There’s Still One David Left Fighting the High Speed Train Goliath
The Impacts of a CEQA Case Victory –or Loss – to the San Joaquin Valley
The Madera County Farm Bureau (MCFB) is a membership based service organization representing over 1,200 landowners, growers, ranchers, and agribusiness interests in Madera County. We serve our members in a non-political capacity, are not beholden to commodity subsidization interests (as there are few to no commodity crops in Madera County), and we do not selectively represent one sector of agrarian society over another. We pride ourselves in a diversified Board of Directors, and take Board decisions that affect our membership in Madera County very seriously. One recent decision the Board of the Madera County Farm Bureau continues to make is to renew our on-going, turbulent litigation against the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA). In efforts to set the record straight about what’s really going on with litigation, property acquisition, and construction of the high speed train in Madera County –allow us to provide a factual, on-the-ground perspective and to bring to bear some insights of what reality we’re all facing.
Nearly 500 growers and landowners within our membership are directly impacted by the high speed train project. We know of 200 agribusinesses that stand to lose property, structures, employees and jobs as a result of the alignment of this train. Recently, the CHSRA announced it will be undertaking immediate environmental analysis of the Chowchilla WYE area in efforts to include the WYE into the Initial Operating Segment (IOS), and therefore subjugate those constituents into the same construction schedule as the area in south of Avenue 17 to the San Joaquin River. This will impact approximately 150 more individuals within our membership and an estimated 45 more agribusinesses. This recent decision regarding the WYE, and the selected alignment from Avenue 17 south to the San Joaquin River in Madera County, constitutes over $1.2 BILLION dollars per annum in revenue generation LOST as a result of this project. This does not include direct payments to the County of Madera due to the loss of Williamson Act Contract funds as a result of properties being acquired by Eminent Domain by the CHSRA. Worse yet –properties whose prime agricultural purposes become null due to nearby condemnation activities by the CHSRA will also have a multiplier effect on lost revenue and lost jobs county-wide. For these prominent reasons, coupled with the fact that the very core of our membership is threatened, the MCFB continues to hold our course in litigation against the CHSRA.
Last June, three different petitioner groups filed CEQA suits against the CHSRA for its certification of a Final EIR between Merced to Fresno; the City of Chowchilla, Timeless Investments and Horizon Enterprises Inc., and the Madera County Farm Bureau and co-petitioners. Of the three, the MCFB case is the last one standing. The City of Chowchilla is the ONLY party to settle its case with the CHSRA. The Timeless Investments group DISMISSED their case, which is notable because a settlement infers that the petitioners would receive something, which was not the case. It is also notable that a “court” has not heard any case regarding the legality of the project segment –Merced to Fresno. Not yet. The plan has yet to be tested which is why our lawsuit and the threat of the segment’s legitimacy being reversed remain.
As long as there is a legal action against the CHSRA for this project alignment, the EIR cannot be deemed complete or valid. Under California Condemnation Code, the agency seeking to acquire property for the purposes of eminent domain cannot do so until all environmental clearances are given or issued. Therefore, the Authority cannot provide any written offers to land owners in the alignment of the train until the case is heard and decided. They will certainly attempt to get as far ahead as possible however, and many of our members have received appraisal notices for their properties.
If things proceed the way the CHSRA wants them, the first segment of track will grace the Madera County frontier somewhere in the vicinity of Avenue 13 and Road 32 ½ around August of 2013 –less than five months away. The following is what is required by law to be in the hands of Jeff Morales, CEO of the CHSRA prior to that time, in order for construction to commence;
These are just a few of the major hurdles the CHSRA must overcome in order to begin their construction. Construction that will have to proceed 250 times faster than standard construction projects to meet their funding deadline of September 2017.
The violent economic blight that this project purports onto a mostly agrarian community is not mitigated in the environmental documents –in any way. There is no promise of jobs for our County, or a replacement and relocation plan for the losses to these businesses. The EIR made no mention of replacement school bussing routes, at-grade road separation replacements for the County, or that there would be any irrigation replacement or passage faculties for water delivery systems AT ALL. It simply stated that these harms were unavoidable, significant, and irreversible. Conversely, as a result of our litigation and record admissions requests, we now know that any economic benefit for the County of Madera was never more than just an errant hope. The golden goose of the project, the Number One economic generator of our time–a Heavy Maintenance Facility, is not only required to be located adjacent to Initial Operating Segment (none of the sites analyzed in Madera County were adjacent to the IOS), but that the HMF is only operable on a minimum linear stretch of track, unbroken by grade separations or overcrossings, of at least 7 miles in length. There are no such stretches that meet these criteria in our County.
Our CEQA case is set to be heard on April 19 –in Sacramento Superior Court. The merits of our case are exceedingly strong –were this any other project in California the Lead Agency would never have carried such a flawed environmental analysis forward. The claims under CEQA violations are so black letter law, it makes the case a buffet of scrumptious appeal opportunities for anyone with the appetite for such an effort going forward (and appeals are expensive). A win on our case can have multiple effects and bring about dozens of benefits directly to Madera County; none of them include stopping the project entirely. However, given the magnitude of project stopping timelines listed above, simply delaying this project to a logical conclusion point may perhaps be a win by itself. A loss on our case may also be to the utmost advantage for the San Joaquin Valley, as the appeal process is long, arduous, and almost a guaranteed nail in the high speed train’s coffin –as again, time is on OUR side, not theirs. A house of cards is destined to topple when too many papers are placed on top of it.
The MCFB is realistic about the odds facing the case; the political giants throughout the State are lining up to bludgeon the Judge should he flinch and even consider making a just decision in the case –but we are approaching the fighting the CHSRA as a win for agricultural advocacy already. Had we and our valiant group of co-petitioners not filed the CEQA action against the Authority, the CHSRA would have already begun construction in January of this year, with no accountability to the promises they’ve been making for the last five years. You must stand up and fight when you feel threatened, or there won’t be anything left to fight for. The San Joaquin Valley is not just a place for agriculture to remain until a “better use can be found,” but a farm, ranch, and community to many who want to see it remain so for generations to come.
Anja K. Raudabaugh