On January 14, 2013, California's Public Works Board authorized the California High Speed Rail Authority ("CHSRA") to begin negotiating with property owners in Madera and Merced counties for the purchase of their property needed for the first construction segment of high speed rail ("HSR") route. This action initiates a process, known as eminent domain, which is one of the most controversial powers afforded to the State by Article I, section 19 of the California Constitution. These constitutionally based powers allow public agencies, like CHSRA, to take private property for a public use. Many farms, ranches, businesses and individuals in the Central Valley will be affected by this process over the coming months. The purpose of this article is to provide a broad overview of the eminent domain process and to generally describe the rights which property owners have to ensure that they are justly compensated for their land, buildings, improvements and businesses which are located within the planned rights of way needed for the HSR project.
The CHSRA is allowed to use eminent domain powers to acquire the right of way for the HSR project because the trains will serve a public use. The definition of "public use" is extremely broad and applies to anything that confers a public benefit. Because this definition has been applied by the courts to projects of far less public significance, legal challenges by property owners located within the planned HSR right of way, on the basis of a lack of public benefit, are not going to succeed. For this reason it is likely more beneficial for owners to turn their attention and resources away from challenging the CHSRA's right to take their property, and focus instead on how much the CHSRA should pay to justly and fully compensate the owners for their property.
The California Legislature has codified the procedures to be followed for the eminent domain process beginning at Code of Civil Procedure. The procedures are strictly applied by the courts. While the statutory process includes all of the steps to follow leading to a court trial, if necessary, public agencies typically attempt to negotiate privately with the property owner and avoid court action. This is because going to court is expensive for the public agency and for the property owner. The negotiating process can often be lengthy. Like other public agencies, the CHSRA is required to first obtain a formal appraisal of the property to determine the "fair market value" of what is being taken. The initial offer from the CHSRA may not be less than the value stated in the formal appraisal. The property owner is entitled to a copy of the appraisal summary indicating the value determined by the CHSRA appraiser. In addition, the property owner is allowed to obtain his own appraisal, paid for by the CHSRA, at a cost not to exceed $5,000. Our advice to property owners is to always obtain the second appraisal.