"When farmland is no longer a nice, square field, it's harder to use mechanized equipment, so the farmer has a higher cost to farm," said Andrew Faber, a partner with Berliner-Cohen, a San Jose law firm that has a portion of its website dedicated to high-speed rail.
Faber said the more complicated land takings tend to be in developed urban areas -- including the San Francisco Peninsula, where he expects that his firm will receive at least some high-speed rail business.
"It potentially could be a lot of legal business," he said. "When this part of the line comes to fruition, I think there will be substantial property owner impacts and some eminent domain cases."
When it comes to buying occupied business property, factors will include the cost of relocating structures, inventory and equipment, as well as "loss of goodwill" -- the impact of moving from established locations that are familiar to customers. And there's no rule of thumb for determining what that's worth. It has to be decided case by case.
The authority last week identified four companies it plans to hire, at a cost of $34 million, to negotiate the rights-of-way purchases in the valley: Hamner Jewel Associates of Pismo Beach, Continental Field Services Corp. of Virginia, Universal Field Services of Oklahoma, and Golden State Right of Way Team in Sacramento.
Those four companies will be negotiating with property owners to buy their land, as well as surveying, appraising and performing environmental assessments on the properties, handling utility relocation and providing relocation assistance to businesses and homeowners displaced by the line.
Rail authority representatives believe they will be able to successfully negotiate with most of the affected property owners in the valley and anticipate that relatively few will carry a contest all the way through to an eminent domain trial.
Attorneys say that is the norm nowadays when agencies seek to buy private land for public projects.
"More often than not, these acquisitions are concluded through the negotiation process," Weiland said. "There's just a lot of risk, and it's expensive, to go to trial."
State can hold hearing
Still, Weiland said he expects his firm "to see a fair amount of business" as property owners hire lawyers for talks over selling their land to the state.
After the state appraises a parcel, it can make an initial offer to a landowner. The owner has the right to have an appraisal done at the state's expense.
If the two sides can reach agreement, "then that's the end of it," said Brewer.
But if there is a chasm between what the state wants to pay and what the owner believes he or she is due, the state can proceed with a public hearing on what's called a resolution of necessity to seize the land. Negotiations, however, can continue all the way through the process, even into a trial.
"These public agencies typically send out a right-of-way agent, and these guys are pretty savvy," Brewer said. "Their job is to try to talk the property owner into accepting the initial offer and discourage them from talking to an attorney."
Attorneys don't come cheap. Some charge based on their billable hours invested in a case. Some charge a contingency fee based on a percentage of the amount ultimately recovered, while others base their contingency percentage only on what they gain for their client above the government's original offer.
In some instances, if a judge determines that the government's offer was unreasonably low, the court can order the state to pay the property owner's legal fees as part of the award.
But the complexity of eminent domain law, and the wide range of considerations that can affect the ultimate sale price, make having an attorney worth the cost, Brewer said. "I've never not recovered more than what the government initially offered."