Property owners resist high-speed rail condemning land
Building public projects often involves acquiring land. That usually means using eminent domain to take private property with “just compensation,” as mandated by the Fifth Amendment.
California’s high-speed rail project now is acquiring the land needed for construction, but is meeting resistance from property owners who charge the process is being rushed.
At is Feb. 13 meeting, the California State Public Works Board approved condemning private property for the rail project. The parcels are listed beginning on p. 18 of the board’s agenda. The agenda explained:
“The site selections took place after an extensive environmental review process where it was determined that any alternative alignment would include the selected parcels, or where a preferred alignment had already been approved by both the High Speed Rail Authority Board and the Federal Railroad Administration. Acquisition of these properties will allow the High Speed Rail Authority to move forward with construction of the HSTS.”
The charges of rushing the property takings came in a Feb. 10 letter to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which runs the project. The letter was from Frank Oliveira, co-chair of Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability, which opposes the project.
The letter included what went on during a Jan. 23 workshop in Laton the CHSRA held with Fresno County Farm Bureau, Fresno Economic Development Corporation and County of Fresno. The workshop affected “right of way” property owners in Fresno County between American Avenue and Kings River.
The letter charged:
“The consensus of the audience was that most of their properties had been ‘Flash Appraised’ without their input or knowledge. The resulting Offers rendered by the ROW [right of way] Agents did not account for factors such as water delivery systems, wells, infrastructure, leases and other business agreements associated with the property to be acquired as well as the after effect on the remainder of the affected parcels and associated Agro Businesses.
“The result of the Flash Appraisals are offers that logically are grossly undervalued and do not offer proper compensate to those affected by the project.
“Offers in some cases were probably 100’s of thousands of dollars below value.”
The CHSRA insists it is paying fair value for the properties. CHSRA Spokeswoman Lisa-Marie Alley told CalWatchDog.com in an email, “We continue to work with impacted property owners along the alignment in the Central Valley. It’s our commitment to move the right of way process forward, in accordance with the law, and in a respectful manner that results in a positive outcome.”
But Oliveira told CalWatchDog.com he was not satisfied with the CHSRA’s response. “We are aware of the widespread abuse of agricultural landowners within a 10-mile portion of the Right of Way (ROW) between Fresno and Hanford,” he said. “These landowners have been Flash Appraised and had their properties intentionally undervalued for acquisition by the Authority’s contracted ROW agents.”
He said the CHSRA’s ROW agents have made appraisals without much consideration that these properties are not just raw real estate. He charged:
“These properties are Agro Businesses that are being destroyed. There are so many complications when you are talking about irrigation. If the farmers’ land is cut diagonally, watering is a challenge. Does the Authority have to build new wells or will they allow lines to be built under the right of way at certain junctures. Some Authority agents say yes, some say no. There doesn’t seem to be a consistent answer.
“The cost of water wells has also been grossly undervalued in appraisals. In one case in the appraisal the Authority provided, it noted $40,000 replacement value for a well. But a more realistic value might be $100,000 to $150,000. There also is a wait list up to one year because of water shortages and there is no mention of that in the appraisal.”
At the Feb. 10 board meeting, CHSRA Chairman Dan Richard, promised he would look into Oliveira’s complaints.
Ongoing legal challenges are a major reason the CHSRA now is rushing the property condemnations. But the legal challenges over the condemnations also could add to the delays.
Although courts have upheld the right to take property, “just compensation” is open to legal dispute.
The Owners’ Counsel of America, which represents property owners in eminent domain disputes, lists 12 “considerations” that may come up, including, “Is the property designed for a special use, giving rise to unique valuation techniques?” And, “How are fixtures treated in condemnation?”
Kathy Hamilton is the Ralph Nader of high-speed rail, continually uncovering hidden aspects of the project and revealing them to the public. She started writing in order to tell local communities how the project affects them and her reach grew statewide. She has written more than 225 articles on high-speed rail and attended hundreds of state and local meetings. She is a board member of the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail; has testified at government hearings; has provided public testimony and court declarations on public records act requests; has given public testimony; and has provided transcripts for the validation of court cases.
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