MERCED — Stung by a judge's ruling, opponents of California's proposed high-speed rail route between Merced and Fresno are reassessing their legal strategy -- but not their resolve.
"We're not going to give up; we're not going to let these guys just roll over us," said Kole Upton, a Chowchilla farmer and member of two groups that sought to stop work by the California High-Speed Rail Authority until their lawsuit is heard.
When Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley refused on Nov. 16 to block the authority from planning, land-buying or contracting before construction begins in mid- 2013, he indicated that the plaintiffs suing the agency may be building their legal case on unstable ground.
Three lawsuits are being heard in one trial by Frawley: one filed by Farm Bureau organizations in Madera and Merced counties, the county of Madera, Preserve Our Heritage, the Chowchilla Water District and farm owners in Madera and Merced counties; one by the city of Chowchilla; and one by companies that own property along the route in Madera and Fresno counties.
The suits challenge the adequacy of environmental impact reports that the authority certified last May when approving the Merced-Fresno portion of the statewide rail project.
Besides the environmental challenge, the suits allege that the high-speed rail authority members violated the Bagley-Keene Act, an open-meeting law that governs state agencies, when they approved the route in May.
But the plaintiffs were shaken when Frawley ruled that their case seems weak and unlikely to prevail. He will hear arguments in April.
Based on briefs submitted for the injunction request, Frawley said he believed the rail authority "acted reasonably and in good faith to analyze, disclose and mitigate the project's environmental effects." He acknowledged "questions and concerns" about the authority's analysis, but Frawley deflected attorneys' arguments that the agency failed to fully address the project as required by the California Environmental Quality Act.
By mid-January, the authority expects to receive bids from as many as five contracting teams to build a section of the rail line from east of Madera to the south end of Fresno -- the first segment of what is planned as a 520-mile, $68.4 billion system connecting the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles Basin within a decade.
Opponents are giving The judge's words careful consideration as they weigh their next moves.
Frawley's remarks "were not lost on us," said Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau. "We're looking at it as a positive thing because we have an opportunity to assess our merits, and how often do you get to do that in a lawsuit?"
While not tipping her group's hand, "we will not be pursuing the same strategy going forward," she said. "The Farm Bureau has made a commitment to see the case through because we believe the merits are so strong."
But Raudabaugh said that if the Farm Bureau had known that the start of construction would be delayed to at least July -- by which time the legal challenge may already be decided -- "we never would have spent tens of thousands of dollars on the legal work; we would never have made that strategic decision" to seek an injunction.
Upton, a board member of the Chowchilla Water District and Preserve our Heritage, said those organizations have no plans to quit the lawsuit, but have yet to consult their attorneys and examine their options since Frawley's ruling.
High-speed rail opponents from Kings County also are keeping a close eye on developments, and a handful of them traveled to Sacramento for the Nov. 16 hearing.
Kings County is ground zero for a lawsuit claiming the high-speed rail project violates provisions of Proposition 1A, a bond measure approved by California voters in 2008.
Frank Oliveira, a Kings County farmer and member of Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability, said his group is planning a CEQA lawsuit against the state rail authority after the agency adopts environmental reports for its Fresno-Bakersfield section. That approval is expected in early 2013.
"We're going to eventually get to this point after the environmental process is done in our part of the valley," Oliveira said. Many of the same concerns in the Madera-Fresno suit exist in Kings County, he added, including farms being severed without satisfactory solutions for getting from one side to the other.