High-speed rail returns to court; route selected

Issue Date: November 13, 2013
By Christine Souza

A Sacramento County Superior Court judge heard arguments last week about what legal remedies should be imposed on the agency responsible for planning and construction of the California high-speed rail project for violating funding and environmental requirements of Proposition 1A, the rail bond measure approved by voters in 2008.

In a case brought by Kings County farmer John Tos, Hanford landowner Aaron Fukuda and Kings County officials, Judge Michael Kenny previously determined the California High-Speed Rail Authority "abused its discretion by approving a funding plan that did not comply with requirements of the law." Plaintiffs argued before the judge last Friday about whether to bar the rail authority from spending or committing any state bond funds for construction until the agency has complied with Proposition 1A.

One of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Stuart Flashman of Oakland, argued that construction contracts approved by the authority commit bond funds without a proper funding plan, which violates a requirement under Proposition 1A.

"An obligation is an obligation," Flashman said. "These are commitments that have been made. They have been obligated and committed."

On behalf of the authority, Supervising Deputy Attorney General Michele Inan argued that it has not spent any state bond money for construction and that otherwise it has so far used only federal funds not subject to the bond requirements. She added that obligating state funds for future use does not mean the funds have been spent, and therefore does not violate the bond measure at this time.

Flashman responded that the committing of funds obligates the authority to pay.

"When you find yourself in a hole, it is time to stop digging, and the authority doesn't seem to understand that," Flashman said. "The problem is that the authority has committed bond funds improperly. Those are violations because they haven't done a funding plan."

After hearing arguments from both sides, Kenny took the case under submission for a later ruling.

Doug Verboon, chairman of the Kings County Board of Supervisors and a walnut grower, attended the court hearing and said, "It is hard to say what the judge is going to do.

"It seems to me if you sign a contract to do some work, you are obligated," Verboon said.

Tos, who said he would like Kenny to place an injunction on the high-speed rail project and let voters decide its fate on the ballot in 2014, said, "This is typical of what's been going on for the past three or four years. The authority pays no attention to what they've been mandated to do. Whatever they want to do, they do."

In another development, the authority has recommended its preferred route for the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section of the project. Known as "Hanford East," the 114-mile segment would travel east of the city of Hanford. Previously, authority officials had recommended a route traveling west of Hanford. The authority noted last week that the route was revised in part to avoid planned development west of Hanford.

But Fukuda, chairman of the grassroots organization Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability, described the eastern route as just as damaging to farmland and the community as the previous route.

"This new route is no different than the western alignment for our community. Nothing changed from the day after or the day before (the new alignment was announced)," Fukuda said. "They gave us two bad alignments and expected us to choose."

Opponents of high-speed rail in Kings County say they would have preferred for the rail system to remain on existing transportation corridors, such as Interstate 5 or Highway 99.

Meanwhile, on another portion of the new Fresno-to-Bakersfield alignment the authority decided to table a proposed Wasco-Shafter Bypass concept in Kern County. Instead, the track would follow the existing Burlington Northern/Santa Fe railroad right-of-way. This new alignment, which agricultural representatives in the Wasco-Shafter area prefer, was selected, at least in part, to avoid impacts to a new oil-well field along the formerly proposed bypass.

To the north, land acquisition is beginning for the Merced-to-Fresno section of the high-speed rail project.

Madera County Farm Bureau Executive Director Anja Raudabaugh said she is aware so far of only one purchase offer made to an agricultural landowner in Madera County, and that the offer had been rejected.

As a resource for landowners with property along the proposed alignment of the rail line, the California Farm Bureau Federation has posted on its website detailed information about the eminent-domain land acquisition process, as well as information on the tax implications of eminent-domain takings. To find the information, see the Issues and Regulations page at www.cfbf.com/issues/index.cfm and look for the Eminent Domain subheading.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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