Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

High-speed rail: More changes atop the state’s HSR agency

Frank Vacca

Stability seems to be at a premium at the California High-Speed Rail Authority, where changing faces have become something of a constant in recent months.

The authority announced this week that it’s hired Frank Vacca, who has been the Chief Engineer for Amtrak for six years, as chief program manager for the high-speed rail effort.

Vacca will head up the authority’s technical and engineering teams. Construction of the statewide $68 billion high-speed rail project is planned to begin next year in the Fresno area with work on the first $6 billion stretches through the central San Joaquin Valley. But there are at least four different legal challenges — and likely more to come — potentially standing in the way, all hoping to derail the state’s plans.

Vacca’s hiring to fill a vacant post in the authority’s senior management is only the latest change at the agency.

Roelof van Ark

Jeffrey Morales

Earlier this year, Roelof van Ark, the authority’s CEO since mid-2010, stepped down; the agency eventually tabbed Jeffrey Morales as his replacement. Morales, a former chief of Caltrans, came to the authority from his post as a vice president of Parsons Brinckerhoff, the multinational engineering and consulting company that is providing overall project management services to the authority.

Diana Gomez

Jeff Abercrombie, a Caltrans veteran who was the authority’s Central Valley program manager for about a year and a half, returned to Caltrans last month. His post has been filled by Diana Gomez, who worked for Caltrans in Los Angeles. Gomez is one of eight senior positions the authority has filled recently.

Hans Van Winkle

Within Parsons Brinckerhoff, Hans Van Winkle, a retired general with the Army Corps of Engineers, was the company’s high-speed rail project manager. Van Winkle’s appointment to the post was much ballyhooed by the authority back in 2010. Van Winkle is now on to other things within the company, and Brent Felker took over the high-speed rail chores — quietly and without ceremony — within the past few months.

And on the authority’s governing board, there are three vacant seats created by resignations since December:

  • Matthew Toledo, a Los Angeles businessman appointed in late 2010 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, resigned at the end of 2011 and whose seat has yet to be refilled by Gov. Jerry Brown.
  • Russell Burns, appointed by then-Assembly Speaker Karen Bass in 2009, stepped down in August. Burns is the business manager for the Operating Engineers Union Local 3 in Sacramento.
  • Bob Balgenorth, outgoing president of the state Building and Construction Trades Council, resigned earlier this month. He was appointed by the state Senate’s Rules Committee in March 2011.

Real Estate: Selma subdivision with homes for rent celebrates grand opening

A grand opening was held Wednesday for a Selma subdivision with homes for rent.

Valley View Village, on the city’s west side, is a 66-home rental neighborhood with two- to three-bedroom homes targeted to ag-worker families.

The houses range in size from 950 to 1,000 square feet and have two-car garages. The development has a 2,500-square-foot community center with offices, kitchen and dining room, lounge, computer lot, and play areas.

The houses are 100% occupied with 80 households on a waiting list, said Estela Quintero,  property manager with the Corporation for Better Housing.

That’s impressive considering the history of the project. Valley View was part of plan in 2007 for a 192-lot owner-occupied subdivision. The builder, Lynx Realty and Management from of Sherman Oaks, sold 12 homes.

A year later the recession hit and the company decided to build and rent. That idea didn’t sit well with Selma city officials who refused to issue the developer more building permits saying it was unfair to the existing homeowners who believed the other homes would be owner-occupied.

Lynx Realty sued the city for the permits and won in May 2008.

Construction on the new homes started late last year. Quintero said there are plans to build another 70 homes on the property, but no date has been set on when those would be ready.

Rescue possible for Ram Tap horse showgrounds, but it’s NOT a done deal

Riders and horses practice their paces and jumps at the Ram Tap grounds in this 2008 Bee file photo.

Back in September, longtime horseman Bill Burton dropped a bombshell on the Valley’s equestrian community when he confirmed that he will be shutting down his popular Ram Tap eventing showgrounds along the San Joaquin River following his final horse trials in November.

Now, the horsing-around crowd is abuzz — but perhaps prematurely — over plans by a Fresno businessman to keep the venue going and continue holding events into 2013 and beyond.

Real-estate professional John Marshall confirmed that he is in negotiations with Burton to buy the Ram Tap assets — the jumps, the vehicles, the equipment and other miscellany accumulated over more than 50 years that are needed to put on the competitions. Marshall is working with a group of people who want to keep the shows going. If the deal comes to fruition, the site would be renamed Fresno County Horse Park.

