Republican House members up and down the San Joaquin Valley are squarely opposed to California's high-speed rail project, for which construction could begin this summer.
But while the issue is largely one of political philosophy for other GOP representatives, it hits much closer to home for Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, whose family's Valadao Dairy owns property that stands to be affected by either of two high-speed routes being studied in Kings County.
Despite repeated attempts, The Bee could not interview Valadao last week, partly because of his travel schedule. But his spokeswoman offered email responses to questions.
"Proposed high-speed rail projects affect Congressman Valadao just like they affect the rest of the community who elected him to represent them in Washington," Valadao spokeswoman Anna Vetter said.
In June, Valadao successfully offered an amendment to a House appropriations bill that would bar the federal Surface Transportation Board from approving individual construction segments of the state project. Instead, the board would be allowed only to consider the statewide high-speed train network in its entirety.
The federal board, which plays a key oversight role, already has approved construction of the first 30-mile stretch of tracks from northeast of Madera to the south end of Fresno.
The net effect of Valadao's amendment, if it becomes law, would be to stall for years — if not permanently derail — any additional sections of the bullet-train system.
It's not clear, however, if Valadao's colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee were aware of his property interests or how the rail line would affect those lands when they voted on his amendment.
Three Valadao Dairy parcels sit directly along one of the routes through Kings County — a line that skirts west of Hanford and generally follows the BNSF Railway freight tracks between Hanford and Corcoran. Those parcels amount to about 509 acres and have a combined assessed value of more than $1.8 million, according to a database on the Kings County Assessor's Office website.
The largest of those parcels, at just over 402 acres and $1.14 million in value, also would be affected by a new road overpass associated with an east-of-Hanford bypass.
Valadao's staff said last week he was unavailable to address questions about property disclosures or whether he felt he had an obligation to inform his fellow representatives when Valadao proposed his amendment and voted to report the bill out of the Appropriations Committee.
"Congressman Valadao has undertaken recent actions in the House of Representatives regarding high-speed rail," Vetter said by email Thursday. But, she added, Valadao "has been vocal on his opposition to the proposed high-speed rail project" since before he was elected to Congress last year.
One of the most frequent criticisms leveled at the California High-Speed Rail Authority by opponents of the project is the potential for property values to be diminished for land along and near the proposed tracks.
In addition to the three Valadao Dairy parcels that would be directly affected by the project, the dairy owns six other parcels within a mile of at least one of the prospective track options. Those parcels represent about 209 acres and have a total combined assessed value of nearly $1.38 million.
Also within a mile of one or both routes are another 455 acres owned by either Valadao's parents, Eduardo and Maria Valadao, or his uncle, Manuel Valadao, with the four parcels having assessed values totaling nearly $6.2 million.
Valadao's staff would not say whether he had informed the Appropriations Committee members, either when he offered his amendment or when he voted on the bill, that he owned property that stood to be spared if the high-speed rail project were to be blocked.
Instead, Vetter referred to financial disclosure forms Valadao filed with the California Fair Political Practices Commission when he was a member of the state Assembly, and with the clerk of the House of Representatives after he was elected to Congress last year.
"In both the California Assembly and the United States House of Representatives, Congressman Valadao has submitted all of the proper documentation of his economic interests, including property," Vetter said.
Valadao's 2011 state disclosure to the FPPC identifies one of the three parcels that sit directly along the proposed west-of-Hanford line, and five of the nine parcels identified in Kings County tax records as Valadao Dairy properties. His federal disclosure as a member of Congress identifies him as a general partner of Valadao Dairy, but identifies no specific parcels owned by the partnership.
In a 2011 memo, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct — commonly known as the House Ethics Committee — noted that while, "as a general matter, the decision on whether to refrain from voting on a particular matter … rests with members," it is also the case that "members may not use their position for personal financial benefit."
The basic rule is to avoid voting on the House floor on matters in which the member has a "direct personal or pecuniary interest," but the ethics panel noted that "added circumspection" may be required for non-voting actions, such as sponsoring legislation.
"Whenever a member is considering taking any such action on a matter that may affect the member's personal financial interests, it is advisable for the member to first contact the committee for guidance," the panel's memo states.
Valadao's staff indicated that he had sought advice from the Ethics Committee. Dan Schwager, the committee's staff director, said such requests are treated confidentially and that he could not comment.
Many of the most vocal opponents of high-speed rail in Kings County — including Hanford homeowner Aaron Fukuda and farmer John Tos, who are both suing the state rail authority to stop the project — are property owners along the route.
They loudly decry how the bullet train would affect their land, said Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority's board.
"Most of the people we deal with, we know what the impacts will be because they've told us," Richard said. He said he has visited homes and farms where owners have pointed out how their property would be changed by the path of the high-speed rail tracks.
But he said that he was personally unaware until recently that Valadao was among the property owners along a propose route.
Richard declined to address whether he believed Valadao's amendment to the appropriations bill was motivated by his family's affected property.
"But what I have said before is that there was no legitimate policy reason for the amendment, which would stop us from building the next segment of high-speed rail from Fresno to Bakersfield," Richard said. "In fact, it could be interpreted to stop the project completely."
Richard said Congress already has provided money for construction in the Valley and that the authority is poised for thousands of jobs building the project.
"This amendment basically says that should not happen," he said. "If someone needs to make that argument, they ought to have a very strong policy reason for doing it."
Valadao's staff said there are significant policy considerations. "The proposed high-speed rail project is important for every person in California as it diverts billions of dollars away from essential services like public safety and education," Vetter said. "Congressman Valadao opposes high-speed rail regardless of the route or whose property is affected."
Valadao Dairy, a partnership that includes Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, owns three parcels that would be directly affected by at least one proposed high-speed rail route through Kings County.
Parcel No. 028-206-015, size 402.4 acres, estimated assessed value $1,143,272.
Parcel No. 028-206-006, size 4.31 acres, estimated assessed value $25,899.
Parcel No. 028-206-005, size 102.52 acres, estimated assessed value $651,064.
The dairy partnership also owns six more parcels that are within a mile of one or both proposed high-speed rail routes south of Hanford:
Parcel No. 028-202-002, size 50.35 acres, estimated assessed value $380,799.
Parcel No. 028-202-028, size 58.34 acres, estimated assessed value $191,888.
Parcel No. 028-202-032, size 59.47 acres, estimated assessed value $496,300.
Parcel No. 028-202-031, size 1.71 acres, estimated assessed value $6,000.
Parcel No. 028-201-007, size 19.39 acres, estimated assessed value $63,485.
Parcel No. 028-201-008, size 19.4 acres, estimated assessed value $240,283.
Four additional nearby parcels within a mile of one or both proposed high-speed rail routes are owned by other Valadao family members:
Parcel No. 028-040-017, owners Eduardo & Maria Valadao (David Valadao's parents), et al, size 85 acres, estimated assessed value $483,166.
Parcel No. 028-090-007, owners Eduardo & Maria Valadao, et al, dba Valadao Bros. Dairy, size 110.86 acres, estimated assessed value $1.29 million.
Parcel No. 028-202-023, owners Eduardo & Maria Valadao, size 99.27 acres, estimated assessed value $3.32 million.
Parcel No. 028-090-013, owner Manuel Valadao (David Valadao's uncle), size 160 acres, estimated assessed value $1.09 million.
Source: Kings County Assessor maps and property databases
View Valadao properties near HSR in a larger map
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, firstname.lastname@example.org or @tsheehan on Twitter.