BY TIM SHEEHAN The Fresno Bee
MADERA -- About 100 property owners packed an open house Wednesday to learn how their farms, homes or businesses could be affected by California's proposed high-speed train system.
But rain throughout the day dampened a planned tractor rally and protest by farmers outside the Madera Community College Center, where the state High-Speed Rail Authority held its outreach meeting. What organizers hoped would be a dramatic show of four or five dozen tractors turned into a trickle of four or five.
Farmers have been among the most vocal critics of the train system in the San Joaquin Valley, and Farm Bureau organizations in Madera and Merced counties are among those suing the rail agency to stop work on the Merced-Fresno section approved by the rail authority this year.
Construction of a stretch of the line from Madera to the south end of Fresno is expected to begin as soon as next summer.
"These farmers are the ones whose property is being threatened," said Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau. Raudabaugh said farmers in Madera County are unified in fighting the loss of land to the rail authority. Rather than sell all or part of their affected parcels, the farmers are prepared to force the state to use eminent domain -- to go to court and ask a judge to order the property be sold to the rail authority.
"It's taken six months, but I've finally contacted every single property owner along the route from Avenue 17 south to the San Joaquin River," she added. "Except for one, everyone else is getting ready to be unwilling sellers."
In a written statement, the Farm Bureau said that the rail line will displace "hundreds of farms."
"In Madera County alone, an estimated 2,000 migrant farm workers will lose their jobs," the statement said. "The families of displaced small business owners and laid off workers will be harmed, and the entire regional economy will experience adverse 'multiplier' effects."
Jim Erickson, a former president of the Madera County Farm Bureau, farms almonds and other crops in southern Madera County. He brought two of his tractors out for the protest rally, even though none of his family's properties are affected by the rail route.
"We're all still going to be paying for this," said Erickson, referring to the anticipated $68 billion price tag for the statewide system from the Bay Area to the Los Angeles basin.
Erickson added that he and other farmers have been frustrated by what he called a lack of "straight answers" from the rail authority on how agriculture will be affected. "We just don't know how they're really going to do it," he said. "It just drives you nuts."
Along Avenue 10 between Roads 31 and 32 southeast of Madera, the proposed high-speed rail line is planned to slice across a corner of a 110-acre parcel owned by farmer Bill Sahatdjian's family. That same parcel, as well as a 77-acre plot across the street, will also be encroached by an overpass that will carry Avenue 10 up and over the train tracks.
"I'm not going to be too excited," Sahatdjian said, adding that he's not planning to willingly part with land for the right of way. "I think this will be a battle time."
Antoni Ares, whose 3-acre parcel sits just west of where the rail line will skirt the western edge of Madera, not far from the existing BNSF Railway freight tracks, was getting frustrated trying to find his property listing as he sorted through a maze of maps laid out on tables.
He said he's also been annoyed by a lack of communication from the rail agency.
"They called once last year to see if they could check the property and check the soil, but they never called back," Ares said. "Same thing this year, they called once and never called back. I don't know what to do."
He's bothered by the uncertainty of whether the agency will need any of his property for the right of way. "I would like to keep my property, but my wife is worried about how close it will be -- right next to my window, maybe?"
Juan Urena, who owns 32 acres along the BNSF tracks at Road 27, east of Madera, said he'll lose about 2 acres of land to the high-speed train line.
But far from despairing, he's looking forward to the project, even though a map he pointed to shows the tracks passing not far from the house he built six years ago.
Instead, he's excited about a planned Road 27 overpass over both the high-speed line and the BNSF tracks. "Once they put in that overpass, the freight trains won't have to honk their horns," he said. "That's noisy, and it drives the dogs nuts."
Unlike other land owners who vow to force the rail agency to go to court for their land, "I'm going to work with them," Urena said, "but I want to make sure I'm fairly compensated."
Jeffrey Morales, the rail authority's CEO, said he understands the concerns and skepticism of many who showed up Wednesday night, and more who are expected to attend a similar meeting Thursday afternoon in Merced. "But that's in part why we do meetings like this, so people can learn about the project and talk with us one on one to ask questions."
Morales said the authority has not yet awarded a contract for a consultant to handle negotiations with property owners whose land is in the path of the rail line. That could happen within days, he added.
The agency is, however, continuing to work on identifying and assessing parcels that will be of importance for would-be contractors early in the construction phase. Morales said land-buying will pick up next year.
Morales said he believes that some of the resistance will ease up once HSR negotiators are able to meet with property owners.
"We think eminent domain will be a minority of the parcels," he said.