But in separate conversations, Marshall and Burton both said there is no done deal, so any celebrations may amount to (apologies in advance for the mangled metaphor) opening the barn door before the horse wants out.

That’s not stopping the cheers for Marshall’s potential rescue on a Facebook page of memories and photos from riders across the western U.S. who have competed at Ram Tap over the years.

Three-day eventing is considered the “triathlon” of the equestrian sports, a combination of dressage, arena jumping and cross-country jumping. Ram Tap, on the south bank of the San Joaquin River, just east of the Highway 99 bridge, was started by horse owners and competitive riders Marian and Pat Humphries in 1957. Burton worked for them as a stable boy for the shows from Day 1, when he was 11, and later took over the operations.

If a deal is to be done, it’s probably going to have to happen quickly. Burton’s final Ram Tap horse trials are set for next month. Fresno County Horse Park already has events set on the calendar of the U.S. Eventing Association, the governing body for the sport — dates set as placeholders in anticipation of the sale going through. The first of those competitions would be in January, followed by more shows in February, April, October and November.

Watch this air quality lawsuit in the San Joaquin Valley

Environmental watchdogs filed suit last week to stop that $12 dirty-air fee now attached to your vehicle registration each year.  Keep your eye on this one, folks.

It’s all about that $30 million ozone fine that the San Joaquin Valley pays each year for missing a cleanup deadline.

This lawsuit hits at the heart of who pollutes and who pays in the Valley — where there have been more ozone violations in the last 12 years than any other place in the country. The fine is for failing to achieve an old ozone standard.

The lawsuit says the fine has been illegally shifted from major industries to residents, but local air authorities and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency don’t see it quite that way.

The federal suit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Latinos United for Clean Air, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Sierra Club.

By law, the federal fine for missing the cleanup deadline in 2010 is supposed to be pointed at major industries, Earthjustice says. The EPA violated the Clean Air Act when it allowed local air leaders to waive the fine for many of these industries, the suit says.

But local air authorities say industries already have spent $40 billion over the last several decades and reduced pollution dramatically. Now, they say, it’s time for motorists, who help create the pollution, to pay a little more, too.

There are a host of arguments on both sides about who pollutes more and how the cost should be split up. I’ll let readers trot out the numbers and the arguments.

I’ll conclude by answering the one question that is asked every time I bring up this $30 million penalty.

Where does the money go? It goes into the Valley’s pool of pollution-reduction  funding. It’s used, for instance, to help replace dirty diesel engines in the Valley.



Political Notebook: Critics cry foul over Measure B mailer sent and paid for by Fresno County

A mailer that reads like a campaign brochure in support of Measure B — the one-eighth-cent sales tax that benefits local libraries — began landing in mailboxes today, courtesy of Fresno County.

In includes a “Dear Neighbor” letter from county Librarian Laurel Prysiazny and a question-and-answer section about libraries in general and Measure B in particular.

Given that Measure B is up for renewal in two weeks, the mailer caught the eye of some people in the community. Their question: Is the county paying for the mailer? Can the county use taxpayer money on such mailers?

The answer to both questions is yes, says campaign ethics expert Bob Stern.

“As long as it doesn’t say ‘vote for,’ a particular ballot initiative” he added.

A key part of the California Government Code reads: “An officer, employee, or consultant of a local agency may not expend or authorize the expenditure of any of the funds of the local agency to support or oppose the approval or rejection of a ballot measure, or the election or defeat of a candidate, by the voters.”

That means such mailers can even be slanted — and most are — as long as they are educational in nature.

One of the lines in the mailer says Measure B “simply extends the existing, voter-approved 1/8-cent sales tax for local libraries without extending the tax rate, and will continue to cost the average person about $12 a year.”

While that may sound like advocacy to some, it is simply educational to Prysiazny.

Measure B has been on the books for 14 years, but periodically needs to be reauthorized. It accounts for about half of the county library system’s total budget, paying for things like books, librarians and library buildings.

But when library officials did a survey in Marsh, Prysiazny said, 30% of those who participated didn’t know much about how Fresno County’s library system was funded.

“We knew we needed to do some education,” she said. “We are obligated to let people know what this money does for them.”

Prysiazny freely admits the mailer was paid for with library funds. She said she didn’t know the exact amount. But she also said library officials were careful to not advocate in the mailer — or in any other communication with county residents.

