping point for the lawsuit. "We knew the litmus test for the governor to appoint an individual would be high-speed rail," he said. "When the appointment was announced, I knew instantly" that the board eventually would vote to give up the lawsuit.

Rogers bemoaned being on the losing end of the 3-2 vote. "It doesn't sit well with me. I've been a three-year warrior of trying to keep high-speed rail from doing damage to our community," he said.

He added that his main concern has been that portions of the rail route stray from established transportation corridors such as Highway 99, cutting through productive farmland as it makes its way through the Valley.

Rogers said he believes the board majority dropped the suit to avoid discouraging the rail authority from considering a Madera County site, known as the Gordon Shaw property north of Madera, for a major maintenance facility for the high-speed train system.

"I respect my colleagues' right to feel what they want, but I feel they're pinning their hopes and dreams on something that's not going to come to fruition," Rogers said. "I feel like it's somewhat mercenary when we sell out the best interests of our people for something like this, a carrot that's been dangled in front of us."

Raudabaugh and Rogers both said they believed the vote robs the county of leverage to force concessions from the rail authority.

"In a lawsuit like this, you need to get something for your area," Raudabaugh said. "By dismissing the suit now, the county's not getting anything. They're not going to get the right overcrossings, the right road closures."

Rogers said he believed the county should have pressed on for measures to reduce the negative effects of the project, including impacts on water and farming.

Rodriguez said that he and other county leaders are working with the rail authority to push for road extensions and other ways to ease the line's effects on the area.

"And hopefully we can get the maintenance yard for the county," he added. "We want to be in the ballgame. If this rail project gets built, let's get the best deal for Madera County."

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