The State Public Works Board on Friday authorized the use of eminent domain, or condemnation, to acquire property in Madera and Fresno needed for construction of California’s high-speed rail system.
The properties are scattered along about 33 miles of the high-speed rail line between the northeast fringe of Madera and Floral Avenue south of Fresno. They include farmland, vacant buildings, homes and businesses that sit on land that will either make way for the bullet-train tracks or for associated structures like new road overpasses.
Five of the properties are to be acquired in their entirety; the rest of the potential condemnations involve only portions — in some cases slivers of one-tenth of an acre or less —of the parcels. Altogether, the 31 resolutions approved by the board add up to about 69 acres.
Eminent domain 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 trial determines the fair market value and other “just compensation” due the owner. Verdicts can be no lower than the agency’s offer and no higher than the owner’s counteroffer.
Until a case lands in court, however, the sides can continue to negotiate.
The rail authority has stated in the past that it hoped to use eminent domain only as a last resort; in the past few months, however, it has stepped up its number of condemnation requests to the State Public Works Board. The board oversees land acquisition for state projects. Friday’s action in Sacramento brings to 275 the number of properties for which the state board has adopted condemnation resolutions since December 2013.
Despite being armed with a green light to use eminent domain, the rail authority reported that it has not yet seized any properties via condemnation.
The rail authority awarded a $1 billion contract in 2013 for the design and construction of a 29-mile stretch of the rail line between Fresno and Madera, and last month awarded a contract worth about $1.23 billion for a second construction section from Fresno to the Tulare-Kern county line. But even with those contracts in place, the rail authority has struggled to buy the property it needs to build its planned sections.
About 1,300 pieces of property are needed, either in whole or in part, for what is supposed to be a 120-mile Valley “backbone” of the statewide line connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles, with trains traveling at speeds up to 220 mph. More than 500 are required in the Fresno-Madera construction section alone. To date, however, the rail authority has only managed to secure about 120 parcels in Fresno and Madera counties. And the slow pace of property deals is taking a toll on the construction schedule.
A report earlier this week to the rail authority’s finance/audit committee noted that right of way acquisition “continues to be a schedule risk” for contractors on the Fresno-Madera section. Officials said the agency is evaluating the contractor’s analysis of schedule effects and expects to meet with the contractor “to determine a recommended path forward.”
The schedule isn’t the only concern facing the rail authority. Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability, a Kings County-based group that opposes the agency’s project plan, sent a letter to the Public Works Board this week detailing complaints about undervalued appraisals on properties needed for right of way. Those appraisals done on behalf of the rail authority were reportedly done without any consultation or input from the affected landowners, said Frank Oliveira, co-chairman of the Kings County group.
The organization is among the plaintiffs in lawsuits challenging the rail authority’s environmental certification and route approval of the Fresno-Bakersfield portion of the rail route; another co-chairman, Hanford homeowner Aaron Fukuda, is among those suing the rail authority over whether its statewide project plan complies with Proposition 1A, a $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond approved by California voters in 2008.
“The authority’s (right of way) agents did not include any of the property owners’ input in establishing the value of their property or just compensation, …” Oliveira wrote. “The agent is not obtaining critical information about the damage that the taking or partial taking causes the agribusiness owner or homeowner.”
Oliveira asserted that the practice — which he dubbed “flash appraising” — causes “grossly undervalued offers being rendered” to property owners. His letter accused the Public Works Board of merely being a “rubber stamp” to the rail authority’s requests, and challenged the three-member panel — comprised of representatives of the state Finance, Transportation and General Services departments — to postpone a vote on the condemnations “until you are sure that the process leading up to the (resolution of necessity) was done in a manner to facilitate the greatest public good while bringing the least private harm.”
The letter, however, had no apparent impact on the board, as all 31 resolutions being considered Friday were adopted.