The mailer’s final layout, she said, was reviewed by the county counsel’s office.
“From my perspective,” she says, “we know it’s factual.”

Real Estate: A second Arthur Dyson “extreme” home to appear on HGTV Thursday night

Lencioni Home in Sanger.
Photo provided by Arthur Dyson.

Update: If you missed last week’s “Extreme Homes” episode that included Fresno architect Arthur Dyson’s design of a house in Panama City, Fla. don’t worry. The episode titled, “Hideaway, Body House, Pyramid,” will air again at 8 p.m. Nov. 9, according to the HGTV schedule.

A Sanger home designed by Dyson will appear on Thursday’s show, which starts at 9 p.m. There is no rerun date scheduled yet.

Original post: Another one of Fresno architect Arthur Dyson’s “extreme” homes will appear on HGTV’s cable television show of the same name 9 p.m. Thursday.

This time it’s Dyson’s 1985 design of the Lencioni home in Sanger – a football-shaped house with curves and arches and a shingled exterior nestled in the woods.

The first floor of the house has a living and dining room, kitchen, a workshop and garage and open walls connecting it to the second floor where a bedroom, bathroom and study loft are enclosed where needed for privacy.

The house is located in a 100-year-old flood plain, according to Dyson. A berm raised into the foundation anchors the house in the grassy, open glade.

Last week, Dyson’s design of a Panama City home in Florida was featured on “Extreme Homes.” Read my post about it here. I’m working on finding out if that episode will run again for those of you who missed it.

In the meantime, you can watch the Sanger home at 9 p.m. Thursday on HGTV’s “Extreme Homes.

Real Estate: Housing slowly improving, but many markets still worse off than four years ago

RealtyTrac, a foreclosure listing service, is getting into the election hoopla with the release of its “Election 2012 Housing Health Check” – a look at voting trends and the state of the housing market during the last presidential election compared to now.

The report looked at 919 counties nationwide – including the four-county central San Joaquin Valley –  and analyzed the average home price, unemployment, foreclosure inventory, foreclosure starts and the share of distressed sales.

The result: 65% of the housing markets nationwide are worse off than four years ago while 35% improved.

In Fresno County it’s no secret that home prices have fallen by about half of what they were during the housing boom. The average home price in Fresno so far this year is $173,341 compared to $218,664 in 2008, the report said.

But the good news is foreclosure starts, homes beginning the foreclosure process, are down. So far this year there were about 4,595 foreclosure starts in Fresno County compared to 7,564 four years ago, according to the report.

The trend is the same in the three other central San Joaquin Valley counties – Kings, Madera, Merced and Tulare.

“The U.S. housing market has shown strong signs of life in recent months, but many local markets continue to struggle with high levels of negative equity as the result of home prices that are well off their peaks,” said Daren Blomquist, vice president of RealtyTrac.

“While the worst of the foreclosure problem is in the rear view mirror for a narrow majority of counties, others are still working through rising levels of foreclosure activity, inventory and distressed sales as they continue to clear the wreckage left behind by a bursting housing bubble.”

Visit RealtyTrac to read the report or see some cool heat maps that show 2008 voting trends by county and compares housing market data from 2008 to this year.

Real Estate: McCaffrey Homes opens two new Clovis neighborhoods


The front door and private side yard of a model home at The Gallery, one of McCaffrey Homes’ two new neighborhoods unveiled this weekend.

McCaffrey Homes opened two new Clovis neighborhoods to the public this weekend: The Gallery and The Heights.

I was invited to a sneak preview on Thursday. The Gallery, on Ashlan and DeWolf avenues, has four different designs that range in size from 1,308 to 2,245 square feet and have up to four bedrooms and three-and-a-half bathrooms. The idea in this neighborhood is to blend indoor and outdoor living.

The McCaffreys do just that with welcoming front courtyards, private side yards – some with sliding glass doors that lead into the home – and covered back patios with fireplaces. Large living room windows and sliding glass doors off the dining area allow for lots of entertaining.  A neighborhood park and walking trails are planned. The homes start in the low $220,000s.

The Heights at Loma Vista, about a mile down the road on the corner of Ashlan and Locan avenues, has smaller homes, but the neighborhood has more amenities. The houses range in size from 1,141 to 1,753 square feet and up to 3 bedrooms and two-and-a-half bathrooms. The houses are “Smart Homes” designed to consume less energy, water and natural resources.

