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An artist's view of a high speed train moving through a wind farm in the proposed high speed rail network.

Farmers drop suit against Merced-Fresno leg of high-speed rail plan

Published: Friday, Apr. 19, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3A

Farming interests in Madera and Merced counties dropped their environmental lawsuit Thursday challenging the first section of the statewide high-speed rail project.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority and representatives of several agricultural organizations announced the settlement Thursday afternoon after Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley signed off on it, less than 24 hours before attorneys were to argue their points in Frawley's courtroom.

The settlement ends the last legal challenge to the authority's approval last May of the 60-mile stretch of the proposed route between Merced and Fresno, and certification of the environmental impact report that was the basis for the route approval.

Farm Bureaus in Madera and Merced counties were among the organizations suing the rail authority. Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera bureau, said the rail authority gave significant concessions: increased mitigation for agricultural impacts and direct compensation for landowners affected by the project.

The lawsuit was filed 10 1/2 months ago by the Madera County Board of Supervisors, the two farm bureaus, Preserve Our Heritage (a Valley-based, grass-roots agriculture organization), Chowchilla Water District and the Fagundes farming family in Madera and Merced counties.

They alleged that the rail authority used a flawed process to assess the environmental effects of the high-speed rail project on agriculture and that the agency illegally approved the Merced-Fresno section.

The Madera County Board of Supervisors voted earlier this month to withdraw from the case.

Two similar suits, one filed by the city of Chowchilla and another by companies that own property along the route in Madera and Fresno counties, were settled earlier this year.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who has placed the high-speed train project at the forefront of his legislative agenda, was pleased with the settlement.

"This is a very positive development and I commend the High-Speed Rail Authority on working closely with California farmers and arriving at a very solid settlement," Brown said.

The agreement was a relief for the rail authority, but a new complication arose Thursday: The federal Surface Transportation Board ruled that it has authority over the California project, which could mean substantial delays and cost overruns if the state is forced to comply with federal railroad regulations.

Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the rail authority, said the Surface Transportation Board is still considering the state's request for an exemption, "and we continue to move forward to begin construction this summer."

Dan Richard, the rail authority board's chairman, said he is confident the federal board will approve California's request next month.

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