Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lawsuit: State Ignored Cities' Concerns on High-speed Rail

By Mike Rosenberg
Daily News Staff Writer
Posted: 02/19/2009

The California High Speed Rail Authority ignored Menlo Park's comment letter that outlined how their proposed bullet trains would force Peninsula homeowners to lose their property, according to opening arguments filed Thursday in the city's lawsuit against the state.

The claim was part of the 44-page argument brief filed in Sacramento County Court on Thursday on behalf of Menlo Park, Atherton and four other groups that are jointly suing the authority, which is in charge of the proposed state high-speed rail project.

The brief, filed in August by Oakland-based attorney Stuart Flashman, was submitted on the basis that authority officials violated state environmental law when they chose the plan to run the train through the Peninsula.

The rail authority will respond to the initial argument, and Flashman will respond with a counter-argument. A judge will decide to either dismiss the claims or order the authority to redo its lengthy and costly environmental planning, which would set the project back and may change the rail's route.

The plaintiffs argued the trains should be sent through the Altamont Pass in the East Bay rather than the Pacheco Pass on the Peninsula, which the authority selected as its route last July. Peninsula cities such as Menlo Park and Atherton are concerned that property owners close to the rail line would lose their property through eminent domain to make way for the new tracks.

The most significant claim in the brief was that the authority never received Menlo Park's comments that were made before the Pacheco Pass route was approved. State environmental law requires government bodies to review comments from cities and residents before a planning decision of this kind is made.

Flashman wrote that the city successfully sent the authority a letter via fax, and that the authority received it, but at some point it "went astray."

"At any rate, the letter did not appear in the (planning document) and was never responded to," Flashman wrote. "Consequently, the Authority's Board (of Directors) was never made aware of the city's concerns."

The brief also said the authority failed to take into account the cost of eminent domain purchases on the Peninsula before choosing the Pacheco Pass alignment, which the plaintiffs claimed the authority was biased toward.

Deputy Attorney General Danae Aitchison, who is representing the authority in the case, said Thursday she received the brief but couldn't comment since she hadn't read it yet. Authority Deputy Director Dan Leavitt did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Source: The Palo Alto Daily

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Zero Energy Homes Project

Source: Toolbase Services - www.toolbase.org

Imagine a home that is not only energy efficient, but also produces its own power. Just like a typical home, a Zero Energy Home (ZEH) is connected to, and uses energy from, the local electric utility. But unlike typical homes, at times the ZEH makes enough power to send some back to the utility. Annually, a ZEH produces enough energy to offset the amount purchased from the utility-resulting in a net-zero annual energy bill.

A ZEH combines state-of-the-art, energy-efficient construction techniques and equipment with renewable energy systems to return as much energy as it takes on an annual basis. Specifically, when renewable resources cannot provide all the home's power, e.g., at night or on a cloudy day, the homeowner purchases energy from the utility. When renewable resources produce more than the house is using, e.g., during sunny days when no one is home, power is sent back into the utility grid. Some utilities operate the home's electric meter in reverse, essentially providing the homeowners full retail value for their energy.

ZEH Projects

The NAHB Research Center has worked in conjunction with builders on several ZEH projects. The most recent project, the Bob Ward Companies Ultra-Efficient Home, was built in Bel Air, MD. Another current project is the John Wesley Miller ZEH house in Tucson, AZ. In addition, the Research Center worked with Asdal Builders to remodel a farm house into a ZEH house in Califon, NJ. While each project has unique facets, many similarities reinforce the successful approach to energy efficient construction.

Location, Location, Location

Richard Florida will be on NPR’s Talk of the Nation today, February 18, from 3-3:45pm EST:

On the next Talk of the Nation: To Richard Florida, this recession follows the first rule of real estate: location, location, location. When the economy turns around, where you live might be more important than what you do.

Tune in, and then share your thoughts with us.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Peninsula Cities Want Say in High-speed Rail Plans

By Will Oremus

Palo Alto Daily News Staff Writer

As plans for a high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco chug along, residents and officials in Palo Alto and other Peninsula cities are quickly joining forces in hopes of influencing the design.

They've been jolted to action by word that the Caltrain tracks that run through their neighborhoods may have to be elevated, expanded and flanked by 15-foot-high walls to accommodate 125-mile-per-hour trains zipping by every few minutes. Many are saying they'd rather see the tracks go underground.

In Palo Alto's Southgate neighborhood, where many homes back up to the tracks, there's talk of eminent domain and loss of property value. After an informational meeting last week drew almost 50 people, they're holding a second meeting tonight and planning a march on City Hall on March 2 to draw attention to their plight.

