The Merced County Farm Bureau has decided to oppose the high-speed rail project, joining many disgruntled agricultural landowners up and down the Valley.
The public announcement came after much deliberation by the farm bureau's board of directors.
"Over the last two years, our experience with high-speed rail has been similar to other county farm bureaus and commodity groups in the region," said farm bureau Executive Director Amanda Carvajal. "They have met with the stakeholders and a frank discussion has occurred, but rarely have we seen any adjustments or compromises from the High-Speed Rail Authority."
At first, the farm bureau endorsed parts of a proposed plan for a Merced-to-Fresno route, with the exception of a section running through Chowchilla.
However, farm bureau President Jeff Marchini recently sent a letter to the new chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, Dan Richard, announcing the farm bureau's complete withdrawal of support for the project.
The letter is something of a startling rebuke, considering Richard was appointed as chairman a little more than a month ago in a move the authority promoted as a chance to improve relations with local stakeholders.
Marchini acknowledged Richard's promise to improve the authority's approach to negotiations, but since the chairman took over, "there has been no discernible change in approach," he wrote.
The announcement is "unfortunate," said Lance Simmens, High-Speed Rail Authority deputy director for communications. "I hope they will take our efforts and concerns seriously. And give us an opportunity to let the chairman put a constructive dialogue on the table, but also to give us an opportunity to show we are listening and we do hear."
The local farming community long has expressed dissatisfaction with the rail authority's plan to build substantial parts of the project through agricultural land instead of along existing transportation corridors, specifically Highway 99. But recently, farm leaders have seemed increasingly frustrated with a perceived indifference by the authority for the agricultural community's concerns.
"The planning process has been a train wreck," said Diana Peck, Kings County Farm Bureau program director. "If they want to implement a successful project, they're taking none of the steps necessary to do that. It's a lack of them doing their job. If they're going to cut through all the prime ag land, then they have to demonstrate that was the least impacted and the most beneficial alternative."
Ben McFarland, Kern County Farm Bureau executive director, expressed similar concerns but held out a little more hope. "Affected landowners have been upset with the process to this point," he said. "We are being heard, but is it going to affect actual change? The question is still at hand."
Ryan Jacobsen, chief executive of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, also said he hoped the new chairman would help turn around the process, but that time was running short.
"They do have some new leadership that has at least opened up some new discussions than what we had before," he said. "The big question: Is there enough time? Many of these concerns have been out for two plus years and have yet to be addressed."
The authority has enough time to address concerns and make changes to the plan, Simmens said. "Chairman Richard has shown that he's willing to sit down and listen to folks, and to make sure we're sensitive to their issues and positions. Having said that, that doesn't precondition that we're always going to agree. But those individuals will have a chance to voice their concerns."
Richard, who was appointed to the board last year by Gov. Jerry Brown, took over as chairman in early February after Tom Umberg stepped down but remained on the board.
The board is searching for a new chief executive officer to replace Roelof Van Ark, who recently resigned.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.