Kings County getting $10 million to settle 2014 lawsuit over high-speed rail route

The last lawsuit challenging the selection of a high-speed rail route between Fresno and Bakersfield has been settled between Kings County and the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

But it’s not the last legal challenge facing the controversial bullet-train effort.

In a joint statement Thursday, Kings County announced it will drop a lawsuit it filed in mid-2014 under the California Environmental Quality Act over the rail agency’s certification of an environmental impact report for its Fresno-Bakersfield segment and subsequent approval of a route alignment through southern Fresno County, Kings and Tulare counties, and into Kern County.

The settlement is one of three agreements reached between the two sides. The rail authority and the Kings County Board of Supervisors also signed deals over coordinating construction of the rail route in Kings County as well as maintenance of some grade separations of the rail route crossing Kings County roads.

Among the terms of the settlement approved Tuesday by county supervisors are provisions for the rail agency to pay Kings County $10 million “for reimbursement of staff time, the relocation of Fire Station No. 4,and for General Plan updates,” according to a memo to the board by the Kings County Counsel’s office.

The city of Corcoran will also receive $1 million from the rail authority to make up for aesthetic effects from the rail route.

In exchange, the county will dismiss its lawsuits and administrative challenges, according to the board memo.

“Now is the time for Kings County to come together with the Authority to settle disputes and to signal a new phase of cooperation,” Supervisor Doug Verboon said in Thursday’s announcement. “With our agreements in place, the high-speed rail project can move forward, and we can continue to protect the interests of the people of Kings County.”

Some of the most steadfast opposition to the high-speed rail project in the Valley has emanated from Kings County. At one point, there were at least seven lawsuits alleging that the state violated the California Environmental Quality Act with its May 7, 2014 approval of an environmental analysis that critics said did not adequately address myriad concerns over impact of the rail project on communities, farmland and wildlife on the 114-mile route between Fresno and Bakersfield.

One by one, however, those lawsuits were dropped or settled over the last five years, leaving only the Kings County case.

Thursday’s agreements “represents a new day for the high-speed rail project and demonstrate the willingness of both sides to put past issues aside and work together toward constructive solutions to move the high-speed rail project forward,” said Brian Kelly, the rail authority’s CEO.

Kings County was also among the plaintiffs, along with Kings County farmer John Tos, the Bay Area town of Atherton and critics, in a separate lawsuit that challenged the legality of legislation authorizing the use of money from Proposition 1A – a $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure approved by California voters in 2008. A Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled against the rail foes late last year, but an appeal is pending in that case and awaiting the preparation of transcripts from the trial court hearing, said Stuart Flashman, an Oakland attorney representing opponents of the rail project.

Flashman told The Bee on Thursday that Kings County will file a request to withdraw from that appeal, most likely after it receives its settlement payment from the rail authority. He added, however, that the case will continue to move forward with the other appellants.

Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.