The biggest seizure of private property  by eminent domain  in decades in the United States has started in California. The state is planning to take hundreds of properties — most of them in rural areas and small towns — to get land to build a high speed rail system which would connect San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The California High Speed Rail Authority has begun seizing properties even though legal challenges could still derail the project.
The State Public Works Board voted to let the Rail Authority  seize a commercial building in Fresno in December. That decision gives the authority the green light to use eminent domain  to get the properties it needs for the first segment of the rail system. It also puts a cloud over thousands of property owners in the San Joaquin Valley, a mostly rural agricultural region in Central California.
Property Owners Frustrated And Worried
“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,” said Frank Olivera, the cochairman of Citizens for High Speed Rail Accountability, a group opposed to the rail project. Olivera opposes the use of eminent domain, partially because he doesn’t think the project will be built.
“I question the necessity to even take this parcel when the rail authority may not even be able to pay for it,” Olivera said. The state’s funding plan for the rail system was thrown out by a Sacramento County judge.
“When they come in with these routes they put a cloud on your land,” almond farmer Kole Upton told The Guardian. Upton has put plans to replace almond trees on hold and now spends much of his time fighting high-speed rail.
Here Comes High Speed Rail. There Goes the Farm.
Many San Joaquin Valley farmers and landowners are in financial limbo  because of the rail project, The Guardian reported. Since they don’t know whether the state will seize their land or not, the farmers are not buying new equipment or even planting crops.
“Here comes high speed rail. There goes the farm,” has become a rallying cry for rail opponents. The opponents fear that the valley will be turned into bedroom communities for Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area by the rail.
A Guardian reporter couldn’t find any rail supporters in the town of Hanford. He did find local residents such as Aaron Fukuda.
“People are worn out, tired, frustrated,” Fukuda said of the rail project. Fukuda’s house is one of many that could be seized and razed to make way for high speed rail.
Also angry is Gary Lanfranco, whose family restaurant and parking lot will be demolished. Lanfranco is frustrated because the price the state has offered for his property is well below the market rate and the amount he has invested in the structure.
“It’s not like it’s just a restaurant that I’ve owned for a couple of years and now I can just go replace it,” Lanfranco said. “It’s something that I’ve put the last 45 years of my life into.”
The Strange History of California High Speed Rail
It’s easy to see why landowners are so upset about the use of eminent domain — there’s no guarantee that the rail project will be built or even the route it would follow. Here are a few interesting facts about California’s high speed rail:
- Nobody knows how much the system will actually cost. The original estimate was $45 billion but that price ballooned to $100 billion and has now fallen to $68 billion.
- The state only has around $8 billion in funding for the project. Nobody knows where the rest of the money will come from. Congress may or may not provide funding and the system hasn’t been able to attract private capital.
- Critics have claimed the proposed train would be so slow that it isn’t really high speed rail. The former chairman of the rail authority, Quentin Kopp, has publicly stated that the system is “no longer a genuine high-speed rail system.”
- The rail authority’s funding plan was so bad that courts blocked  it from issuing $8 billion in bonds in November.
- The rail line could have been built over a cheaper route along Interstate 5 west of the valley that would have involved fewer seizures of property. That route could have attracted private funding. The Los Angeles Times alleged that route which could have attracted more riders was not adopted for political reasons. The route was changed because of pressure from local politicians and real estate developers who wanted the train near land they controlled.
It looks like a lot of California property owners are going to find themselves in limbo for years or perhaps decades to come because of high speed rail. Property owners are once again at the mercy of politics.