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Landowners feeling 'railroaded'

Glen Ghilotti's business, Team Ghilotti, has been using a private railroad crossing for years but may be forced to give it up and share a new crossing with neighbors.

John O'Hara/For the Argus-Courier
Published: Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 2:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 2:54 p.m.

Eight property owners at the southern end of Petaluma Boulevard South have never heard the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit's slogan “There's a train coming to town” more clearly than they did this week.

The owners of the parcels, known collectively as Landing Way, are facing the threat of having their land taken through eminent domain by SMART if they cannot reach an agreement with the organization over the consolidation of three private railroad crossings into one common crossing. In addition, they would have to agree on how to split the cost of creating an access road to the single crossing.

“The mentality of the organization appears to be that the train's coming and if you don't get on board with what they want, they will run right over you,” said Glen Ghilotti of Team Ghilotti, whose company and trucks have been using his private crossing for more than 30 years.

Citing time constraints, SMART's Board of Directors voted to approve the use of eminent domain last Wednesday, should the agency and the eight Landing Way property owners not reach an agreement. Eminent domain is the power of government to force landowners to give up their private property rights. In this case, SMART would not be seeking title to the land, but rather the creation of an access road across four properties.

At issue is both who should pay the cost of the new signaled crossing, which SMART has estimated to be $625,000, and SMART's request that several property owners relinquish sections of their land for the creation of the access road that would also be built at the property owner's expense. How the costs would be divided up between the owners has not yet been determined, but SMART's board chairwoman, Judy Arnold, said she is hopeful that an agreement will be reached soon.

“We're still working with the property owners in the hopes that we don't have to use eminent domain,” said Arnold. “But the voters have said they want the train twice, and we have a timetable to follow. We need to move forward with this project.”

But at least one Landing Way property owner has voiced concerns about SMART's “timetable.” Ghilotti said that he was informed in September that SMART would be closing his railroad crossing in October, giving him only six weeks to work out the access road and crossing logistics with other property owners. After property owners voiced their concerns, SMART postponed closing the two crossings and entered into negotiations with the residents and businesses.

Ghilotti added that his frustration over SMART's dealings with property owners in the area is not only tied to the short notice of intent to close the two crossings, but also to what he called “misleading” statements from SMART when the train was first proposed.

“When I voted for SMART, I was told by the agency that they weren't going to close my crossing at all,” said Ghilotti. “I was told that mine would be kept open and that I would have to pay about $200,000 to $250,000 to install a smaller, signaled crossing. Even so, I still voted for it. But had I known what they were planning, I may not have.”

Under SMART's plans, companies like Team Ghilotti, Henris Roofing Company and Corto Meno Sand and Gravel would be the biggest users of the single crossing and access road, and would have to share it with private residents on Landing Way. That means heavy trucks would share the single-lane, gravel road with regular vehicles.

In order for the road to be built, several property owners may have to give up approximately 30 feet of land at the front of their parcel. That includes resident Leang Yee, who keeps a collection of World War II memorabilia in his front yard — including World War II era jeeps and cars. Yee is in his 70s and lives on a fixed income, so finding a new place to store his possessions could become a problem, according to Ghilotti.

“I've known Yee for a long time because he's been here for more than 30 years,” said Ghilotti. “How would you feel if you were an old man on a fixed income and the government came in and said they were taking parts of your (property) and that you had to pay a ton of money to get to the rest?”

Calls to Yee and his attorney, Elizabeth Fritzinger, were not returned.

David Rabbitt, Petaluma's county supervisor and the newest SMART director, was the only member of the nine-person board to vote against authorizing the eminent domain process.

“I wasn't comfortable making a decision to go down a road with no turnoff,” said Rabbitt. “We seemed to be coming down heavy-handed and forcing the issue, when I think there were some missteps along the way.”

Rabbitt, who has had in-depth discussions with the property owners and SMART, said that SMART's public outreach was poor in this instance. “SMART sent letters saying 'we're going to close your crossings in a month; please send us a check for half a million dollars',” Rabbitt said. “That's not a good way to conduct operations, even if you can.”

Currently, property owners are continuing their negotiations with SMART and remain hopeful that a compromise can be met. Petaluma attorney Robert Oliker, who represents Henris Roofing Company, said that while SMART has eminent domain powers, he is optimistic that an agreement will be reached before the agency resorts to using those powers.

“I have confidence in the people at SMART that they will come up with a fair allocation to the citizens,” he said.

Ghilotti said he worries about how SMART will deal with other private crossing owners in the future, and said that using the threat of eminent domain could set a precedent.

Rabbitt said he hopes that doesn't happen. “At the end of the day, we want to collaborate with folks and not jump down the eminent domain path too quickly,” he said.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at argus@arguscourier.com)

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