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."