Executive Address – January 2012

Shall I Bring My Dueling Pistols…or just my fancy lawyers???

Not far from the tranquility of Madera County lies a marker of historical significance with respect to the on-going High Speed Rail hullabaloo presently facing many land owners in the Central Valley.  On May 11, 1880, just outside the town of Hanford in King’s county, an iconic western shootout was played out over a long-simmering conflict between the Southern Pacific Railroad and local farmers over changes in the railroad’s route and its seizure of land from homesteaders.  This event, now notoriously called the Mussel Slough Tragedy, resulted in 7 men dead and numerous others receiving unique prison sentences for their conspiracy and involvement.  At stake –the imminent seizure and price of land being acquired for the railroad’s alignment and the farmers historical, homesteading claims to the properties.

The ironic juxtaposition of this historical incident and the recently approved hybrid alignment of the High Speed Rail Authority (Authority) is that two are nearly identical with respect ironic to their actors, monetary issues, and property rights issues –yet nobody seems to be reflecting on what history has taught the people of California.  That the railroad can win.

Although the Mussel Slough Tragedy become the topic of popular local lore and inspired celebrity based status for the homesteaders fighting the railroad, ultimately the railroad drove people from their homes and paid a pittance –if any money, to those it ran over.  Historically, the most notorious examples of Western railroad moguls impropriety lies in the process of land acquisition and sales.  Since the Federal government granted to the companies alternate tracts of land that ran along the tracks they had laid, it was generally assumed that the land would in turn be sold at its fair market value at the time the land was subdivided; circulars distributed to the public by the railroad certainly implied as much. However, at least some of the tracts were put on the market only after considerable time had passed, and the land improved well beyond its raw state.  Families were then faced with asking prices of ten times or more of the initial value of their property and more often than not had no choice but to vacate their homes and farms, in the process losing everything they had worked for.  

Although this provides a grim view of history –it’s important to recognize that the present has a few more land acquisition pistols with which to dual for the common land owner, especially in the state of California.  The California Right-of-Way Process, better known as Public Resources Code Section 3256, clearly defines rights of landowners during a condemnation or imminent domain situation.  In the case of High Speed Rail, it’s important for landowners to recognize that unlike circumstances of the past, the railroad cannot simply come in and acquire land for its proprietary use or necessarily force the sale of the land for overwhelming good of the public.  Any single objection from an unwilling seller during the decision-point-liaison of the project, now offers an alternative surety for the Authority –a project halt or serious delay of ground breaking construction.  The unique laws that now allow imminent domain to occur in California are also the same laws that allow landowners the right to refuse to sell their land and seek commensurate compensation for that land inevitably halts projects or causes such serious time delays that project costs spiral upwards –often times to the extent of unaffordability for the state.  This exceptional rule-making, one-of-a kind to California has resulted in a substantially low number of successful imminent domain cases.  It appears that history has been reflected at least by the court system, which now favors the private land owner except in extra-ordinary cases where the loss of human life and property are involved (envision massive flood protection projects).

So is the answer to arm up and fight?  With every breath of surety it is.  The reality that the hybrid alignment was chosen at a high detriment to agricultural production in Madera County leaves us to ponder no other option.  There is more than monetary compensation to be gained in this battle; however prudence suggests that the Authority may be counting on this alignment as being the most inexpensive, the most practical for the state and Federal government to swallow for this reason; all conditions necessary to receive the coveted Federal project cost-sharing dollars.  Project delays however, due to rising land acquisition costs and lengthy imminent domain battles will quickly result in the Authority’s need to at least review other alignments, options out of County, and perhaps even more prudent –alignments that follow the existing transportation corridors as stated in the original language of the proposition proffering the project in the first place.  One thing is certain, as an advocacy bureau for agriculture; we simply cannot stand by and watch our County’s agricultural future dwindle by this scale of unbridled growth.

 

Anja K. Raudabaugh
Executive Director