Posted on Fri, Feb. 10, 2006


By Tanya Rose

BRENTWOOD - Dozens of fruit farmers have banded together to fight for their land, frustrated with what they say are unfair eminent domain tactics related to the Highway 4 bypass expansion.

They vow to keep battling, despite the thousands already spent on legal bills. The farmers held their first formal meeting Wednesday night inside a small Brentwood clubhouse and started strategizing.

Most said they've come to terms with the new highway slicing through their long-standing U-Pick farms on Marsh Creek Road. They also said they understand the need for a new expressway in this commute-frenzied area.

What they're not OK with, however, is what they call low-ball compensation offers from Contra Costa County for their land, and a general disregard by county leaders for agriculture in the region.

Many farmers will have to move their U-Pick parking lots to make way for the widened roadway, or even replant trees. Others will close altogether; and county officials, they say, don't seem to care.

By the end of the Wednesday meeting, they had decided to mount a public relations campaign -- perhaps posting some signs around town that say, "The bypass is killing our farms."

"We love this area, and we've been so faithful," said Meredith Nunn, who owns the Farmers Daughter coffee stand and several acres of fruit trees at Marsh Creek and Walnut Boulevard.

"We're nice people, and the county's just going to starve us out," she said. "People need to know what's going on."

Of the more than 100 land owners affected by the project, a roadway that will link Antioch and Pittsburg to the more far-flung areas of East County, almost 40 are still mired in eminent domain negotiations with the county. And while county officials point out that many land owners have been happy with their settlements, a handful will be forced out of business.

Nunn says her coffee stand is key to her livelihood; money made from the coffee sustains her fruit crops, and fruit crops help the coffee business. One cannot exist without the other, and because the roadway is eating up some of her land, she no longer has enough room for the whole enterprise.

"I'll have to shut down," she said. "And the message I'm getting from the county is, 'Well, you'll just have to sue us.'"

Farther down Marsh Creek at Orchard Lane, farmer Len Del Chiaro has already lost 2,700 trees to the new highway. And because the road will go through the middle of his property, causing irrigation problems, no insurance company will insure him. Too much liability, he says.

"The county's picking us off, one at a time and I feel like we have to watch each others' backs," said Del Chiaro, who has already spent $12,000 on lawyer's bills.

Mike McKinney, another farmer, said he attended a meeting with a county negotiator, only to wait in the lobby for more than five hours.

"From the beginning, they haven't communicated with us," he said. "They think we're country bumpkins out here who don't know what we're doing."

But Karen Laws, the county's principal real property agent and the person in charge of the negotiations, said the process has been more than fair. She can't talk about ongoing litigation or negotiations, but said she thinks there's a misconception in the community that the county is taking land outright.

"You hear people saying all the time that we take property without paying any money," she said. "That's simply not true."

She said the offered money goes into an escrow account, and the land owner has access to that. Even if the land owner wants to go to court to dispute the amount, she said, he or she can take the offer money out of the account and continue with legal actions.

By law, the county only has to offer fair market value for the property, which is not necessarily the highest price a land owner could get.

"We've been very pleased with how things have gone, given the number of properties we are dealing with," Laws said.

Furthermore, Supervisor Mary Piepho has argued in the past that farmers along Marsh Creek have been offered the "ranchette" rate, which is higher than a basic agriculture rate.

The county has already taken possession of much of the land, and construction will begin in the spring. Marsh Creek is an existing road, which will be expanded to highway proportions and linked with existing bypass segments.

Reach Tanya Rose at 925-779-7139 or