Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

High-speed rail route change unlikely to sway Valadao

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford

UPDATE (Monday, Nov. 18, 4 p.m.):
Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, was traveling Friday and unavailable to comment for the original blog post, according to his staff. Late Friday, his staff provided this statement in response to The Bee’s query about whether Valadao thought his opposition to high-speed rail may have swayed the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s preliminary selection of a Fresno-Bakersfield route that does not go through property owned by the Valadao family dairy business:

“Congressman Valadao absolutely does not believe his objections influenced the agency’s recent vote. The High-Speed Rail Authority has never concerned themselves with Congressman Valadao or his constituents, why would they begin to now? Their refusal to respect the Central Valley has only added to the widespread opposition to this project.”

ORIGINAL POST (Friday, Nov. 15)

The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s vote last week to identify a “preferred alignment” for its Fresno-Bakersfield section is unlikely to appease Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, an ardent opponent of the agency’s bullet-train plans through his stomping ground in Kings County.

In April, the authority’s staff was recommending a route that would bypass Hanford on the city’s west side — and which would run directly past three properties owned by Valadao Dairy, the congressman’s family farming business. Those parcels amount to about 509 acres and have a combined assessed value of more than $1.8 million, according to a database on the Kings County Assessor’s Office website.

But the latest route choice, which will be submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for evaluation, bypasses Hanford on the east. That may still be too close for comfort for Valadao, whose family, parents or uncle own a dozen properties west of Highway 43 between Idaho and Lansing avenues south Hanford — and within a mile of the would-be route for the high-speed tracks.

Valadao was traveling from Washington, D.C. to his district Friday and unavailable to comment on the rail authority’s route vote, his staff said.

Cows at the Valadao Dairy farm south of Hanford pay little attention to freight railroad tracks that run behind the fence in the background.

“However, Congressman Valadao has been both consistent and clear when discussing his opposition to high-speed rail since entering public life, regardless of the proposed track location,” said Anna Vetter, his communications director. “One of Congressman Valadao’s original criticisms of the High-Speed Rail Authority was their refusal to truly identify a route. This has created confusion for hundreds, if not thousands, of families and businesses in the potential wake of this project.”

Valadao came under scrutiny this summer after he offered an amendment to a budget bill that, if it becomes law, could stall or permanently derail construction of the high-speed rail project. Valadao, a member of the potent House Appropriations Committee, proposed the amendment and argued for its adoption in the committee apparently without informing his colleagues that his family holdings included property along or near the rail routes. The issue raised questions about whether or not Valadao faced a conflict of interest because of the potential effects of the rail routes on property values — often cited by project foes as one factor for their opposition.

Valadao’s amendment was approved by the committee. But the ultimate fate of Valadao’s efforts remains in limbo because of the budget stalemate between the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, which is in the hands of Democrats.

Real Estate: Third quarter housing affordability fall as home prices rise

(Fresno Bee file photo. Sign for house for sale in the Fresno High area.)

The California Association of Realtors has some good news and bad news to report.

The good news is that home prices continue to rise or at least remain stable. But the bad news is that the rise in home price continues to drive home affordability down in Fresno and other central San Joaquin Valley counties.

In Fresno County, 56% of prospective homebuyers could afford a median-priced single-family house compared to 61% during the second quarter of the year, the association said in its third quarter report released last week.

Last year at the same time, affordability was much higher at 69%.

A Fresno buyer would have to earn $37,920 a year to afford a median-priced home at $184,550.

Home affordability levels have also fallen in other Valley counties. About 62% of the buyers in Kings and Madera counties could afford to buy a home compared to 70% and 71% during the second quarter, respectively. In Tulare County, 61% of the buyers could qualify compared to 66% the previous quarter.

Even with the declines, the Valley still remains one of the most affordable areas statewide to buy a home.

Only 15% of the buyers in San Mateo could afford to buy a home and 16% in San Francisco. In the Sacramento area, 50% of the homebuyers could buy while 35% of the buyers in Los Angeles could afford a home.

Real Estate: Fresno County home prices inch up in September

The pace of Fresno County’s home price appreciation is slowing down, but the median home price of an existing single-family home still inched up higher in September compared to the month before, a monthly report said.

