The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board Wednesday hired a full-time legal counsel, a move the agency said will save money on legal fees as it builds the train line between Santa Rosa and San Rafael.

SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian also announced that engineers had found a way to move a controversial section of tracks through Cotati farther from the houses of residents who complained the rail line was too close.

The board unanimously approved the $190,000 general counsel contract for Tom Lyons. With benefits, his annual compensation will be $231,700.

Lyons, 45, has been the Marin County Counsel for the past 14 years. A graduate of University of Pacific law school, he has provided general counsel services on contract to the SMART board since April.

Moving the position in house will save the agency money, officials said. Lyon's hourly rate will be $111 compared with the $417 average outside counsel rate, SMART staff said.

Lyons said he will continue providing the same level of service preparing ordinances and resolutions, evaluating legal claims filed against SMART and drafting documents, contracts and agreements.

"I serve a gamut of needs," he said.

SMART board member Shirlee Zane, who was on the search committee that hired Lyons, said his experience with legal issues surrounding transportation and public works projects made him the ideal candidate.

"He's experienced," said Zane, who is also a Sonoma County supervisor. "He's got a good breadth of knowledge in legal issues. I think he'll be great. He's already been working for us."

David Oster, a member of a citizens committee that oversees SMART operations, said he liked the cost savings of the move.

"It makes a lot of sense to bring it in house," he said. "As SMART is in the construction phase, they're going to need someone who knows how to put the pieces together."

In his report to the board, Mansourian said contractor Stacy and Witbeck/Herzog were able to move a $3.4 million passing track project through Rohnert Park and Cotati seven feet to the east.

SMART spokesman Matt Stevens said the move was partly in response to neighbors who complained the tracks were too close to their houses.

"This effort to figure out a way to shift the tracks is an example of how we work with neighbors to create the least impact," he said. "One of our core values is to be good neighbors."

Mansourian also told the board that crews were in the process of laying fiber optic cables for rail communications along the 39-mile line. The agency is laying two extra cable lines, he said, to eventually lease to telephone and cable television companies, which will generate revenue for SMART.