Two pieces of property in Fresno are being targeted as the first parcels to be condemned for California's high-speed train system.
The fight for the properties — one a small, vacant retail building on Belmont Avenue, the other an office building leased by the state near downtown — marks the start of a new stage of development for the proposed bullet train that would connect San Francisco and Los Angeles by way of the San Joaquin Valley.
Progress has been slow — very slow — in the California High-Speed Rail Authority's efforts to buy the right of way it needs for the first 29 miles of construction planned between the northeast fringe of Madera and the south edge of Fresno.
Eminent domain or condemnation typically is a last resort that government agencies can use to acquire property for public works or transportation projects when the agency and property owners cannot agree on the price and terms for the land.
Eminent domain law requires that owners receive "just compensation" for their condemned property, and if the sides remain in disagreement, a trial determines what the government must pay.
A judge could allow the state to take possession of the property within months, long before a trial on compensation.
One of the parcels to be condemned belongs to Rob Solley of Fresno, who owns the former Horn Photo building on Belmont Avenue east of Weber Avenue. Solley said he and agents for the rail authority disagree on the value of the 4,760-square-foot property and the 1930s-era building.
Solley didn't go into detail on his asking price or the authority's offer on the property, which has an assessed value of $51,382 according to Fresno County property records. But he said he is concerned about the property sales information that right-of-way appraisers selected to make their opening offer for his parcel.
"We were hoping to avoid eminent domain, but the difference is substantial — there's a large divide there," Solley said. "I've been a real estate investor for years, and I had a problem with some of the comparables they use to come up with the value. ... It looked to me like they cherry-picked on the low end."
"One of the comps was four years old. That doesn't make any sense," he added. "You can't use something that's years old. It's irrelevant and kind of ridiculous."
Through negotiations since the opening offer, the two sides have narrowed the gap, "but we're still not close," Solley said.
While not directly in the proposed path of the high-speed train tracks along the west side of the nearby Union Pacific Railroad freight line, Solley's property and others along Belmont sit where a new overpass is planned to span both the UPRR and high-speed rail line. The overpass would replace the Belmont Avenue subway that runs under the UPRR tracks.
Less than a mile to the south, the second property in the sights of the rail authority and the Public Works Board is at the northwest corner of G and Divisadero streets. There, a 20,169-square-foot office building leased to the California Department of Corrections sits squarely above where the high-speed tracks will run in a trench that extends from Roeding Park to just north of downtown Fresno.
The owner of the 15-year-old building and the 2.49-acre property, listed in public records as Frank Solomon Jr. of San Rafael, could not be reached last week to comment. Property tax records indicate that the building and property at 2222 G St. have an assessed value of $2.4 million.
Don Grebe, director of real property for the rail authority, said that talks with Solley and Solomon have been going on for several months with little progress before the decision was made to start the condemnation effort.
"They've had more than adequate time to consider the offer," Grebe said, adding that the authority will continue negotiations with the owners even as the eminent domain process moves forward.