The median home price of a home in Fresno was $185,830 last month compared to $184,000 in August, the California Association of Realtors monthly housing report said.

In September 2012, the median home price was $159,130.

Madera and Tulare counties followed a similar trend with home prices increasing nearly 12% and 3.2% month-over-month respectively. Kings County, however, saw an 8.4% fall in home prices.

Vidak rails against high-speed train project

State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford.

State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, is taking his anti-high-speed rail show on the road, launchng what he calls his “Whistle-Stop-the-High-Speed Rail” tour.

In a statement Friday, Vidak cited a recent visit to PFFJ LLC, a large hog farm operated by a subsidiary of Hormel Foods in Tulare County southeast of Corcoran. Vidak said the 420-acre farm supplies about 150,000 pigs a year to a Farmer John processing plant in Los Angeles, and includes a feed mill that produces hog and chicken feed.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has yet to finalize a route for its Fresno-Bakersfield section that would also cross Kings and Tulare counties, but Vidak’s statement said the rail route “runs right through the farm” and would displace not only the farm, but the feed mill.

“The result of wiping out this business is 43 full-time, year-round employees will lose their jobs and benefits,” Vidak’s statement said.

(View PFFJ hog farm and feed plant in a larger map)

Vidak said he plans to visit other local businesses “being run over by the HSR Authority.”

“We’ve got sky-high unemployment in our Central Valley,” he added. “Wiping out jobs to build a train to nowhere just defies common sense.”

It’s a sentiment that’s going to be popular in much of Vidak’s state senate district, where discontent and distrust of the rail authority run high, particularly in his own backyard in Kings County and the cities of Hanford and Corcoran.

Under the law, the rail authority is obligated to compensate businesses that are displaced by the project, including paying for relocating. But the agency has said it cannot begin negotiating with businesses to acquire property, or start eminent domain proceedings, until a final environmental impact report is certified and an actual route determined — neither of which has happened for the Fresno-Bakersfield section of the project.

Kettleman landfill comment deadline extended again

The state still is poised to issue a permit allowing expansion of the hazardous waste landfill near Kettleman City — a holding pattern that started in August.  But the official process has been extended again.

You might remember the state Department of Toxic Substances Control extended its public comment deadline from Sept. 4 to Oct. 11. on the landfill expansion plan. Last week, leaders extended it again to Oct. 25.

The latest extension came after two members of the environmental community requested it. The two are Ingrid Brostrom of The Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment and Bradley Angel of Greenaction, state leaders said.

Environmental justice advocates have fought desperately to stop this expansion, especially since the flow of hazardous waste has dwindled to a trickle. The landfill is nearly at capacity.

But Kettleman City stands to gain from the expansion of the landfill, say its supporters, including Kings County leaders.

The expansion will result in the landfill owner, Waste Management Inc., paying off a large debt owed by the town’s water system, so a new water treatment system can be built. Kettleman’s water is tainted by arsenic.

Kettleman Hills hazardous waste landfill near Interstate 5.

At the same time, there are good reasons for the state to cautiously approach this expansion. The Kettleman Hills landfill has long been painted as a villain — the West’s largest hazardous waste landfill at the doorstep of a small, Latino community.

Among some in Kettleman City, along Interstate 5 in Kings County, the landfill is a raw nerve. They blame a toxic environment for a rash of tragic birth defects a few years ago.

Plus, the state considers Kettleman City among the environmentally riskiest places to live in California.

Now an additional voice of opposition to expansion is coming from the Legislature. Last week, Assembly Member Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, sent a letter to the Toxics Substance Control agency, asking leaders to reject the expansion plan.

He said, “The people who live in Kettleman City have suffered enough and done their share since the disposal site was opened in 1975.”

Real Estate: Home price appreciation slows down

The strong and fast climb in the median price of an existing home in Fresno County and other communities nationwide this summer is starting to slow down.

Fresno’s median home price increased slightly to $184,000 last month from $183,870 in July, according to a monthly housing report released Monday by the California Association of Realtors.

Tulare County home prices followed the same trend increasing to $158,460 in August from $157,140 the month before. But Kings County saw a strong jump in median home price to $184,000 from $173,330.

The only odd ball was Madera County where the median home price fell to $170,000 from $175,710, the report said.

