MADERA — About 100 property owners packed an open house Wednesday to learn how their farms, homes or businesses could be affected by California's proposed high-speed rail system.
But rain throughout the day dampened a planned tractor rally and protest by farmers outside the Madera Community College Center, where the state High-Speed Rail Authority held its outreach meeting. What organizers hoped would be a dramatic show of four or five dozen tractors turned into a trickle of four or five.
Farmers have been among the most vocal critics of the rail system in the San Joaquin Valley, and Farm Bureau organizations in Madera and Merced counties are among those suing the rail agency to stop work on the Merced-Fresno section approved by the rail authority this year.
Construction of a stretch of the line from Madera to the south end of Fresno is expected to begin as soon as next summer.
"These farmers are the ones whose property is being threatened," said Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau. Raudabaugh said farmers in Madera County are unified in fighting the loss of land to the rail authority.
Rather than sell all or part of their affected parcels, the farmers are prepared to force the state to use eminent domain -- to go to court and ask a judge to order the property to be sold to the rail authority.
"It's taken six months, but I've finally contacted every single property owner along the route from Avenue 17 south to the San Joaquin River," she added. "Except for one, everyone else is getting ready to be unwilling sellers."
In a written statement, the Farm Bureau said that the rail line will displace "hundreds of farms."
"In Madera County alone, an estimated 2,000 migrant farm workers will lose their jobs," the statement said. "The families of displaced small business owners and laid off workers will be harmed, and the entire regional economy will experience adverse 'multiplier' effects."
Jim Erickson, a former president of the Madera County Farm Bureau, grows almonds and other crops in southern Madera County. He brought two of his tractors for the protest rally, even though none of his family's properties are affected by the rail route.
"We're all still going to be paying for this," said Erickson, referring to the anticipated $68 billion price tag for the statewide system from the Bay Area to the Los Angeles basin.
Erickson added that he and other farmers have been frustrated by what he called a lack of "straight answers" from the rail authority on how agriculture will be affected.
"We just don't know how they're really going to do it," he said. "It just drives you nuts."
Jeffrey Morales, the rail authority's CEO, said he understands the concerns and skepticism of many who showed up Wednesday night, and more who are expected to attend a similar meeting this afternoon in Merced. "But that's in part why we do meetings like this, so people can learn about the project and talk with us one on one to ask questions."
Morales said that the authority has not awarded a contract for a consultant to handle negotiations with property owners whose land is in the path of the rail line. That could happen within days, he said.
The agency is, however, continuing to work on identifying and assessing parcels that will be of importance for would-be contractors early in the construction phase. Morales said land-buying will pick up next year.
MEETING TODAY IN MERCED
The California High-Speed Rail Authority will hold its Merced meeting from 4 to 7 p.m. today at Merced College Business Resource Center, 630 W. 19th St. Officials are slated to discuss the Merced portion of the project and plans for a station in the city, which would displace some businesses.