A pair of freshman GOP lawmakers from the Valley want the Legislature to examine how the California High-Speed Rail Authority is going about getting the property it needs for right of way.
Assembly Members Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, and Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals, submitted their request to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. The pair want to know what policies or safeguards are in place to ensure that property owners receive fair offers for their land, and whether there is a process for landowners to appeal appraisal values before eminent domain or condemnation takes place.
Like many other Republican legislators, Patterson and Bigelow have been outspoken critics of the rail agency and its plans in the San Joaquin Valley. As a member of the Madera County Board of Supervisors, Bigelow was among a board majority that voted to sue the rail authority last year over environmental approval of the Merced-Fresno section. The authority hopes to begin construction on the first 30-mile stretch of the planned statewide rail system, from northeast of Madera to the south end of Fresno, later this summer. But the authority can’t build on land if it doesn’t own the property.
“We cannot allow the authority to continue a reckless, headlong pursuit of high-speed rail that results in taking as much property as they can for the least amount of compensation,” Patterson said in a joint statement he issued Tuesday with Bigelow. “Private property owners nee to be treated fairly and adequately compensated for the loss of their land and business.”
The joint statement said that a March request for right of way information was rejected by the Joint Audit Committee after the authority said it could provide information within a few days. “To date, that information has not been provided,” the Patterson/Bigelow statement said.
In response, the rail authority provided a copy of a March 22 memo to the audit committee noting that the authority’s right of way process is already subject to existing state and federal law governing property acquisition, eminent domain and relocation assistance.
In January, the state Public Works Board gave the rail authority a green light to begin acquiring 356 parcels in Fresno and Madera counties. The authority had already identified nearly 130 parcels it wanted in hand by the end of this year, including 75 that it anticipated would be needed by the end of September.
In an eminent domain or condemnation case, if a public agency and a property owner cannot reach a sale agreement, the agency can go to court to acquire it. The court can order the transfer of the land and determines fair compensation that must be paid.
Earlier this year, in settling a lawsuit filed by the Madera and Merced county Farm Bureaus and others, the rail authority agreed to establish a mediation panel for the valuation of farmland along the rail route between Merced and Fresno. The authority has said it hopes to negotiate agreements with most landowners to buy the property it needs, but acknowledged that emiment domain could be used as a last resort.
It’s far from certain that the audit request by Patterson and Bigelow will make any headway. Neither is a member of the Joint Audit Committee, and while most — if not all — of the legislature’s Republican members oppose high-speed rail, they are outnumbered by Democrats by a 9-to-5 margin on the committee.