Rail agency behind schedule in acquiring land for $68 billion California bullet train project



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SACRAMENTO, California — California's $68 billion high-speed rail project is as much as a year behind schedule in buying the land needed to start construction on the first 29-mile stretch in the Central Valley, rail officials say.

The state has bought 122 of the 540 parcels it needs for construction from Madera to Fresno, putting it well behind its own 2012 plan to buy up land and turn it over to contractors, even though officials held a high-profile groundbreaking in Fresno last month with Gov. Jerry Brown.

The High-Speed Rail Authority provided the figure as rail officials prepared to go before a state panel Friday seeking approval to start eminent domain proceedings for another 31 properties in Fresno and Madera counties.

That land is in addition to 104 parcels already approved for eminent domain action by the state Public Works Board. The high-speed rail project has yet to actually seize any property.

"We had some challenges getting to where we need to be. So we are behind schedule," rail spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley said.

The agency has been behind its own land acquisition schedule almost since it was drafted, slowed by a series of legal challenges, federal oversight proceedings and political opposition.

But with the largest legal hurdles cleared and a small-but-secure state funding stream in place, the authority has hired more staff in the Central Valley and more property owners are working with assessors rather than fighting them, Alley said.

"This is an emotional thing, purchasing someone's property, and having impacts on their life. We're doing everything we can to work with them," she said.

Plans call for the bullet train to eventually connect the Central Valley to Los Angeles and San Francisco by trains running at speeds up to 220 mph.

Voters approved selling nearly $10 billion in bonds for it in 2008 and federal officials have promised $3.5 billion, far short of the overall price tag. Brown persuaded lawmakers to devote $250 million this year in pollution fees, which are expected to grow in future years.

Stan Felipe, a third-generation farmer in Kings County, south of Fresno, is among those in talks with rail officials about the 10 to 15 acres the state has offered to buy from the 200-acre farm where he grows pistachios, corn and cotton. He said the high-speed rail plans call for a 30-foot vehicle overpass that will slice across his land, cutting off water and access to half his farm.

After receiving what he believes is a below-value appraisal and hundreds of pages of paperwork, the 65-year-old and his wife, Beverly, hired an attorney. Felipe declined to discuss how much he has been offered or how much he is seeking.

"This is how we live, this is what we do to survive, but it's a mess," Felipe said. "It's scary, real scary."

The public works board is expected to approve the 31 parcels for condemnation Friday. They include many along the former state Highway 99 in Fresno, including empty warehouses, farmland and a former restaurant.

Friday's action is a preliminary step. The rail authority will continue working with owners to reach settlements, as it has with 23 of the 104 previously approved parcels, Alley said.

The rail agency is required to follow state law for property condemnations, the same process used to acquire land for other major infrastructure projects such as highways. It provides up to $5,000 per parcel for property owners to get their own appraisals.

But some opponents say the rush to acquire land is leading the rail authority to bypass its own rules with "flash appraisals" that do not include talking to landowners. They argue that such conversations are essential for rural properties that may involve complicated land- and water-use agreements and the potential for lost income.

"You are not just buying real estate," Frank Oliveira, co-chairman of the group Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability, told the rail board this week. "You need to also compensate people for damaging or destroying their businesses."

Alley said appeals by the group, which has filed several lawsuits against the project, are an attempt to gain media attention as part of their effort to stop the project.

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