The neighborhood will have a park with tot lot and a private swimming pool with barbecue. The houses start at $199,999.

For more information, visit

Political Notebook: Whelan loans his campaign $200k, but fundrasing is still dwarfed by Costa

More than one-third of 16th Congressional District Republican candidate Brian Whelan’s campaign has been bankrolled by loans to himself — including $200,000 he gave on Sept. 23.

Despite that, Whelan still is far behind the person he is challenging, incumbent Fresno Democrat Jim Costa. The newly drawn 16th District covers half the City of Fresno, parts of Fresno and Madera counties and all of Merced County.

Whelan has raised $654,456 as of Sept. 30, according to recently released finance reports posted on the Federal Election Commission’s website, while Costa is at $1,331,682.

And while Whelan has chipped in a considerable amount to himself, Costa has benefitted from political action committee cash. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance, 48% of Costa’s donations have come from PACs.

Among Costa’s donations are $2,500 from Fresno businessman Bob Smittcamp. Just two years ago, Smittcamp — who had been a Costa supporter in the past — jumped ship to Hanford Republican Andy Vidak. Now, it appears, Smittcamp is back in the fold.

Political Notebook: Group attacks Fresno teachers’ union endorsements; union bites back

It was billed as a bipartisan news conference where Republicans and Democrats alike would talk about “leadership issues within the Fresno Teachers Association and how they are adversely affecting the students.”

In reality, it was a campaign event, mostly in support of Carol Mills, who is seeking reelection to the Fresno Unified school board, but also for fellow incumbent Janet Ryan, who also is on the ballot.

Standing outside the FTA’s north Fresno office, Republican activist Michael Der Manouel Jr. looked at Democrat and former Shafter Mayor Fran Florez — mother of longtime state legislator Dean Florez — Democratic Party activist Matt Rogers, as well as his fellow Republican activist Tal Cloud, and observed: “It’s a rare occurrence to see us on the same side of an issue.”

Der Manouel, Cloud and Rogers then proceeded to bash Andrew Doris, Mills’s FTA-endorsed opponent in the upcoming Fresno Unified school board election. They produced research into the background of both Doris and one of Ryan’s opponents George Whitman.

In Whitman’s case, it was a 1998 bankruptcy. For Doris, it was a spotty voting record.

They also once again brought up Doris’ arrest for methamphetamine possession, which has been widely reported in the media. Doris — who didn’t return a phone call seeking comment — had earlier said bringing up the 1996 event was “an attempt by Ms. Mills to get attention away from her record as a school board trustee.”

How could the FTA endorse such candidates without not doing more research into their background? the group said.

“That’s not the kind of leadership that’s going to move the district forward,” Cloud said.

Whitman confirmed the bankruptcy.

“Stuff happens,” he said. “It is true. I was involved in deal that didn’t work out and it cost me a ton of money. You know what’s so sad? Ryan is so afraid of losing that she has to do a last ditch effort like this to keep from losing office.”

A statement issued by FTA President Eva Ruiz called the event “a desperate act by the Mills and Ryan Campaign to thwart the will of the teachers in our district. To think that somehow their political operatives think they know more about education than the teachers in the classroom is an insult to all the voters of Fresno Unified.”

She said the teachers’ union “supports those individuals deemed most likely to act in support of students, teachers and the community.”

Though Ryan and her opponent, Whitman, were mentioned, it was clear that Mills was the tie that bound the group.

Der Manouel, a stalwart Republican and chief cheerleader for Superintendent Michael Hanson, has become Mills’ main public supporter because of her support for Hanson and his policies.

The district under Hanson and an “improved stock of trustees” has seen significant financial improvement, Der Manouel said.

Rogers, Florez and Democratic activist Billie MacDougall came because of their friendship with Mills.

Mills, Florez said, “has worked hard and gotten results. No amount of money spent on distorting the facts will change that.”

One thing seems certain to come out of today’s event: Bitterness among some Democrats.

As word spread after the event that Florez, Rogers and others stood with Democratic Party haters Cloud and Der Manouel, there were vows that it wouldn’t be forgotten.

At one point during the news conference, Democratic Party activist Gail Gaston walked toward the FTA’s entrance. “Shame on you, Matt,” she said to Rogers.

Later, Gaston said the admonishment was “for standing with Republicans when you’re a Democrat.”