Madera family's life in limbo due to drought, high-speed rail uncertainty

The Fresno BeeJuly 13, 2014 

Sheryl and Bobby Haflich have owned their home north of Madera for about a dozen years. And for the past five, they've known that they're sitting in the likely path of a Lake Street overpass to carry traffic over California's proposed high-speed rail line.

The problem is, every would-be buyer of the property knows it too -- and that's keeping the Haflichs from selling their 1.3-acre parcel and moving closer to Bobby's work at a school in Turlock, about 60 miles away.

Their rural property at the corner of Tremaine Avenue and Lake Street in the Madera Acres neighborhood sits just north of the first section of the bullet-train route that the California High-Speed Rail Authority wants to begin building this summer. While the rail agency has identified the Haflichs' home as one of hundreds of parcels it will eventually need in the central San Joaquin Valley, it's not yet in a position to buy the property.

"We've been held hostage here for five years," Sheryl Haflich said. "We don't know what to count on. We don't know what to do."

The rail authority says its hands are tied, at least for the time being, by its funding agreements with the federal government to spend money only within the boundaries to be covered in its current and future construction contracts. "Right now we only have the ability to purchase property between Avenue 17 in Madera and Seventh Standard Road north of Bakersfield," said Lisa Marie Alley, a spokeswoman for the rail agency.

But, Alley added, the authority is trying to develop a program and policies to work with property hardship cases such as those being experienced by the Haflichs.

The BNSF Railway tracks are only a few hundred feet southwest of the couple's yard. The blasting horns of every passing freight train and Amtrak passenger train crossing nearby Lake Street pierce the air throughout the day and night.

The Haflichs' plight was further complicated this spring when their water well failed, despite spending $9,000 over the past year and a half to try to keep it going. If being in the shadow of the railroad wasn't enough to scare off any prospective buyers, "with no water, nobody's going to want to buy this place," Bobby Haflich said. They don't have the $50,000 needed to drill a newer, deeper well -- and even if they did, local well companies are already so busy that there's a two-year waiting list.

Since March, the family has used store-bought bottled water for drinking and cooking, and borrowed water from tolerant neighbors for bathing and cleaning. The once-lush landscaping in their front and back yards is mostly dead -- which does nothing to enhance the curb appeal of the place.

Last summer, the rail authority inked a $985 million contract with Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons, a contracting consortium, to design and build the first 29-mile stretch of the proposed statewide system from Avenue 17 -- about a mile south of the Haflich home -- at the northeast edge of Madera to American Avenue at the south end of Fresno. Since then, the agency has concentrated its efforts on acquiring the properties it needs to make way for construction in that section rather than to the north.

The Haflichs said they've written to their state Assembly, Senate and congressional representatives for help, but received little except form letters in return.

Sheryl Haflich said an authority representative even told her that the family would be better off walking away from the property and their mortgage than waiting who knows how long for the authority to make an offer.

"We don't want to just walk away," Sheryl Haflich said. "We've been here for 12 years." And like plenty of other homeowners in the Valley, their home is "under water" -- they owe more on their mortgage than the property is worth -- "and they (the rail authority's representatives) know it," she added.

Alley said the right-of-way agent for the authority said she discussed options available to the Haflichs, but was adamant that she never suggested the family walk away from the property.

The Haflichs said that the only hope they've gotten for assistance is from Diana Gomez, the rail authority's regional director for the Central Valley. "She's the only one who's listening and trying to do something," Sheryl Haflich said.

Gomez is trying to deal with the State Public Works Board, which oversees the authority's property selection, and the Federal Railroad Administration to see if there's some kind of solution.

"We continue to work with Mr. and Mrs. Haflich to address their needs and ultimately resolve the impacts to their property," Gomez said. "Like all affected property owners, we are committed to working with each owner on a case-by-case basis to find the best resolution and continue to move the project forward."

The agency has to navigate state and federal laws that govern property acquisition as well as agreements with the FRA, which has put up more than $3 billion in federal transportation and stimulus money for work on the Valley sections of the statewide train project.

"Our funding contribution plan only allows funds to be used in the first construction segment," Alley said.

And while the rail authority certified environmental reports for most of its Merced-Fresno section two years ago, the only portion of the route for which parcel acquisition has been approved by the state Public Works Board is the area south of Avenue 17 -- which leaves the Haflichs high and dry.

"I can't believe they don't have any kind of process to take care of the hardships they're creating for people," Sheryl Haflich said. "I know we can't be the only ones in this position."

While the failed well is a major problem for the family, "I'm less worried about the well than I am the rail line," Bobby Haflich added. "We need high-speed rail to buy us out so we can move."

In its first construction sections between Avenue 17 and downtown Fresno, there are 385 parcels that the rail authority needs to acquire -- either in whole or in part -- to make way for the railroad right of way and related structures, such as street overpasses.

As of last month, the agency has gained possession of 61 parcels, 55 of which have been turned over to the contractor for work, Alley said. There are another 52 parcels with which the agency has agreements pending with property owners. "And everyone else has received their first written offers," she added.

Among parcels whose owners didn't want to sell or have not reached agreement on price or terms, the state Public Works Board adopted 23 resolutions of necessity -- the first step toward condemnation or eminent domain. Of those 23 parcels, Alley said, settlements have now been reached with 11 owners.

The state Legislature's approval last month to allow the use of cap-and-trade money -- paid into California's greenhouse-gas reduction program by companies that create air pollution -- for high-speed rail starting next year "will give us the ability to build out from the initial construction section," Alley said. That would enable the agency to expand its land-buying boundaries.

In the meantime, "we're trying to develop a program for hardship cases like this," Alley added. "Caltrans has a hardship program, and a number of other state agencies do, for situations like this where we can work with affected property owners."

It's uncertain, however, how quickly such a program can be developed. "We hope to have a process and a resolution in the near future, but whether that's three weeks or three months, we don't know," Alley said. "Our goal would be sooner rather than later; that would be the best thing for the family and the authority."

Until that happens, there may not be much more that the Haflichs can do but wait with growing frustration while Bobby Haflich continues to make his 120-mile daily round trip.

"They've been telling us for five years that this is coming," Sheryl Haflich said. "But they haven't even turned a shovel yet."

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

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