At a Calaveras County Board of Supervisors meeting on Dec. 8, the board held a public hearing and unanimously approved a resolution of necessity to acquire property interests through eminent domain in order to carry out the State Route 4 Wagon Trail Project.
The Wagon Trail project, which has formally been in the works since 2001, aims to realign and improve a roughly six-mile stretch of Highway 4 between Copperopolis and Angels Camp.
The road has changed little from its original course in the 19th century, when it carried wagons to and from Calaveras County long before the advent of the automobile.
“The narrow width and non-engineered geometry of the roadway, combined with large traffic volumes (5,000 vehicles per day), reduce roadway operating speeds to approximately 25 to 35 mph and precipitate a higher than average accident rate throughout this segment (66 collisions in the most recent three-year period),” the meeting packet reads. “As development continues within the county, the projected traffic growth is expected to result in a Level of Service E (unstable flow, operating at capacity) traffic operations by 2025.”
Since early this year, the county and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) have been working to acquire the properties needed for the project’s right of way.
The county has reached agreements with six of the seven affected property owners, but has not yet been able to come to an agreement with one property owner, Tiscornia Ranches, LP.
The total properties still needed include five parcels containing 76.2 acres of land, 1 acre of CalTel easements, 4.3 acres of PG&E easements and 11.5 acres of temporary construction easements. The total fair-market value of the properties has been appraised at $285,000, and an offer in this amount or more has been made to the property owner.
At the meeting, Director of Public Works Joshua Pack advised the board to approve the resolution in order to ensure that the necessary right-of-way could be acquired and certified by the state ahead of funding deadlines.
In order to receive $10.3 million in funds from the State Highway Operation and Protection Program (SHOPP), the county has to secure and receive certification for the right-of-way by May 3, 2021. In addition, $4.4 million in State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) funds have a June 2021 funding deadline.
“If the county cannot meet these deadlines, approximately $20.72 million in combined project funding would be lost and project construction will be delayed indefinitely,” the meeting packet reads. “Since inception, approximately $7.4 million of local STIP shares has been invested in the Wagon Trail project to support both preliminary engineering and right-of-way.”
Pack said that although an agreement has yet to be reached, negotiations have not been acrimonious to date.
“We’ve done a lot of work to negotiate in good faith to address the issues that the property owner has identified. We’ve reflected that in the increased compensation,” he said. “At this time we have not received any counter proposal from the property owner. … You have to have two parties to negotiate, and we don’t have that. As a result, we’ve reached what we’d call an impasse, which is why we’re here today.”
Pack said that eminent domain proceedings were not a “preferable option,” but were the “last option,” and that the process could take up to five months, finishing just before the funding deadlines.
“We have not taken this action in decades,” he said. “We recognize the sensitivity of (imminent domain), and the impacts it can have on property owners, especially a family like the Tiscornias who have given so much to our community over many, many decades.”
After a resolution of necessity is adopted, “usually parties reach an agreement before it reaches the end game and the order of possession,” Pack said. “We will continue to negotiate with the property owners in parallel to this process.”
District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills represents most of the area encompassing the project.
“I don’t like eminent domain at all, and never have,” he said. “I understand why there’s contention, but I also understand that there’s a public safety issue that has to be resolved. … We have the money now, so let’s move forward.”
District 3 Supervisor and Board Chair Merita Callaway said that the project has been “the county’s highest priority.”
“The goal is to do this project, and if this is the last and final step that we have to go through to do it, then I strongly believe that this is something that we need to vote on, as uncomfortable as it is,” she said. “This is the last effort that we can do to make it happen, and I hope I’ll have your votes.”
Following a motion by Mills and a second by District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi, the resolution passed in a 5-0 vote.
Construction on the project is planned to begin as early as next year.