Home sales are also slipping although that’s not unusual in Fresno where there has been a low inventory of houses for sale this year.

Home sales were down 4.5% last month in Fresno. Madera and Tulare saw sales fall by 5% and nearly 11% respectively. In Kings County, home sales increased 26.5%.

The change of pace in home price appreciation and sales is expected as the housing market heads out of the busy months and into fall, said Leslie Appleton-Young, the association’s vice president and chief economist.

“As housing supply loosens up with the seasonal slowdown, annual home price increases are expected to taper as we’ve observed in the last two months,” Appleton-Young said.

Real Estate: Valley cities could get shut out of USDA rural housing programs

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is changing the way it defines rural communities, a move that could shut out residents in 923 California cities — including seven in Fresno County — from accessing its rural housing programs.

On Oct. 1, the USDA will start using population statistics from the 2010 Census to determine if a city or community is rural. Those areas with a population of 10,000 people or less, or fewer than 20,000 people if located in a metropolitan statistical area, will be considered rural, the USDA said.

The department has been using 1990 population statistics, under a grandfather clause, to determine eligibility. That clause, which set the rural population at 25,000, will expire this year unless Congress extends it or takes some sort of action, the USDA said.

Under the new rule, Fresno cities like Coalinga, Kerman, Kingsburg, Mendota, Parlier, Reedley and Selma would no longer be eligible for the program. Another eight cities in Kings, Madera and Tulare counties would also lose the federal help.

Last fiscal year, the USDA distributed more than $53 million in home loans and home repair programs to moderate- and low-income Fresno County homebuyers and homeowners.

“For a lot of families these programs are the only options they have for purchasing a home,” said Sarah Marquart, public affairs specialist for the USDA. “It’s unfortunate to see a lot of these communities not be eligible any longer.”

For nonprofit housing agencies like Self-Help Enterprises of Visalia, the rule change could have a devastating effect.

Over the last 10 years, Self-Help has built more than 80% of its homes in the Valley cities that are slated to become ineligible. And most of the agency’s homeowners use the USDA direct loan program.

Under the new rule, “the families that participate in our program would not have access to the best direct mortgage available,” said Tom Collishaw, vice president of Self-Help. “And Self-Help would not be able to use the grant it received from the USDA to help people. Suddenly we wouldn’t be able to help people in those areas.”

Another complaint about hazardous waste site expansion

My Sunday story covered the money aspects of expanding the hazardous waste site near Kettleman City. One piece of the story just didn’t fit, and I mention it here because it illustrates how contentious the process has been.

Activists, who have long battled the nearby Waste Management Inc. landfill, say they didn’t like the Kings County-appointed committee that recommended many of the financial benefits on tap for Kettleman.

Among the benefits Waste Management agreed to provide if the expansion is approved: paying off a $552,000 debt on the town water system and donating $450,000 for school improvement.

Paying off the water system debt is no small favor for Kettleman City.  It will allow the state to provide $8 million for a water treatment plant — many consider it a leap forward for Kettleman City.

But the activists were rankled because there was only one Kettleman City resident on the committee.

The list included three people from Hanford and one each from Avenal, Laton and Lemoore. The county stands to gain $1.5 million annually in fees if the state allows expansion of the landfill.

The committee was stacked so that county approval of the landfill expansion was inevitable, the activists say.

“It was a joke,” said resident Maricela Mares Alatorre of the People for Clean Air and Water. “Where was the understanding of Kettleman City’s problems?”

Alatorre is also a full-time employee of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, a national advocacy group with an office in San Francisco. She says activists will do whatever they can to stop the expansion, including filing suit.

For their part, Kings County officials said they had problems filling out the local committee that suggested the financial benefits for Kettleman City.

In the end, Supervisor Richard Valle said he was able to add Avenal resident Alvaro Preciado, who has family in Kettleman City and cares deeply about the issues in the town.

Voting starts in 16th State Senate District battle to replace Rubio

Let the 16th State Senate District voting begin!

Monday was the first day voters living in the district could cast ballots for the May 21 special election to fill the seat of Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio, who unexpectedly resigned in February to take a job with the Chevron Corp.

Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth said her office mailed out absentee ballots on Monday to 16th District voters who live in the county. Clerks in Tulare, Kern and Kings did the same.

