A group of property owners trying to organize a united front in dealing with the SMART rail line say they are not looking to derail the project, but merely provide a counterweight to the agency's political and financial might.

"It is our right to talk back and try to work out something in everyone's best interest," said Dave Bailey, an organizer of a meeting of landowners Thursday night from along the commuter rail tracks connecting Sonoma and Marin counties.

Bailey, whose father owns property along the tracks south of Petaluma, and nearby business owner Glen Ghilotti say SMART is unfairly trying to force them to share the costs of reconfiguring railroad crossings to their land, wedged between the tracks and the Petaluma River. That project could cost affected landowners at least $625,000.

SMART officials say they have negotiated in good faith with the property owners. They say state law prevents them from paying for the reconfigured track crossings with public money since the general public will get no benefit.

Furthermore, SMART officials say, some of the current crossings on private property, including the ones used by Ghilotti and Bailey, are illegal.

Thursday's meeting was intended to identify and rally other landowners who might have similar disputes.

They plan to attend SMART's next several board meetings to get their complaints, including poor communication and unfair cost allocation, on the agenda.

"What we're trying to do here is get common issues, common problems we're having, and try to get together so we can work as a group," Bailey said.

After the meeting, SMART spokeswoman Carolyn Glendening said the landowners are welcome to attend the meetings, but she denied that the agency had been high-handed or uncommunicative with neighbors.

"Obviously, I think we differ on the facts," she said.

Although the meeting was generally civil and there was little angry rhetoric toward SMART, Bailey did open his presentation with a clip from the 1976 movie "Silver Streak" in which an out-of-control passenger train demolishes a railroad station. He later played a clip of a freight train running down a frightened cow.

"My jokes are going over like a lead balloon," he observed.

Several dozen people attended the meeting in Petaluma, though it's not clear how many were affected property owners.

Attendees appeared to be motivated mostly by curiosity rather than specific problems with SMART. Several said they had read of the meeting online or in The Press Democrat and were merely curious.

Some, however, were more directly affected.

Dairy farmer Jerry Corda of Petaluma said his family has two private crossings over the tracks, which run through his 1,100-acre spread along the Sonoma-Marin line. SMART is proposing to allow one crossing to remain open, but partially close the other, a move that will greatly inconvenience the dairy operation, he said.

"I think the biggest issue is property rights, and the issue is particularly hard because the landowners have been there for generations," Corda said. "They should be respected and given a fair shake."

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