Property Owners Fight High-Speed Rail Land Grab

Building public projects often involves acquiring land. That usually means using eminent domain to take private property with “just compensation,” as mandated by the Fifth Amendment.

California’s high-speed rail project now is acquiring the land needed for construction, but is meeting resistance from property owners who charge the process is being rushed.

At is Feb. 13 meeting, the California State Public Works Board approvedcondemning private property for the rail project. The parcels are listed beginning on p. 18 of the board’s agenda. The agenda explained:

“The site selections took place after an extensive environmental review process where it was determined that any alternative alignment would include the selected parcels, or where a preferred alignment had already been approved by both the High Speed Rail Authority Board and the Federal Railroad Administration. Acquisition of these properties will allow the High Speed Rail Authority to move forward with construction of the HSTS.”


The charges of rushing the property takings came in a Feb. 10 letter to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which runs the project. The letter was from Frank Oliveira, co-chair of Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability, which opposes the project.

The letter included what went on during a Jan. 23 workshop in Laton the CHSRA held with Fresno County Farm Bureau, Fresno Economic Development Corporation and County of Fresno. The workshop affected “right of way” property owners in Fresno County between American Avenue and Kings River.

The letter charged:

“The consensus of the audience was that most of their properties had been ‘Flash Appraised’ without their input or knowledge. The resulting Offers rendered by the ROW [right of way] Agents did not account for factors such as water delivery systems, wells, infrastructure, leases and other business agreements associated with the property to be acquired as well as the after effect on the remainder of the affected parcels and associated Agro Businesses. 

“The result of the Flash Appraisals are offers that logically are grossly undervalued and do not offer proper compensate to those affected by the project. 

“Offers in some cases were probably 100’s of thousands of dollars below value.”

The CHSRA insists it is paying fair value for the properties. CHSRA Spokeswoman Lisa-Marie Alley told in an email, “We continue to work with impacted property owners along the alignment in the Central Valley. It’s our commitment to move the right of way process forward, in accordance with the law, and in a respectful manner that results in a positive outcome.”

Abuse alleged

But Oliveira told he was not satisfied with the CHSRA’s response. “We are aware of the widespread abuse of agricultural landowners within a 10-mile portion of the Right of Way (ROW) between Fresno and Hanford,” he said. “These landowners have been Flash Appraised and had their properties intentionally undervalued for acquisition by the Authority’s contracted ROW agents.”

He said the CHSRA’s ROW agents have made appraisals without much consideration that these properties are not just raw real estate. He charged: 

“These properties are Agro Businesses that are being destroyed. There are so many complications when you are talking about irrigation. If the farmers’ land is cut diagonally, watering is a challenge.  Does the Authority have to build new wells or will they allow lines to be built under the right of way at certain junctures. Some Authority agents say yes, some say no. There doesn’t seem to be a consistent answer.  

“The cost of water wells has also been grossly undervalued in appraisals.  In one case in the appraisal the Authority provided, it noted $40,000 replacement value for a well. But a more realistic value might be $100,000 to $150,000. There also is a wait list up to one year because of water shortages and there is no mention of that in the appraisal.”

At the Feb. 10 board meeting, CHSRA Chairman Dan Richard, promised he would look into Oliveira’s complaints.


Ongoing legal challenges are a major reason the CHSRA now is rushing the property condemnations. But the legal challenges over the condemnations also could add to the delays.

Although courts have upheld the right to take property, “just compensation” is open to legal dispute.

The Owners’ Counsel of America, which represents property owners in eminent domain disputes, lists 12 “considerations” that may come up, including, “Is the property designed for a special use, giving rise to unique valuation techniques?” And, “How are fixtures treated in condemnation?”

Endargered Fox Could Halt High-Speed Rail in Its Tracks

The California High-Speed Rail Authority faces a new obstacle on its railroad track to construction: the endangered San Joaquin kit fox. The environmentalist group Defenders of Wildlife labels it “one of the most endangered animals in California.”kit fox

On Jan. 26, the Sacramento office of the Fish and Wildlife Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior sent the CHSRA a letter about the kit fox’ habitat in the project’s 29-mile-long Construction Package 1. The letter charged the CHSRA and the Federal Railroad Authority with causing “the loss of nine acres of suitable habitat for the San Joaquin kit fox, located outside the project footprint … and the destruction of a potential San Joaquin kit fox den.”

