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Eminent Domain Action Postponed in Midtown Connector Project

Update: After Madera County Community Development Director Matthew Treber told supervisors Tuesday morning that County officials and the private landowner were still negotiating and hoped to able to reach an agreement soon, the Madera County Board of Supervisors postponed for one week (until May 12 regular meeting) any further action on the proposed eminent domain proceeding detailed in the story below. 

MADERA — The Madera County Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing this week to consider an eminent domain action against an Oakhurst business owner in order to keep moving forward with the Oakhurst Midtown Connector project, which will create a new road linking the area near Yosemite High directly to Highway 41.

The long-anticipated project, currently estimated at about $19 million, will include construction of a new, two-lane road connecting Highway 41 with Indian Springs Road. The road will be about one-half-mile long and will include a 365-foot-long bridge over Nelder Creek as well as 12-foot-wide travel lanes, five-foot-wide shoulders, a five-foot-wide sidewalk and separate five-foot-wide bike lanes on either side of the road.

The project also involves installation of a new three-way traffic signal and two, left turn lanes on Road 427 as well as “improvements” where the new road intersects with Highway 41, which spurred this week’s eminent domain hearing.

At Tuesday’s meeting, supervisors will decide whether to OK the action — called a Resolution of Necessity — that would allow the County to acquire from a private property owner key easements necessary for the project’s construction.

The private property owner is identified in the staff report as Beth Taylor, DVM, owner of Animal Hospital of the Sierra, which is located at 40637 Highway 41 in Oakhurst.

Dr. Taylor opposes the County’s current design plan and in a two-page letter to the board of supervisors dated April 29, a Fresno law firm representing her voiced their client’s specific objections to the proposed condemnation action.

“The taking of this private property from our client is not necessary for the Project,” the letter states, and also constitutes “an illegal act.”

“The access easement proposed to be taken is neither in the public interest nor required by the public necessity,” the letter also states. “To the contrary, it is for the exclusive private interest of the adjoining landowner(s).”

The letter also argues the County’s proposed condemnation action “presents a burden and hindrance to our client’s property, all for the private enhancement, benefit and enjoyment of the adjoining private landowner(s) for private uses.”

But in their report, County staff counter: “[T]he Department has determined that the acquisition of [the easements] … is necessary to construct improvements along SR 41. Based on the detailed findings in the attached Staff Report, the acquisition of the Access Easement, the Slope Easement, and the Temporary Construction Easements … through condemnation is necessary because the Oakhurst Midtown Connector project cannot proceed without the easements and the property owner has not responded with acceptance of the purchase offer for these easements…”

According to the current design plans, the Access and Slope Easements total approximately 4,400 square feet — or about one-tenth of an acre.

Without an agreement with Taylor, in order for the project to move forward, the County is being forced to try to take the land through an eminent domain proceeding. “After holding [this week’s] public hearing, staff requests that your board adopt the Resolution of Necessity and authorize County Counsel to prepare and prosecute, or retain counsel to prepare and prosecute, in the name of the County of Madera, an eminent domain proceeding that will follow in Superior Court,” the staff report states.

In 2018, the California Transportation Commission (CTC) approved $2.7 billion in funding for 61 transportation projects in California designed to “increase safety, decrease congestion, and move goods more efficiently throughout the state.” That funding included $5 million earmarked for the Oakhurst Midtown Connector, which the County had originally hoped to start building in 2019 also utilizing Measure T dollars.

County officials say the new road will provide a second, critically important access route for first responders to east Oakhurst — and “will be beneficial by providing better circulation in the Oakhurst area for both daily traffic and in the case of an emergency.”

County planners have completed the design phase of the project and the building department hopes to start construction later this year, according to Madera County Public Works Director Ahmad Alkhayyat.

Alkhayyat told Sierra News Online in May 2019, “We had some challenges with Caltrans oversight due to the connection in the state right-of-way on State Route 41,” which caused a one-year delay in the project’s timeline.

“CTC is postponing everything right now” because of COVID-19, Alkhayyat added. “But we actually have a meeting with them tomorrow and our goal is to start construction later this year, with the project completion date sometime in 2021.”

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