High-Speed Rail

High-speed rail agency accused of stalling on settlement

The Madera County Farm Bureau and other organizations are accusing the California High-Speed Rail Authority of failing to live up to key terms of a legal settlement.

In a letter sent Tuesday to the rail agency, the Madera farm bureau's attorney, Barry Epstein of Oakland, said the authority is "in default" of an April 17 agreement that settled a lawsuit filed last year by the Madera and Merced county Farm Bureaus, the grassroots landowner group Preserve Our Heritage, the Chowchilla Water District and the Fagundes farming family in Madera and Merced counties. The organizations sued the rail authority over its May 2012 certification of an environmental impact report for the Merced-Fresno portion of the proposed statewide high-speed rail system.

Among the key complaints now: The authority had yet to put up a promised $5 million to establish an agricultural land mitigation fund. That money is supposed to be used to buy conservation easements on farmland in the region to make up for acreage lost to the high-speed rail route. The notice also says the rail authority still owed almost $973,000 promised to cover legal fees for the groups suing the agency.

Epstein said he twice received assurances from the authority that the legal fees were on their way -- first by July 2, and later by July 19.

A spokeswoman for the rail authority said the state Controller's Office generated a check for the payment on Monday. Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, confirmed that the payment was received by the settlement trust account on Wednesday morning.

The letter also states that the authority has not yet named the farm bureaus and other organizations as participants in a Farmland Conservancy Program operated by the Department of Conservation; nor has the agency provided a list of mediators for valuation of farmland to be acquired for the railroad right of way. That mediation panel was supposed to have been established by May 17.

"From the Farm Bureau's perspective, the bigger issue is the mediation," Raudabaugh said Wednesday. "The mediators are supposed to help avoid disputes over property values, because it's in everybody's best interest to avoid eminent domain proceedings."

But as recently as two weeks ago, in a monthly meeting with the authority's staff, Raudabaugh said the authority still had not provided a proposed list of mediators. "Our landowners are beside themselves," she said, as appraisers for the rail authority continue to assess properties along the route without mediators' guidance.

A spokeswoman for the rail authority said both sides share responsibility for the delay in empaneling mediators.

"It's not just us that haven't met that requirement," said Lisa Marie Alley, the authority's press secretary. "It's on all of us to come together and make sure we come up with a group of people that we all agree on."

Alley said both sides are responsible for offering suggestions for potential mediators. "Over the last three months, we have floated a number of names to them," she said. "The biggest thing is that we are meeting with them in good faith and we've been discussing this issue for weeks now."

Epstein said that if the agency doesn't correct the defaults, he'll go back to Sacramento County Superior Court to ask Judge Timothy Frawley to enforce the terms of the settlement.

"The authority's pattern of defaulting on core terms of the agreement ... almost immediately after entering into the agreement, is very disturbing and surprising," Epstein wrote. "The authority's failure to honor the promises it made in the agreement will undoubtedly make other parties reluctant to settle the inevitable disputes that will come in the future with regard to this massive project."

The farm bureau lawsuit was the last of three separate cases filed by critics in Fresno, Madera and Merced counties over the authority's approval of the Merced-Fresno stretch. Two other cases -- one filed by the city of Chowchilla, and another by property owners with land in Madera and Fresno counties -- were settled in January and February.

The authority hopes to break ground this summer for a 30-mile stretch of the rail line from northeast of Madera to the south end of Fresno -- the first construction of what is planned as a 520-mile high-speed rail network linking San Francisco and Los Angeles by way of the San Joaquin Valley.