WatchSonoma Watch

SMART OKs use of eminent domain to close rural Petaluma crossings


The use of eminent domain powers was authorized by Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit directors Wednesday to obtain easements necessary to consolidate three rail crossings into one in south Petaluma.

It would be the district’s first use of eminent domain — essentially the power of government to force owners to give up some or all of their private property rights.

Officials said the controversial process, which is infrequently used, may be necessary to provide the single crossing that is being required for safety reasons by the California Public Utilities Commission and to avoid leaving any of the owners landlocked.

It will be undertaken only if the district can’t reach a voluntary agreement with four property owners, said Bob Pittman, a deputy Sonoma County county counsel who advises the district, told the SMART board.

“We are attempting to negotiate possession and use agreements, but if not successful, we will file for eminent domain, which will take five to six months to be granted,” Pittman said.

In this case, the district would not be seeking title to land. Rather, it wants creation of a road easement across four of the properties so that the eight properties currently using the three private crossings of the tracks to reach Petaluma Boulevard south could be rerouted to a single crossing.

The eminent domain process generally requires payment of market value for the property or easements and it also requires court approval.

The properties are in an area called Landing Way, a group of homes and businesses just south of the Petaluma River and bordered by the river and by SMART’s tracks.

They include Team Ghilotti construction company, Henris Supply roofing, Corto Meno Sand and Gravel and the private homes of Leang Yee, Michael Fontes and Michael Goldberg.

The three track crossings — none with gates or signals — are within a half-mile stretch. State regulators are requiring that two be closed for safety reasons because of the risks posed by fast-moving trains in areas of multiple crossings in close proximity.

The one crossing to be allowed would require gates and signals that could cost $625,000.

SMART is proposing acquiring easements that would allow a 30-foot-wide road parallel to the tracks along property owned by Yee, Fontes, Henris and Corto Meno.

Pittman said the cost of the road and the crossing improvements will be part of the negotiations with the property owners, as will who gets to use the crossing and how often. He said in most cases, the majority of such costs are borne by the property owners.

David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and a new SMART director, was the only vote opposing the eminent domain process. He said that some documents he wanted to see were not in the packet.

Petaluma attorney Robert Oliker, representing Henris, said property owners will be forced to provide easements over their property even though they may not have a state permit to cross the tracks. He said he wanted the permitted users of the crossing to be spelled out.

Glen Ghilotti of Team Ghilotti, whose firm uses one of the crossings that is to be closed, complained about the cost. “It adds up to a lot of dollars and I have no control over what is happening,” Ghilotti said. “I cannot afford hundreds of thousands of dollars for my neighbor to get to a crossing.”

Santa Rosa attorney Elizabeth Fritzinger, representing Yee and Fontes, said getting an agreement on the easements will depend on getting an agreement on the costs.

You can reach Staff WriterBob Norberg at 521-5206 orbob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.

9 Responses to “SMART OKs use of eminent domain to close rural Petaluma crossings”

  1. Phil Maher says:

    All arguments of the government’s moral right to exercise the use of eminent domain aside: This action should be solely reserved for those agencies wherein the members of their boards are elected by the voters, not appointed by their conspiratorial like-minded ilk as a matter of political favor. What SMART can’t get, SMART will take and pilfer by whatever means necessary…and this by no means excludes the very tax measure that created it.

  2. Originalst says:

    Gee, did Dumb Train to Nowhere just forget to mention it would steal private property during its phony campaign to the voters?
    Eminent Domain has always been a political sham as evidence by homeowners in Connecticutt who lost their homes so the town could raise property taxes.
    And are we to believe that a judge who isn’t trained on such matters is to decide? Heck, judges who are isolated from life are not the people to trust such decision! Let the sovereign people decide such things.

  3. Elephant says:

    Steveguy – The 900 jobs are for construction workers building houses near the train stations. DUMB themselves made that housing requirement. We have neither the need nor the infrastructure (aka drinking water) for these houses. This is why the construction industry is the major backer of DUMB.

    Sorry, but anybody who thinks that the real goal of DUMB is a train is unfortunately wrong.

  4. Steveguy says:

    There is a US Supreme Court case just heard for this kind of things. Whether the Government can make you pay. Check Pacific Legal Foundation.

    Besides, SMART is a fraud and very expensive to the Cities along the line. Cotati is expected to pay for their own station, and others are under obligation too. What progress has been made ? Where are the 900 workers ? Why take so long ?

    Can’t ask those questions from an insular board. Grand Jury time yet ?

  5. R.B. Fish says:

    The real leader in chief is Barack Obama. Our country and rights are being taken over and he completely supports these activities for the sake of public good.

  6. John Parnell says:

    SMART needs to dig itself out of its latest hole & emphatically state that it will not use eminent domain to steal the land for the north Petaluma station. This arrogant behavior is typical of this agency, but they say it is for a “crossing”. They forced the owners of the Corona Rd property into bankruptcy & tried to lowball their offer. Now, they want to steal it from the new owners, but they don’t want to pay for it. Eminent domain is their new M.O. & should repulse everyone.

    The most amazing thing about this vote is that SMART finally had one that wasn’t unanimous. (is this the first in the board’s history?) Congratulations to David Rabbitt for taking a stand & showing us that there is a SMART boardmember with a backbone.

    Meanwhile, Farhad Mansourian continues his reckless behavior down at the Novato Fire Board, where he has secretly forced out the board president, asst. chief AND chief (who just won Nation Fireman of the Year), so that he can be the new Board President.


  7. James Bennett says:

    A molestation of property rights.

    Why should a property owner be encumbered with this expense?

    This whole deal is a travesty.

  8. elephant says:

    This area is a patchwork of industrial and commercial operations with a few private residences located outside of the Petaluma City Limits. And by consolidating the numerous “private” rail crossings into one controlled crossing, the PUC just wants to correct the stupidity of how the county permitted this mess to happen over the years.

    All in all though, I still know that SMART is DUMB. Of course they’ll use the bullying tactic of eminent domain. The shoe fits.

  9. GAJ says:

    Absolutely crazy:

    “He said in most cases, the majority of such costs are borne by the property owners.”