Ag Today February 5, 2018

Vacant lots, empty homes and dying orchards on bullet train route attract squatters, vandals and thieves

By RALPH VARTABEDIAN, FEB 04, 2018 | 4:00 AM- Los Angeles Times

Charlene Hook cherished her home of 30 years north of Corcoran, where pomegranate and pistachio orchards stretched for miles. So choosing to burn it down last year was a difficult decision.

She and her husband had no plans to leave their 2½ acres until the day the state bullet train authority said its rails would go through their bedroom.

Not long after the couple moved out, thieves broke into the house and stripped almost everything of value — even taking the doors off her husband’s shop where he restored classic cars. Soon her former longtime neighbor’s homes were being burglarized and vandalized.

After all the frustration of losing her home and indignation of it attracting criminals to her old neighborhood, she convinced her brother-in-law, a battalion chief in the city fire department, to burn it down for firefighting practice — and to let her light the match.

“It was hard to burn down,” she said. “I thought it would bring me closure.”

What happened to Hook is a part of a painful spectacle up and down the Central Valley. The California High-Speed Rail Authority now owns more than 1,272 parcels stretching from Madera to south of Wasco, a 119-mile corridor of abandoned commercial buildings, vacant lots, dying orchards, boarded up homes and construction sites.

Some day it may be the path for a gleaming bullet train system, but today much of it is an eyesore and a magnet for criminal activity that is affecting the surrounding areas. It has put stress on already hard-luck communities that grapple with poverty, homelessness and crime.

The problem that vacant properties create when the government takes private land is not new, but the massive scope of the bullet train project has birthed a problem unprecedented in recent California history: The current construction program is creating a corridor 100 feet or more wide through the Central Valley. Many of the land takes are stuck in protracted litigation, creating a patchwork of property ownership and leaving lots vacant for a long time.

One veteran rail designer who works on the high-speed rail project said it has created “a linear ghetto.”

The rail authority does not deny that a problem exists, but says it is doing everything it can to address it.

 

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