By SEAN SCULLY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A Petaluma man locked in a dispute with the SMART commuter rail system is hoping to draw track-side neighbors from all along the route to a meeting tonight to consider how to work together.
Contractor Glen Ghilotti is at odds with SMART over how to pay for a new private railroad crossing for his business and several other nearby properties in the vicinity of Landing Way, a project that could cost the neighbors at least $625,000.
Ghilotti has asked track neighbors and politicians from Sonoma and Marin counties to come to a public meeting at 6:30 tonight at Rooster Run Golf Course in Petaluma. The point will be to share stories and see if there is a way for individual landowners to cooperate as a counterweight to the legal and administrative muscle of SMART, he said.
His invitation flier says SMART is “pushing expenses like maintenance, construction, upgrades and safety to property owners.”
SMART officials sharply disagree, saying the law is clear: Crossings and infrastructure that benefit only private individuals — in this case, the businesses and homeowners that live between the tracks and the Petaluma River — must be paid for by those individuals. The general public will receive no benefit from the new crossing; therefore, no tax money should be used.
Public infrastructure and crossings, meanwhile, are being funded by public money, with no cost shifting to neighbors, SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian said in a written statement Wednesday.
“SMART cannot legally make a gift of your public tax dollars to private entities,” he said.
Before Ghilotti scheduled his meeting, the agency had already invited all the Landing Way property owners and their attorneys to an April 12 meeting to try to iron out their remaining issues with SMART and with one another, spokeswoman Carolyn Glendening said.
The disagreement between Ghilotti and SMART stems from the agency’s effort, with the backing of the California Public Utilities Commission, to consolidate three closely spaced private crossings into just one. That would require taking some property from the landowners to build an access road and forcing residents and some business traffic to make a longer drive to get to Petaluma Boulevard.
Ghilotti said he doesn’t necessarily object to the consolidated crossing point. Instead, he is angry that the cost of the project would be borne by the affected property owners. He estimated the project could cost him up to $250,000 personally.
He wants SMART to pay for the crossing, at least in part. He points to the fact that voters in the two counties volunteered to share the cost of the commter rail line by paying a quarter-percent sales tax to fund the $360 million project under a 2008 ballot initiative.
“My point is that we decided to tax ourselves equally to put this rail system in,” he said. “Why it is that a selected few have to pay the cost for public safety?”
Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents Petaluma and recently joined the SMART board of directors, said the agency is right to consolidate the crossings, but he says the agency could have done better in working with the property owners.
“A lot of it is that the initial way SMART approached them was probably pretty heavy-handed,” he said. “This is a consequence of that.”
The Landing Way dispute is the first of a series of negotiations SMART will have with landowners over private crossings. There are at least 138 such crossings over the 70 miles of right-of-way the rail system controls. Many of those, such as two of the three in Petaluma, are unauthorized.
SMART said the two Petaluma crossings will remain open only until Oct. 1.