A state board gave approval Friday for the California High-Speed Rail Authority to start the process of seizing its first piece of property through eminent domain for a $68 billion bullet train.
The State Public Works Board voted 3-0 to approve a request from the authority to try to seize a 2.5-acre parcel in Fresno that is needed to build an underground trench for the project. The authority has declared an impasse with the owner of property.
Fresno County records value the property at $2.4 million. It includes a 20,000 square-foot commercial building that is leased to the state Department of Corrections.
Rail officials said they have been unable to reach an agreement with owner Frank Solomon Jr. after making an initial offer in May. Details of the offers have not been made public.
Solomon did not appear at the hearing and a phone listing under that name in Fresno could not receive messages.
Don Grebe, director of real property for the rail authority, said the parcel has been pegged as critical to acquire early because of the complicated construction needed to be done there. He said the rail authority is still open to negotiations with the owner.
The action by the board allows the rail authority to file paperwork in court asking a judge to determine the fair market value of the property as well as compensation the owner is entitled to for relocation.
The legal action also could allow the rail authority to access the property and start construction even before the state owns it.
Frank Olivera, co-chairman of the group Citizens for High-Speed Rail Accountability, told the board it would be premature to let the state acquire the property, given recent legal and administrative setbacks for the project.
Last month, a Sacramento County judge invalidated the state's funding plan and said it must have 300 miles of environmental clearances in place to meet the terms of Proposition 1A, the bond measure voters approved to sell nearly $10 billion in bonds for high-speed rail.
"I question the necessity to even take this parcel when the rail authority may not even be able to pay for it," Olivera said.
Grebe said the authority has closed escrow on five of the 380 parcels needed to complete the first nearly 30-mile stretch from Madera to Fresno.
"Overall we have people that have been signing agreements. I think it's been going quite positively, slowly," he said. Still, he estimated that as many as 20 percent of the properties could end up going through the eminent domain process.
Olivera, the rail opponent, said the prospect of eminent domain has cast a pall over many residents and business owners in the train's proposed path.
"Everybody is scared of the state of California coming to your house and saying we're going to take this, we're going to take your parking lot or your business, and they don't know what to do," he said.
Grebe said if the project were scrapped at some point and the property was no longer needed, state law gives the original owner the first option to buy it back.