FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — The body overseeing plans to build California's bullet train has started the daunting and expensive process of acquiring thousands of acres in the Central Valley, where the rail line's proposed path would slice through farms, stores and motels.
But months after shovels were supposed to be in the ground, the California High-Speed Rail Authority is in escrow on just one parcel of the 370 it needs to buy or seize through eminent domain for the first 30 miles of construction. The agency says it is within 30 days of reaching deals on another 38 parcels and is negotiating over hundreds of others.
For some owners, a buyout is welcome relief in an economically battered area where unemployment remains high. For many others, it's a traumatic and confusing experience that often pits financial considerations against sentiment and history.
In downtown Fresno, not far from the city's historic train station and the proposed high-speed rail stop, commercial buildings are scattered among shuttered factories.
Three of the buildings still in use are owned by ValPrint, a printing business that also leases rental space. Owner Jack Emerian says he supports high-speed rail, but the offers he and his neighbors initially received were too low, "not even close to replacement value."
Emerian was initially given only four months to relocate, but he said officials have since delayed the timeline, as the contractor designing the first segment re-evaluates which parcels of land are needed and when.
"I think they're going to have some problems because I've heard that they're really quite low on their numbers. People have to go out and replace these things," Emerian said.
He added that he is open to "a mutual agreement on what is fair."
Rail Authority Chief Executive Officer Jeff Morales takes pains to note that the agency is following the same eminent domain process as other state agencies, such as when CalTrans buys up property to expand highways. The law allows owners to charge the state up to $5,000 for their own property appraisal after receiving the state's initial offer.
Morales said the land acquisitions for the first Merced-to-Fresno segment are on schedule, although there have been changes since the contractor started this summer. The contractor has started engineering work, but the rail authority is no longer projecting when it will break ground, after previously saying it would start in the spring and later, July.
"In some cases, we need property sooner in order to do testing or surveying, not necessarily to do the construction," Morales said. "So we can get agreements with the property owner to have access to the site prior to acquiring it."
It's a process fraught with complications.
"Even for sophisticated businesspeople, (the) eminent domain process is probably fairly foreign to them," said Tony Leones, a Walnut Creek attorney who specializes in eminent domain. "If you've been in the same location for 20 or 30 years, being told that you have a few months to try to find another location to relocate to, or move your business, can be very daunting."
Letters from attorneys like Leones offering help have poured in to affected property owners along the proposed rail route.
Bharat Patel has received dozens of the letters. His Del-Mar Motel, a drive-in with railroad tracks in front, lies on a stretch of the "old" Highway 99, at one time a major Fresno thoroughfare where many of the once-thriving motels remain.
Rooms rent for $50 in the winter, $45 in the summer, plus $10 for the key deposit. This year has been bad for business, Patel said, "but still I can survive, you know. Up, down. Up, down."
Fresno County assessment records value the Del-Mar at $321,000, but Patel is hoping for something closer to $1 million.
"This is the only place I have; I have nothing," he says.
Those hoping for a windfall may be out of luck, however, as California's eminent domain law limits the amount of money the rail authority can offer above the county's assessed value. Businesses that can show harm from having to relocate may be entitled to goodwill damages, and some renters also can claim payments.
The state will owe millions in compensation for farming operations that are affected by the bullet train line, even if the land is not taken. Some will be entitled to compensation for land they will still own but cannot use for farming for reasons such as lost access to crops, disrupted irrigation systems or sections of land that are stranded on the other side of the tracks from the rest of the farm.
U.S. Rep David Valadao, R-Hanford, is among those whose land could be affected. The Fresno Bee has reported that his family's business, Valadao Dairy, owns more than 500 acres of land valued at more than $1.8 million along either of two proposed routes south of Fresno and another six parcels within a mile of a route.
Valadao's concerns are similar to those of his constituents, said his chief of staff, Tal Eslick. He noted that the congressman was critical of the project long before he knew his property could be affected.
"The back-and-forth and uncertainty for our constituents has been frustrating, no doubt," Eslick said. "As a resident, he's just as confused as everyone else about what this project means for Kings County."