The nine-acre land take violated the federal Endangered Species Act “and its implementing regulations.”

The contractor allegedly expanded outside the approved footprint of the Merced-to-Fresno Section for staging building materials and machinery. These project-related activities included:

  • “grading the first few inches of soil to level the surface”;
  • “installation of earthen berms for containment and stormwater pollution control”;
  • “installation of road base and other measures for dust control”;
  • “installation of a perimeter fence for security”;
  • “mobilization of equipment and materials.”

The CHSRA is working under a tight time frame to spend the $3.5 billion in federal money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and any delay would be unwelcome at this stage.

The CHSRA must turn in to federal authorities its bills for the project by March 2017, six months before the Sept. 2017 deadline to spend all the money. So the deadline now is just over two years away.

‘Better job’

CHSRA spokesperson Lisa Marie Alley told the Fresno Bee the kit fox issue was a minor problem. “I think this is an example,” she said, “in undertaking one of the largest infrastructure projects in decades in this country, to make sure that we’re streamlining and coordinating with all of our partners. We are looking for ways to do a better job in the future.”

And the Los Angeles Times reported that, despite the FWS letter, “the effect of the violations may be limited. The wildlife service said that the rail authority and its partners had initiated a formal consultation on the project, which was the ‘appropriate’ action, and that no fines were being considered.”

The kit fox habitat also could be moved to a different location by the CHSRA, “which wildlife service officials deemed adequate in an email exchange over the weekend.”

Rushed project

But opponents saw the FWS letter as a major problem for the project. Aaron Fukuda is a key litigant in a new lawsuit against the project and co-founder of Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability.

“When you rush a project,” he said, “you don’t have your plans ready, you use shoddy engineering and you hire the least technically competent contractor you get these sorts of incidents, which I believe is simply the first of numerous to take place. The Authority will try and minimize the importance of this. However, it clearly highlights the rough road ahead.” 

Doug Carstens is an attorney suing the CHSRA for filing an insufficient environmental report for the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section of the project. He said:

“In the Authority’s haste to begin construction, they and their contractors have violated the federal Endangered Species Act.  Without a permit, they destroyed nine acres of suitable habitat, including collapsing a potential San Joaquin kit fox den without a permit.  The Federal Fish and Wildlife Service should be commended for calling on them to comply with the ESA and reinitiate consultation.  But the Authority never should have let the damage happen.” 


Jason Holder is an attorney who represented litigants challenging the environmental reports for the Merced-to-Fresno section of the project. Now he represents Kern County in pending litigation on the Fresno-to-Bakersfield Section concerning the environmental reports. He said:

“The notification letter from the Fish and Wildlife Service validates what close observers of the HSR Project have been saying for several years now — that you cannot conduct legally sufficient environmental impact analysis based on only a ’15 percent’ level of design

“The Rail Authority’s ‘design-build’ approach, where the agency completes only a general level of design for purposes of environmental review and permitting and the contractor refines the design post-approval, is simply inadequate. 

“Commenters noted during the EIR/EIS [Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement] process for the Merced to Fresno Section that the vague level of project design precludes full assessment of its environmental impacts.  They pointed out that the design omitted critical details, including, among other things, the specific locations of construction staging areas.  Now, the ramifications of the inadequate level of design are beginning to come to light.  Here, because the Authority did not identify staging areas, the contractor selected the two sites with no agency guidance or oversight. The result: a major violation of the federal Endangered Species Act and the potential to further delay Project construction.”   

Holder concluded, “This is a case where the proverbial chicken, or here the endangered kit fox, has come home to roost.”


If the critics are right and the charges of environmental violations are severe, the penalties imposed on the project could be severe. The Endangered Species Handbook of the Animal Welfare Institute detailed:

“Stiff penalties may be imposed for violations of the Endangered Species Act.  Felonies may be punished with fines up to $50,000 and/or one year imprisonment for crimes involving endangered species, and $25,000 and/or six months imprisonment for crimes involving threatened species.  Misdemeanors or civil penalties are punishable by fines up to $25,000 for crimes involving endangered species and $1
2,000 for crimes involving threatened species.  A maximum of $1,000 can be assessed for unintentional violations.  Rewards of up to $2,500 are paid for information leading to convictions.”

However it turns out, the FWS letter is another twist in the long and winding road of attempting to start the controversial project.

Originally published on