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150-year-old law drives parley over rail yards

Anyone who says there is no creativity in politics has never met the lawyers for the State Lands Commission.

The state has staked a claim to 25 acres of land in the Sacramento rail yards, complicating negotiations over the development of the site. But here’s the rub: The state’s claim is based on a map showing where the American River ran more than 150 years ago.

The state’s position on the 25-acre parcel becomes more critical now as Sacramento city negotiators and the developer, Thomas Enterprise, hope to solidify a deal next week that would allow the rail yard project to become eligible for state bond money. Because new housing is slated for the rail yard site, city officials and Thomas are both optimistic that the project may qualify for state assistance.

But state negotiators, led by the Department of Parks and Recreation and the State Lands Commission, have their price. They want to ensure that there is space for a new railroad museum in any rail yard development. And now, says the developer, the state is using an archaic claim based on how the American River ran 150 years ago to try to force the developer’s hand.

According to old maps, about 10 percent of the 244-acre rail yard site is land where the American River ran back in 1850. As with most rivers, development, dams and levees have changed the course of the river. But under a document known as the public trust doctrine, the state has claim to those ancient waterways dating back to the time California was admitted to the union, in 1850.

The state now says it will give up its claim to those 25 acres in exchange for the right to build the railroad museum on nine different acres in the rail yard site.

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who serves as the chairman of the commission, says the commission’s action this week “clears [a] path for responsible development” of the rail yards.

 “The agreement approved today provides a fair solution which will pave the way for the long-desired redevelopment of this blighted area, providing jobs, housing and economic vitality for the Sacramento region while preserving this important piece of California’s history for future generations,” said Garamendi.

But not everybody sees it that way. Ed Manning, a spokesman for the developer, Thomas Enterprises, says the commission’s action was “premature.”

“We don’t think it would be helpful to approve the resolution before the commission,” Manning said in his testimony Monday.  

That sentiment was echoed by Ann Sheehan, who serves as a proxy for Finance Director Mike Genest on the commission. Sheehan abstained on the resolution when it came before the commission Monday, expressing concerns that the state was sticking its nose into negotiations between the developer and the city of Sacramento.

 “It is not appropriate for the [State Lands Commission] to get involved in other negotiations that are already going on,” she said. “I do not believe it is our place to inject ourselves in this negotiation.”

But Garamendi countered that if the state does not stake out its position now, it could wind up fighting for its rights to the 25 acres in court. “We can simply stand by and wind up with a lawsuit,” said Garamendi.

Manning insisted Thomas was not interested in challenging the state’s claim on the land. The developer simply does not want to commit to the parcel swap outlined in the 2005 rail yard development deal, a deal that ultimately fell apart.

Manning claims the commission’s action is simply part of a ploy by the state to help leverage space for a state railroad museum in any new rail yard development. That museum would be run by the state Department of Parks and Recreation. “The commission is trying to leverage state parks,” Manning said.


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