Meanwhile, mayors and staff from several cities have begun meeting each Friday to share notes and talk strategy. They've asked state high-speed rail officials to extend a period of public input on what should be studied in the environmental analysis, and they're working on a formal request that a tunnel be included among the alternatives. If the tracks must be elevated, they're pushing for a more attractive scheme than simply slapping concrete walls on each side.

While leaders in two cities, Menlo Park and Atherton, have formally opposed the project and joined a lawsuit against it, others are actually enthusiastic about
the rail line. What they have in common, said Palo Alto City Council Member Yoriko Kishimoto, is a desire not to be left out of the planning process.

"We want a place at the table in negotiating with the high-speed rail authority," Kishimoto said. "It doesn't make sense to have all of our dozens of cities negotiating separately."

Similarly, the Southgate residents are split on the merits of high-speed rail but seemingly united in their concern over its impact on their neighborhood.

Gil Woolley, whose Mariposa Avenue home is among those that abuts the tracks, said he believes California needs the rail line. He said he understood when he moved there that the tracks might not always stay at ground level.

Still, he said, "I think it's going to be ugly. It's going to really affect the value of the houses along here."

Cecilia Lancaster, who lives several doors down, said she helped organize the march now because it was starting to feel like residents' voices might be drowned out as the project gained momentum. She said she's less worried about losing her home to eminent domain than watching its value evaporate because of the train tracks towering over it. Like many neighbors, she's now pushing for the trains to run underground.

That could be far more costly than elevated tracks, and state officials have indicated cities that want a tunnel may have to pay the difference themselves. Lancaster said she understands that, but feels the cities need to at least look into the possibility.

The residents will meet tonight at 7 at the Palo Alto Unified School District offices, 25 Churchill Ave., Palo Alto. The march is scheduled for 6 p.m. on March 2 at Lytton Plaza, to precede a Palo Alto City Council meeting on the high-speed rail plans.

The California High Speed Rail Authority is also sponsoring a meeting at 7 p.m on Feb. 26 at Mitchell Park Community Center, 3800 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Homeowners Emerge From Denial on Falling Values

(02-10) 18:57 PST -- Perception is finally catching up to reality when it comes to home prices.

A quarterly survey by Zillow.com and Harris Interactive of how people view the value of their homes shows that more people now realize that their single largest asset is declining in value.

More than half (57 percent) of 1,573 homeowners surveyed now believe that their home lost value in 2008. That still lags the reality that 76 percent of all U.S. homes declined in value in 2008, according to Zillow's figures.

A full quarter of homeowners had the sunny view that their home's value had increased; in reality, 20 percent of homes did increase in value during the year, according to Zillow's reckoning. Another 18 percent insisted their homes' value was the same, while only 4 percent of homes actually kept their value, Zillow said.

Previous surveys showed homeowners mired deeper in denial, convinced that their own homes were immune to the nationwide plunge in real estate values that started about 2 1/2 years ago. Just six months ago, only 38 percent of people surveyed believed that their homes were declining in value.

That's despite constant bad news with headlines, TV news reports and respected indexes such as Case-Shiller trumpeting the onslaught of foreclosures that caused home prices to fall faster than a rock dropped from the top of a tower.

"Up until now, people have been pretty resistant to external data about the housing market and have continued to say their homes are doing quite fine," said Stan Humphries, vice president of data and analytics for Zillow in Seattle. "The events of fall 2008 with bank failures and large companies going out of business marked a turning point in many people's heads about what's actually happening. The fact that the economy is having larger troubles makes them more aware of what's happening to home values."

Still, people remain optimists when it comes to real estate's future prospects. More than two-thirds (70 percent) of homeowners believe their home's value will either rise or stay the same during the next six months. That's far more cheerful than any economic forecast, even that of the perpetually upbeat National Association of Realtors.

"We're optimists by nature," said Daniel McGinn, author of the 2008 book "House Lust: America's Obsession with Our Homes." "It's a lot easier to ignore the decline in value of your house than of your stocks, bonds and 401(k). There is only so long you can ignore opening your 401(k) statements."

Of course, unlike 401(k)s, homes don't come with handy guides to check their value. That's where services like Zillow, which was founded in 2005, try to step in. By offering value estimates for millions of homes, it became a social phenomenon, tapping into people's voyeuristic curiosity and real estate mania.

"One thing that makes homes such fascinating elements in our lives is their illiquidity," McGinn said. "You can't wake up tomorrow and look in the newspaper to figure out what your house is worth. It takes work - hiring an appraiser, doing competitive analysis, talking to Realtors. At the end of the day, you never really know what your house is worth until you sell it."

