Settlement drops last lawsuit over Merced-Fresno high-speed rail section

04/18/2013 3:31 PM

04/18/2013 3:32 PM

A Sacramento County Superior Court judge has approved a settlement of a lawsuit over the Merced-Fresno county portion of California's proposed high-speed rail system.

Farm Bureau organizations in Madera and Merced counties were among the farming organizations suing the California High-Speed Rail Authority over the agency's approval of the route.

"This settlement clears the way for the authority to move forward with construction of the first high-speed rail system in the nation and shows we can build high-speed rail while preserving precious resources," said Dan Richard, the chairman of the rail authority's board, in a written statement.

"We were able to achieve some significant additional protections for agriculture in Madera and Merced counties," said Tom Coleman, president of the Madera County Farm Bureau.

The case alleged that the rail authority violated the California Environmental Quality Act in May 2012 when it approved the Merced-Fresno section.

The lawsuit was filed 10 1/2 months ago by the Madera County Board of Supervisors, Madera County Farm Bureau, Merced County Farm Bureau, Preserve Our Heritage (a Valley-based, grass-roots agriculture organization), Chowchilla Water District and the Fagundes farming family in Madera and Merced counties.

They alleged that the rail authority used a "flawed process" to assess the environmental effects of the high-speed rail project on agriculture and that the agency illegally approved the Merced-Fresno section. The Madera County Board of Supervisors voted earlier this month to withdraw from the case.

The case, and two others that were dropped earlier this year, were seen as an effort to halt -- or at least slow down -- work on the rail program. The rail authority is only weeks away from awarding a contract for construction to begin this summer on the first tangible stretch of the high-speed-train route in Fresno and Madera.

Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, said the plaintiffs got "some significant concessions" from the rail authority: increased mitigation for agricultural impacts and direct compensation for landowners affected by the project.

Raudabaugh said provisions of the settlement include an agreement by the rail authority to purchase leftover parcels of up to 20 acres caused by the rail line passing through larger pieces of property. Those "remnant" parcels would be offered for sale to neighboring farmers.

"It's all about functionality," Raudabaugh said. "If the neighbor has the ability to farm on that remnant, the authority has to make it available to sell to that neighbor."

The settlement also calls for the authority to create a bank of farmland to offset acreage that is rendered un-farmable; to establish a fund to pay for farmland mitigation; and to pay the legal fees for the agricultural organizations.

There's still one more case pending against the rail authority, lodged by Kings County, farmer John Tos and Hanford resident Aaron Fukuda, charges that the rail authority's plans are illegal under Proposition 1A, the $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure approved by California voters in 2008. That suit, which hopes to block the sale of bonds, will be heard in Sacramento in late May.

Check back for more on this developing story.

A history of the HSR lawsuits over the Merced-Fresno portion

May 3, 2012: The California High-Speed Rail Authority certifies the environmental-impact report and approves a hybrid route for the Merced-Fresno portion of the proposed statewide high-speed train system. The approval comes after a two-day public hearing in Fresno.

June 1, 2012: The first of three separate lawsuits is filed against the rail authority in Sacramento County Superior Court to challenge the legality of the agency's May 3 actions under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The plaintiffs are Madera County, Madera County Farm Bureau, Merced County Farm Bureau, Preserve Our Heritage, Chowchilla Water District, and the Fagundes farming family in Madera and Merced counties. The suit asks the court to void the authority's Merced-Fresno route approval and seeks an injunction to prevent the agency from doing any planning, engineering, land acquisition or construction on the project. The case is assigned to Judge Lloyd Connelly.

June 1, 2012: The city of Chowchilla files a lawsuit in Sacramento County Superior Court challenging the rail authority's approval of the Merced-Fresno section. The case is assigned to Judge Timothy Frawley.

June 4, 2012: Timeless Investment Inc., Millennium Acquisitions Inc., Horizon Enterprises G.P. and Everspring Alliance L.P., all companies with land affected by the path of the approved rail line in Madera and Fresno counties, file a lawsuit against the rail authority challenging the agency's approval of the Merced-Fresno section. The case is assigned to Judge Connelly, who is also hearing the Madera County case.

June 12, 2012: The plaintiffs in the Madera County/Farm Bureaus lawsuit move to disqualify Judge Connelly from hearing the case because of alleged prejudice against the plaintiffs. The case is reassigned to Judge Frawley, who is hearing the Chowchilla case.

July 9, 2012: Judge Frawley orders that all three lawsuits be treated as related cases and heard in one combined court process. The lawsuit by Madera County and the Merced and Madera county Farm Bureaus is designated as the lead case.

Nov. 16, 2012: Judge Frawley denies the requests for an injunction to block the rail authority from continuing its work on the Merced-Fresno portion of the rail project.

Jan. 15, 2013: Attorneys for Timeless Investment Inc. and its co-plaintiffs file a motion to dismiss their lawsuit against the rail authority.

Jan. 25, 2013: A settlement with the city of Chowchilla effectively drops the city's lawsuit against the rail authority. The settlement calls for the rail authority to pay up to $300,000 of the city's legal fees in the case.

April 2, 2013: The Madera County Board of Supervisors votes 3-2 to withdraw from the one remaining lawsuit against the rail authority over the Merced-Fresno section. A court hearing in Sacramento remains on the calendar for April 19 for Judge Frawley to hear the case and make a decision.

April 18, 2013: Just one day before attorneys for the farm interests and the rail authority are to square off in court, the two sides agree on a settlement that ends the lawsuit.

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