Court hearing on rail project comes as agencies act
By Christine Souza
During a week of developments related to California's proposed high-speed rail system, the Federal Railroad Administration issued federal approval needed to begin construction on the first stretch of the project, from Merced to Fresno.
But, aiming to delay construction until the project's impacts on farmland have been adequately reviewed, two county Farm Bureaus participated in a key hearing in Sacramento County Superior Court last Friday, during which a judge granted a hearing that could block the very action that the federal agency approved.
Meanwhile, there was also activity on the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section of the project, when President Obama announced a plan to expedite the permit and review process.
"Regardless of the federal approval and regardless of the Obama administration's promise to expedite permits, the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) case will stop the project if the preliminary injunction is issued," said Anja Raudabaugh, Madera County Farm Bureau executive director. "If they can't get past the CEQA challenge, the project gets stopped."
The Friday court hearing featured representatives of the California High-Speed Rail Authority and of plaintiffs in three separate lawsuits challenging the Merced-to-Fresno route. The suit brought by the Madera and Merced County Farm Bureaus also includes as plaintiffs the county of Madera, Preserve Our Heritage, Fagundes Brothers and the Chowchilla Water District.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley scheduled a hearing for Nov. 16, when he will hear a request from the plaintiffs for a preliminary injunction to stop construction due to the deficiencies in the CEQA process.
"That the judge is going to allow our preliminary injunction hearing to occur is huge. If an injunction is issued, they will not be able to release federal money in time to complete by the December 2017 deadline, which stops our segment of the project," Raudabaugh said.
As long as there is a CEQA action against the project, she said, the authority is not legally allowed to offer landowners any money for property.
"California condemnation code is very strict about CEQA lawsuits, and pending litigation has to be done before official offers can be placed on the table," Raudabaugh said.
Boards of directors for Farm Bureaus in Madera and Merced counties voted to sue the High-Speed Rail Authority in May on the grounds that the agency's environmental review is "woefully deficient" and "harmful" to farmers and ranchers in the two counties. The authority's approval of the final environmental documents, known as the environmental impact report/environmental impact statement, locked in its preferred route through Madera and Merced counties, which is part of a high-speed rail system that would eventually connect Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The preferred route is a "hybrid" route—a north-south alignment that runs along parts of the Union Pacific Railroad and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. The authority said it chose this as the preferred route because it considered it to be the most cost-effective with the least environmental impact and the fewest construction issues.
The county Farm Bureaus said they do not consider agricultural mitigation measures to be adequate or truthful. The county Farm Bureaus also said that the final environmental document improperly analyzed the cumulative impacts the project will have on agricultural production. The preferred route, the two county Farm Bureaus said, would impact approximately 1,500 acres of prime and important farmland, along with an estimated 150 farms, ranches and agricultural businesses.
Merced County Farm Bureau Executive Director Amanda Carvajal said the Federal Railroad Administration record of decision, issued last week, "intensifies and reinforces the fact that this project is coming and reinvigorates the determination of our valley farmers to show the justice system and the general public the egregious flaws this project was built on."
"This case for us is about preserving ag land," Raudabaugh said. "The threat that this project poses is the biggest threat to the Central San Joaquin Valley that has ever happened, because of the size of the project and the potential to urbanize prime farmland."
For the Fresno-to Bakersfield section of the high-speed rail project, President Obama announced last week his decision to expedite permitting of the project as part of his We Can't Wait Initiative.
"President Obama's announcement that he is directing the Federal Railroad Administration to finish its environmental review of the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section by October 2013 is irresponsible. The environmental analysis for this section is not only woefully inadequate at the state level, but also exhibits a blatant disregard and noncompliance with the federal NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) statute," said Kings County Farm Bureau Program Director Diana Peck. "If President Obama is really passionate about high-speed rail, it is in his best interest to demand a comprehensive and adequate review, not one that is both botched and rushed."
The Federal Railroad Administration record of decision is available online.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.