MADERA - Sam Curran rolls up on a bumpy road at the edge of his 2,600-acre ranch in the middle of nowhere, plops on a cowboy hat and opens a gate adorned with a bullet hole-laden sign warning against unwanted visitors. He's angry.
Curran, 70, says he's caught city folk from the state's $69 billion high-speed rail project "sneaking" onto his land to survey his farm, where California is getting ready to begin building its biggest public works project in history next year. The state is spending more than $300 million to buy out part of Curran's farm and hundreds of other properties along the route -- in many cases, against the landowners' will.
"I just hate to see 'em tear it apart," said Curran, a self-described "old cowboy" whose ranch has been in the family since 1899. "But you become one little cog that can't amount to nothing."
While Central Valley construction workers are eager for the high-speed train to come to town, a vocal anti-bullet train sentiment has spread across the farmlands of small, conservative Madera County, which now stands as the last barrier in the path of a groundbreaking next summer.
The farmers and the county here are suing to block the first 29 miles of high-speed rail from coming through the exact center of California, and a Sacramento judge on Friday is expected to rule on their request. It's a possible preview of battles to come in the Bay Area if the project moves forward.
The farmers argue the project doesn't meet standards set by California's environmental laws. While the lawsuit may be a long shot, the state concedes the case could cause delays that would force it to give back federal funding and essentially send the project back to the drawing board.
But the courtroom wasn't the first battleground in the farmers' last stand against high-speed rail in Madera County. The sheriff has been called to cool heads after some claim farmers have pulled guns on state planners who have come out to study the land in advance of construction.
"I said, 'Let's do this in court, not out here on the field,'" Madera County Sheriff John Anderson said. "No sense trying to settle it out there."
The state says the law gives its contractors the right to get on the land when they want, but some farmers disagree. The property owners along the route said they have chased the engineers into town in pickup trucks, forced them to destroy the film in their cameras or spotted orange-vested workers peering into their barns with binoculars.
"Typically, city folks aren't welcome on their property in the middle of the night," said Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau. "They are lucky they haven't been shot. ... It's getting really ugly down here."
Jeff Morales, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said his contractors have been lawful, respectful and fair and that the process has been "very smooth." He said they've hired many local surveyors who know the community and are not "city slickers."
Morales is looking forward to creating a plan with each property owner but can't yet under the law.
"People in the alignment are left to kind of conjure up the worst fears of what it might be," Morales said. "Hopefully in most cases it will lead to resolution that works for everyone."
This part of western Madera County, which has about 150,000 residents, is a two-hour drive southeast of San Jose and has more flies, cows and flannel shirts tucked into jeans than you'd see anywhere in the Bay Area.
Its two cities, Madera and Chowchilla, have street names like Avenue 18½ (between avenues 18 and 19) and Cross Road. Agriculture is its prime business and 1 of 5 people live below the poverty line. The bullet train won't stop within 25 miles of here, with the closest stations planned for Fresno and Merced.
Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature in July approved the first $6 billion stretch of tracks, starting with a $1.5 billion leg from Madera to Fresno next July. First, planners need to spend an estimated $360 million to buy out at least 326 parcels along the route. Holdouts will be bought out through court whether they like it or not.
Raudabaugh said the 1,650 acres of farm set to be bought out in Madera County for tracks will ruin irrigation systems, wells and pumps farmers have spent decades building. They're also concerned the 100-foot wide tracks will bisect existing roads and affect about three dozen school bus routes.
"It's gonna destroy what I got," said Curran, who grows four varieties of grapes, alfalfa, wheat and barley, and raises cows. "It's just a big-ass gorilla, and they tell you what they're gonna do, and they don't care what you think."
Morales said the state will fix and even replace torn-up irrigation systems. Many of the property owners will be able to continue farming their remaining land.
Supporters say they desperately need the jobs the project will bring to the depressed area, where unemployment has recently hovered around 15 percent. The local construction union said the bullet train could single-handedly provide paychecks to 70 percent of its unemployed and underemployed workers.
Others, like downtown Fresno property owner Chris Mathys, are eager to unload vacant land.
"I did not support using tax dollars for the high-speed rail project but believe we must also respect our system of government," Mathys said in a court filing opposing Madera County's injunction request.
The state estimates the first $6 billion Central Valley leg, with funding split between the state and federal governments, could return more than a half-billion dollars in tax revenue, generate 30,000 job-years of employment and $2 billion in economic stimulus. It will lay the groundwork for the entire San Francisco-to-Los Angeles rail line.
But in neighboring Chowchilla, Kole Upton, 69, and his 40-year-old son, Darin, are fighting to protect their farm from the bullet train tracks, as well. Like many people around here, farming is all they've ever known, and they plan to pass the ranch down to future generations.
"It's our life," Kole Upton said at his 983-acre ranch, where his family has grown corn nuts, almonds and pistachios since his father returned from World War II in 1946. "I'll be damned if they're going to run me off my land."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/rosenberg17.