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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.

“I guess that’s their prerogative, but I don’t think it’s the way to go,” he said.

With the Cordas, the main issue is access to the ranch property on the east side of the tracks, where the family keeps about 50 head of cattle. When Northwestern Pacific operated on the line, the Cordas moved cattle and equipment across the tracks when trains were not approaching. But those trains moved slower than SMART trains, which will operate at or near top speeds of 79 mph along that stretch of track.

The rail agency, working in conjunction with state and federal transportation authorities, has endeavored to upgrade track conditions to meet current safety regulations, including consolidating rail crossings, installing new fencing and upgrading warning systems. Each 60-ton train is equipped with an array of safety features, including positive train control, which is designed to stop trains before certain accidents occur.

The Cordas have an appreciation for what can happen when things go wrong. Suzi Corda recalled one night when the family was rousted out of bed after a Northwestern Pacific train struck cattle that had wandered onto the tracks. More than 15 cows were killed in the collision.

“It was sickening to see those poor animals. I will never forget that,” she said.

But the Cordas are among several landowners in the Sonoma-Marin area who accuse SMART of being intransigent. Many attended meetings in 2013 ostensibly aimed at presenting a united front against the rail agency. But the net result appears to be property owners negotiating individually or in small groups with SMART, trying to hash out differences.

SMART and the Cordas reached an agreement several years ago governing use of the crossings, the terms of which included that the family give the rail agency 48 hours’ notice of when they want to cross the tracks, at which time a SMART employee is dispatched to open the gates.

SMART later agreed to spend $425,000 to construct two 8- by 12-foot undercrossings along the track to allow for unencumbered passage of cattle underneath, and about $100,000 on improvements to the above-ground crossings, according to Gamlen. He said the agency “really went out of our way to accommodate” the family.

The Cordas view it otherwise. They are on the hook financially for finishing grading work at the undercrossings outside of SMART’s right of way. The family said they also agreed to deed an acre of land to the rail agency and provide an easement allowing road access from Highway 101 as part of the deal.

“I think we’ve worked well with them, would be more the way to put it,” Suzi Corda said. “We’ve given up a lot, and we lost a lot.”

The Cordas say they agreed to terms with SMART believing the agency would be flexible if situations changed. When things didn’t work out, the family said rail agency officials dug in their heels and refused to compromise.

That includes, the Cordas claim, the 48-hour notification provision, which the family said proved a hindrance to getting to cows on short notice.

“We don’t know when a cow’s going to have a problem and needs to be taken care of right away,” Tom Corda, 63, said.

Things came to a head on Nov. 8 after the family was prevented from feeding the herd on the eastern side of the tracks because of a thunderstorm that rolled through.

Suzi Corda said she remembered at 5 a.m. the following morning that she had forgotten to notify SMART the family needed the gates open. She said a SMART employee responded via email to say the gates wouldn’t be opened until Nov. 10 - 72 hours after the cows had last been fed.

Heading out in an all-terrain vehicle loaded with hay on the morning of Nov. 10, Tom Corda and a ranch employee were met at the rail crossing by a SMART employee who had opened the gate. As Corda rounded the corner on the hill, the cows came barreling in his direction and wasted no time tearing into hay bales that were tossed to the ground.

The SMART employee closed the gates after a second delivery of hay.

The family has been lobbying to go to a schedule whereby SMART would open the gates every other day as a matter of routine, unless notified otherwise by the family.

Rabbitt pleaded the family’s case in an email he sent Nov. 9 to Mansourian and several fellow SMART board members, including Chairwoman Judy Arnold, a Marin County supervisor.

“As you know,” Rabbitt wrote, “the Corda’s (sic) are frustrated with the process and have said they feel theyr’e (sic) only recourse is to go to the media to highlight the issue. We can and should avoid that. Please let me know how SMART can work with these neighbors.”

But Arnold, in her emailed response to Rabbitt, appeared dismissive of her colleague’s concerns.

“A word of advice, my friend, sometimes the best way to appease constituents is to just say no,” she wrote. “In the long run they get over whatever it was they were so insistent on getting, and respect your honesty.”

Arnold, who did not return messages Friday seeking comment, apparently was unaware that the Cordas were copied on Rabbitt’s original email.

The family views the Marin County supervisor’s response as proof of SMART’s high-handed indifference to their concerns.

“I’m appalled that she said such a thing about everyday people,” Suzi Corda said last week at the family ranch.

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, also a SMART board member, declined to address the Cordas’ concerns or the rail agency’s response to them, instead referring questions to Rabbitt.

“I expect we’ll make a few mistakes on customer service on the way,” she said. “We should be aggressive in addressing those.”

Gamlen characterized the ongoing issues with the Cordas as a short-term problem, saying work on the undercrossings is scheduled to be completed in a week or two. He said once that’s finished, the family will have unencumbered access to the east side of the property.

The rail agency appeared to relent somewhat last week by providing the Cordas with a schedule of dates for when the gates will be opened in November so that the cows can be fed.

“I don’t think we’re insisting on a phone call for all of these openings at this time,” Gamlen said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Bill Gamlen’s name. The story has been updated to correct the error.

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