Issue of access across SMART tracks spurs conflict with landowners
For as long as the Corda family has owned a dairy ranch south of Petaluma, trains have been an integral part of the landscape, rumbling through on tracks bisecting the 1,100-acre property dotted with black-and-white cows.
Passenger service on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad was mostly a thing of the past by the time Lester and Stella Corda took over the family ranch in 1949. The couple’s six children could only imagine that period of history as they hunted along the tracks for empty liquor bottles tossed there by migrant workers riding the Depression-era rails.
Trains bearing freight continued to pass through after Lester died and his family assumed control of the dairy.
“If we needed to run cattle, we called them (train operators) and made our schedule by that,” said Suzi Corda, now 58 and living on the ranch with three of her siblings and Stella, who is 89.
But the arrival of commuter trains operated by Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit has upset the balance of agricultural industry and modern transport on this land straddling the county line, east of Highway 101. The Cordas say they have experienced delays reaching cattle across the tracks to feed animals on ranch property due to SMART setting limits on access across the railroad right of way.
“We feel we’re losing our way of life,” Suzi Corda said.
Rail agency officials argue that the restrictions, besides being mandated by federal railroad laws, are necessary to protect public safety.
“We can’t take the chance of cattle straying down the track some morning,” said Bill Gamlen, SMART’s chief engineer.
The spat illuminates the challenges SMART faces in working with property owners along the planned commuter route, which is scheduled to debut late next year along a 42-mile segment from near the Sonoma County Airport to downtown San Rafael. The trains already are becoming a familiar presence as they undergo testing.
In forging agreements with property owners, SMART is having to balance rail operations and safety while trying not to alienate the neighbors.
Critics of the agency say SMART officials lack tact and that they use strong-arm tactics, including litigation or the threat of eminent domain, to force property owners into accepting terms more favorable to the rail agency for things like rail crossing improvements and easements.
“There’s a pattern, and it’s not a good pattern,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, a SMART board member. “God help us when those trains go north. There’s vineyards along the track.”
Rabbitt was referring to the planned extension of the commuter line to Cloverdale and the political clout of the wine industry.
Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, did not return several messages last week and Monday seeking comment. A spokeswoman said he was on vacation.
In response to the criticism levied by the Cordas and others, Gamlen said SMART was doing “a very good job in all these locations where people have been crossing the track.”
He said in many of those areas, people have been using the track for years without proper approval, and that change can be difficult under the circumstances.
“We get that,” he said.
Another flashpoint is the Landing Way area south of Petaluma, where SMART has been negotiating with property owners to consolidate three rail crossings into one, and to pay for new crossing improvements.
In 2013, SMART’s board authorized using the controversial practice of eminent domain if the agency couldn’t reach agreement with property owners. Rabbitt cast the board’s lone dissenting vote.
One of the crossings has since been closed. Another closure was scheduled Friday but was extended another 30 days as the parties and their attorneys continue to seek a resolution.
“Pretty much a settlement is in place, but it depends on who you talk to,” Gamlen said.
He didn’t provide further details, including who is paying the estimated $625,000 cost for improvements at the single rail crossing on Landing Way. SMART previously said those costs would be borne by property owners.
Attorneys for three property owners did not return messages last week seeking comment.
Gamlen said the negotiations are evidence of SMART’s ability to work with property owners, even if it takes time.
“That, to me would lead to the fact some communication has been working,” he said.
Rabbitt, however, accused SMART of acting like a “bully” in its dealings with Landing Way property owners. He said the agency’s approach has been to “not return calls and just settle it in court,” using what he called “ancient railroad laws” to try and bolster SMART’s hand.