More than a year ago, the California High-Speed Rail Authority said it was working on a solution to help a Madera family whose home was rendered unsellable because it’s in the path of work for the statewide bullet-train project.
Thirteen months after The Bee reported on their plight, Sheryl and Bobby Haflich still find themselves between a rock and a hard place. But now the rock is bigger and the hard place is harder.
“We can’t sell. We can’t move. We can’t do anything,” Sheryl Haflich says. “It’s nuts because you feel like you’re getting screwed every time you turn around.”
The Haflich home is at the corner of Tremaine Avenue and Lake Street in the Madera Acres neighborhood at the northeast edge of the city. The high-speed rail line itself doesn’t go through their property (its closest approach is about 600 feet or so to the west). But their property will be affected by the planned construction of an overpass that will carry traffic on Lake Street up and over both the existing BNSF Railway freight tracks and the adjacent high-speed train tracks.
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It is one of a number of parcels in the Madera Acres area — and thousands up and down the San Joaquin Valley — that the rail authority ultimately will need to acquire at some point for construction of its “backbone” from Merced to Bakersfield.
There is a hitch, however. Even though the Haflichs are eager to sell and move someplace else, the rail agency says it can’t buy it, at least not quite yet. And with the rail line coming through, no one else will buy it, either.
A ray of hope could be on the horizon. The State Public Works Board, which oversees property acquisition for state projects, is poised to approve site selection of the Haflich property at its Aug. 17 meeting — a crucial first step that clears the way for the rail authority to commence formal negotiations with the family en route to making a purchase offer. But Haflich isn’t holding her breath. She said the rail authority told her last month that she would have a formal offer in hand by Aug. 15.
It’s a complicated situation, and one made even more difficult for the Haflichs because the well that supplies their water went dry almost 11/2 years ago, making them even more desperate for the rail authority to buy their property so they can get on with their lives.
The rail authority approved most of its Fresno-Merced section in 2012. But when the first construction contract was awarded for the project two years ago, the contract’s construction boundary stopped short of the Haflichs’ property and those of their neighbors at Avenue 17, about a mile to the south.
A year ago, when The Bee reported about the Haflichs’ predicament, the rail authority said it was bound by its federal grant agreements to only spend money within the boundaries of its construction contracts from south of Avenue 17 in Madera County to Seventh Standard Road in Kern County.
But the agency also said last summer that it was working on a policy and program for property hardship cases like the Haflichs. And at various times during the intervening months, the rail authority has said “we’re getting close.”
It was a message repeated several weeks ago to The Bee by Diana Gómez, the authority’s Central Valley regional director. “We’re very close to being able to make (the Haflichs) an offer,” she said in a July 20 interview. “Once the Public Works Board approves it, we can go ahead and make an offer.”
Haflich won’t believe it until it happens. “I’ve heard ‘We’re getting close’ so many times I could puke,” Haflich says. She says that on several occasions, the agency has told her to expect results within weeks or months.
Based on those conversations, the family has looked for someplace to move. But without a firm financial commitment on their current home, the Haflichs lost out on six different properties.
“It takes a lot of energy to be involved in this type of hardship,” Haflich says. “If they’re not really going to do anything, just tell us the truth. Just tell us.”
It’s just nuts because you feel like you’re getting screwed every time you turn around.
Madera homeowner Sheryl Haflich
Appraisers for the rail agency visited the Haflich home in March and told her she would “need to be out of here in three to six months.” Last week, however, Sheryl Haflich says she was told a new appraisal is needed — one that she believes will be much lower because one of the neighbors recently sold her home for far less than market value out of fear of the high-speed rail line’s effects.
“She panicked and she sold, and that’s going to hurt all of us.”
Richard Mirelez owns 10 acres at Lake Street and the BNSF line and stands to lose about seven acres to the high-speed rail right of way and to the Lake Street overpass. But even that’s not certain, because his property is also north of the approved construction zone. Like some other homeowners in the Madera Acres area, his well has given out. And like the Haflichs, he says he is fed up with not being able to get a straight answer from anyone at the rail authority.
“There’s so many different people, and no one knows what they’re doing,” Mirelez says. “Each person has a different answer.”
Mirelez says one rail agency representative told him that “there’s no budget to buy anything north of Avenue 17,” adding that since Mirelez’s well dried up, “the property value will go down because all we’re buying is dirt.”
“That comment just seemed pretty rude,” Mirelez says. “Maybe to them it’s just dirt. But it’s my home. I bought these 10 acres to retire. … I didn’t buy three acres. I’m not going to spend $40,000 on a new well just for three acres. If you’re going to take me out, take me out completely.”
The closest thing to a commitment in writing that the Haflichs have received was an October 2014 letter from Don Grebe, the authority’s director of real property. But that letter merely acknowledged that their property “is located within an approved HSR environmental footprint and will be acquired in order to construct an overcrossing for Road 27 (Lake Street).”
“Well, we already knew that,” Haflich says with a shrug and a chuckle. “We’ve been to the Public Works Board several times, and to the General Services Department several times, and I’m on the phone to high-speed rail all the time. … We’ve been bounced around from department to department. We just want to get out of here.”
1,291Number of properties needed for high-speed rail right of way, Madera to Bakersfield
300Number of properties for which the state has gained legal possession
As with so many bureaucracies, there are rules the rail authority must follow when it buys property. According to the State Public Works Board, “no negotiations with the property owner may commence until after Board approval of site selection for that property.”
That is the action that is set for Aug. 17 in Sacramento for the Haflich property. “I’ve asked our consultants to be prepared, once the Public Works Board approves this and we have an approved appraisal, to go out there the next day and make them an offer,” Gomez said.
The new appraisal that Haflich mentioned, Gomez added, “is more of a formality, to make sure that nothing has changed on the property and that we still have adequate comparables.”
But why has it taken more than a year to get to this point? Those answers are less than clear. “One of the things we had to decide is did we have to create a new policy or could we use something that’s available to other agencies,” Gomez said Friday.
“The other thing is because we needed to go back and work with our federal funding partner to see if we could use any money to acquire right of way outside of the first construction package. … Our grants prevent us from using that money outside of what we agreed to, so we had to find another funding mechanism to acquire the Haflich property.”
The rail authority has adopted the rules that Caltrans uses in its hardship property dealings rather than trying to reinvent a new set of policies. Caltrans’ property acquisition manual defines a hardship as “a situation where unusual personal circumstances accrue to an owner of property and are aggravated or perpetuated by reason of a pending transportation facility purchase and cannot be solved by the owner” without the transportation agency acquiring the site.
On the money side, with $3 billion in federal grant money ruled out, the agency is turning to cap-and-trade money — funds paid into California’s greenhouse-gas reduction program by companies to buy air-pollution credits — to enable its eventual purchase of the Haflich home.
The Haflichs’ ordeal may serve to smooth the way for other “hardship” property owners also caught in the no-man’s land along the bullet-train route between Avenue 17 and Avenue 191/2. There are dozens of parcels of land in the path of the tracks; to date, however, Gomez said she has been made aware of only one other potential hardship case.
“If there are others, I will work directly with them just like I’ve communicated with the Haflichs so they don’t get bounced from one person to another,” Gomez said.