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Bullet train authority settles Central Valley environmental suit

April 19, 2013|By Dan Weikel
  • A drawing shows one of the high-speed trains that are projected to run from Los Angeles to San Francisco at speeds of up to 220 mph.
A drawing shows one of the high-speed trains that are projected to run from… (California High-Speed…)

A lawsuit alleging that approval of the high-speed rail system’s first sections in the Central Valley violated state environmental laws was settled Thursday, eliminating a legal obstacle that could have delayed construction.

A Sacramento County Superior Court judge approved an agreement that calls for the California High-Speed Rail Authority to further reduce the project’s effects on farming operations, preserve agricultural land and provide additional compensation for landowners.

The first segments of the planned 500-mile rail system are to run between Merced and Fresno. Construction of an initial 29-mile section between Madera and Fresno is scheduled to begin in July.

“This settlement brings the lawsuit to an end but begins a new chapter in working with the environment community to move the project forward,” said Jeff Morales, the rail agency’s chief executive. “The agreement is evidence that the California High-Speed Rail Authority is working positively with all affected communities.”

The lawsuit was filed last spring by the Madera County Board of Supervisors, the Madera County Farm Bureau, the Merced County Farm Bureau, the Fagundes family, the Chowchilla Water District and Preserve Our Heritage, an agricultural organization.

They alleged that the rail authority violated the California Environmental Quality Act when it approved the Merced-to-Fresno section in May 2012. Their case asserted that the agency used a “flawed process” to evaluate the project’s environmental impact.

Farm Bureau officials said they obtained important concessions from the authority, including the creation of a farmland bank to compensate for acreage that is rendered useless by the route and a fund to pay for mitigation measures as well as the legal fees of agricultural organizations.

“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 rail authority still faces a lawsuit brought by Kings County, farmer John Tos and Aaron Fukuda, who lives in Hanford. That suit alleges that the current project violates key provisions of Proposition 1A, the $9.9-billion bond measure approved by voters in November 2008. Further court hearings are scheduled in May.

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dan.weikel@latimes.com

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