But starting Monday at 8:30 a.m., Orth’s office was also open to anybody registered to vote in the district who couldn’t wait a moment longer to cast their ballot. And, Orth said, a few did just that.

There are five candidates seeking the seat: Peace and Freedom Party candidate Mohammad Arif of Bakersfield, Fresno Democrat Paulina Miranda, Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez, Riverdale Democrat Francisco Ramirez Jr. and Hanford Republican Andy Vidak.

If none of the candidates gets 50% of the votes, plus one, in the May 21 election, the top two vote-getters will face off in a July 23 runoff.

The district favors a Democrat, but Republicans say they like their chances because special elections typically have low turnouts, which often favors the GOP.

Political Data Inc., which collects voter information, said registration in the district was 50.7% Democratic and 28.6% Republican as of Feb. 22.

But that support is not spread even across the district.

For instance, in Fresno County Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 30,000 registered voters.

But in Kings County, Republicans outnumber Democrats, though only by a few thousand. In Tulare County, Democrats outnumber Republicans, but not by much. Kern County is another Democratic stronghold.

Still, it is clear that any winning strategy must center on Fresno County. Though it is at the district’s northern end, Fresno County has, at slightly more than 48%, the largest number of voters in the district.

Political Data has also collected some other interesting information.
For instance, almost 60% of registered voters have an average income below $50,000, and less than 1% are above $100,000.

The City of Fresno has, by far, the most voters — 25.9% of the district’s total. Next is unincorporated Kern County at 8.5% and Bakersfield and Hanford, each with 7.8% of the voters.

Democrats look to Bakersfield school trustee for Valadao challenge

Local and national Democrats think a Bakersfield City School District member might make the perfect challenger for first-term congressman David Valadao, a Hanford Republican.

Andrae Gonzales is currently the board’s president pro tem. Democrats call him an “up-and-comer.” Even Bakersfield Republican political consultant Stan Harper calls him “viable” and “bright.”

Andrae Gonzales

The question is: Can he unseat Valadao in the 21st Congressional District?

Democrats are still unhappy that they failed to even put up a fight for the seat last November. They hold a 15-percentage-point registration advantage in the district over the rival Republicans, but Valadao thumped Fresno Democrat John Hernandez, 58% to 42%.

Despite the registration advantage for Democrats, it never looked good for them during last year’s campaign.

Hernandez never seemed to get off the ground. His campaign seemed unfocused and not nearly visible enough. It was also dogged by debt.

Democrats never wanted Hernandez in the first place. They preferred Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong, but in the state’s new top two primary, Valadao and Hernandez finished one-two. Xiong was left on the sidelines.

Now, Hernandez says he’s running again. And Democrats once again want an alternative, said Matt Rogers, chairman of the Fresno County Young Democrats.

Rogers said he spoke with Gonzales on Thursday morning, and the 31-year-old is interested in a run against Valadao. And, Rogers said, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has also reached out to Gonzales.

Gonzales was also mentioned as a potential candidate to replace Michael Rubio, who abruptly resigned from the state Senate in February. A May 21 special election is set to fill that seat.

John Hernandez

But Gonzales isn’t the only potential candidate. Democrats are also talking to former state Sen. Dean Florez, as well as his mother Fran, a Shafter council member.

Florez might even be preferable for a Valadao challenge, because he twice won election in a Senate district that matches up well with the 21st Congressional District’s current boundaries — which takes in parts of Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties and all of Kings County.

But Rogers said nobody in Democratic Party circles thinks Dean Florez will run.
The bench isn’t very deep for Democrats, either. Another possibility was newly elected Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, but now she’s running to replace Rubio in the state Senate.

If Gonzales does run — or Dean or Fran Florez, for that matter — the next hurdle would be getting them sufficient funds to mount an effective campaign.
Rogers said Democrats want to hold on the 36th Congressional District, where Raul Ruiz upset incumbent Republican Mary Bono Mack last year. The GOP will likely target that Southern California seat next year.

There are other seats held by Democrats in the state that also must be held, Rogers said.

In the end, will there be enough cash to fund Valadao’s challenger? And, it seems, the party may also have to get that person past a primary that may include Hernandez.