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SMART rail meeting turns testy over siding project in Rohnert Park-Cotati


The board of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system approved a $3.4 million passing track project in Rohnert Park and Cotati on Wednesday despite angry protests from neighbors, which led to one man being removed from the meeting and provoked testy discussion among board members.

The project will add a second set of tracks along about 4,000 feet. This will allow the planned commuter rail trains, set to debut in 2016, to pass one another safely in both directions.

The passing track in Rohnert Park and Cotati is one of four planned projects along the otherwise single-track line. Other siding projects to allow trains to pass one another will be in Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Novato.

Neighbors, however, argue that the rail agency changed the configuration and location of the siding without adequately informing affected landowners, shifting the location half a mile south and switching the new tracks from the east to the west side of the existing ones, within a few feet of the rear fence line of a residential neighborhood.

"Nobody knocked on my door ... most of us found out accidentally," said resident Ray Arnold, one of a cluster of angry neighbors who attended the monthly board meeting.

Arnold, a severely disabled veteran in a wheelchair, said moving the train so close to his home will exacerbate symptoms of his post-traumatic stress disorder.

"If you're going to pass a damned train" that close, he said, "I'll go crazy."

Other neighbors complained that they felt as if SMART had presented the changed configuration as a done deal rather than seeking public input.

"I wasn't notified as in 'how do you feel about that;' I was notified as in 'you have a train coming within two feet of your fence, what kind of privacy fence do you want to look at every morning when you wake up,'" said neighbor Michelle McGinity.

Chief Engineer Bill Gamlen said the change had been in the works for several years and was forced by a number of factors, including the performance characteristics of the train cars and the location of some existing and planned buildings nearby, including a new depot being built by the city of Cotati and a bus transit station developed by the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.

"With all that going on here, it wasn't practical to bring the tracks in on the east side," farther from the houses, he told the board.

Gamlen said that the work could all be done inside the existing right of way and would not require the agency to use the power of eminent domain to take any additional property from the nearby landowners.

His comments drew angry jeers from neighbors and provoked Arnold to loudly accuse him of lying, an outburst that led his attendant to wheel him out of the room, still yelling at Gamlen.

The issue also provoked hard words on the board. Member Shirlee Zane, who also represents the neighborhood in her capacity as a Sonoma County supervisor, accused the staff of doing a poor job of informing the public about important issues. She said even she was not told of the change in the project until last week and was not notified of a public meeting in May about the construction, which drew only a small handful of neighbors.

"We have failed in our outreach ... we are going to have more of these issues unless we get much better at this," she said.

Her comments seemed to irritate board chairwoman Judy Arnold, a Marin County supervisor, and other board members, with member Barbara Pahre implying that Zane was trying to "micromanage" small sections of the 39-mile-long commuter rail line.

Arnold rejected Zane's request to delay the vote on the work, which is set to begin in the next month.

"People are excited about the train coming through until it affects where they live; that's just the reality," she said. But in this case, "we're not doing anything on anyone else's property; it's all on SMART property and we have to get the train built."

Zane was the lone holdout on the board, abstaining from the otherwise unanimous voice vote.

General Manager Farhad Mansourian promised to review the process for contacting affected landowners near a construction project and of notifying SMART board members of all public meetings.

Gamlen told the board that, although changing the location of these tracks is impossible, he would cooperate with neighbors to soften the effect of the siding work, including adding privacy fencing.

"It's not our intent to show up with bulldozers and start work on day one," he said. "We are willing to work with folks."

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)