Homeowners in the hard-hit Western states are the most pessimistic nationwide. The survey showed 70 percent of homeowners there believe their homes are worth less - although the actual percentage of homes that decreased there clocked in at 90 percent.

Less denial

A nationwide survey of homeowners found that more than half now know their homes lost value over the past year when 76 percent actually did.


-- Home is worth less: 57%

-- Home is worth the same: 18%

-- Home is worth more: 25%


-- Homes worth less: 76%

-- Homes worth the same: 4%

-- Homes worth more: 20%

Source: Zillow.com

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Palo Alto Residents Worry About Bullet Train

Source: Bay Area News Group

Until recently, the notion of a bullet train from Los Angeles to San Francisco seemed far off to Tom D'Arezzo, a high-tech product manager who lives in Palo Alto's Southgate neighborhood. He knew it was on the November statewide ballot, but wasn't sure of the specifics.

Now that the $10 billion bond measure has passed, however, the project's full impact is beginning to hit home — almost literally. Like his neighbors on Mariposa Street, D'Arezzo has a yard that backs up to a portion of the Caltrain tracks that might have to be widened to accommodate the high-speed electric trains.

D'Arezzo now fears he could lose up to 10 feet of his property to eminent domain. But he's been frustrated in his attempts to find out for sure. Rail officials will neither confirm nor rule out the possibility, repeating a mantra that is beginning to irritate some Peninsula residents even though it's meant to soothe them: "It's early in the process."

Groundbreaking on the planned $40 million line is years away. The California High Speed Rail Authority is in the first stages of public outreach, holding "scoping meetings" in the Bay Area to get residents' thoughts on what should be studied in the environmental reports.

But D'Arezzo, and a handful of leaders in mid-Peninsula cities, worry that by the time they get the detailed information they would need to participate in the decision-making process, the big decisions will
have already been made.

It's that fear that prompted Menlo Park and Atherton's city councils to formally oppose the rail line, joining a lawsuit against the authority for its 2007 vote to run the trains up the Caltrain tracks rather than through the East Bay. Meanwhile, leaders in more transit-heavy cities such as Palo Alto and Redwood City have generally endorsed the alignment, whether officially or tacitly.

Now those cities are starting to take notice of the way the 125-mph trains might alter their landscapes. For one thing, safety regulations will require the tracks to pass either over or under every cross street, meaning either dozens of new overpasses or a pricey tunnel through a fully built-out suburban region.

Yoriko Kishimoto, a Palo Alto city councilwoman who last year led a resolution to support high-speed rail, is taking charge of an effort to get local cities and residents more involved in the planning process. In a meeting Monday with state Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City, she and other council members asked whether he could help them extend the public comment period for the environmental scoping, which is scheduled to end March 6.

Kishimoto has also met with council members in Redwood City, Menlo Park, Atherton and Mountain View about working together to negotiate more effectively with the rail authority.

"It's going to be a transformational project," she said, "and we have a choice whether it's going to transform the community for better or worse. It's up to us to take control of the situation."

Quentin Kopp, chairman of the high-speed rail authority, said those fretting about high-speed rail's impacts on local neighborhoods are getting ahead of themselves.

"The engineering is far from complete," he said. "People should not apprehend eminent domain until at least that part (of the design) which applies to Palo Alto or Redwood City is complete."

If some cities are interested in tunneling, he added, they should submit a proposal before the current comment period ends.

Monday, February 9, 2009

What Are the Benefits of High-Speed Trains?

There has been a lot of controversy regarding the Proposed High-Speed Train that will one day go right through areas of Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto. Will this effect your property values? Should you consider relocating away from the proposed route? What will be the pros and cons for homeowners in the mid-Peninsula?

Obviously this will make travel to Los Angeles much quicker and less expensive. Will the train be obnoxiously loud? Will you be able to see it from your home? Is it an overall plus or a minus for the community? Most important -- Is your investment safe?

Why High-Speed Trains?

California's population is growing rapidly and our economy needs a jumpstart. Unless we find new transportation solutions, traffic will only get worse and airport delays will continue to increase, hindering the economy and eroding California’s quality of life. To serve the same number of travelers as the high-speed train system, California would have to build nearly 3,000 lane-miles of freeway plus five airport runways and 90 departure gates by 2020. With a price tag of at least twice what it would cost to implement the high-speed train system and having much higher environmental impacts. What’s more, the proposed high-speed train system will provide lower passenger costs than for travel by automobile or air for the same city-to-city markets.

California's planned 220 mph high-speed train system will cost less than half as much as building more freeway lanes and airport runways and will increase mobility while cutting air pollution and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. In addition to relieving traffic congestion by keeping cars off the roads, the system will eliminate traffic delays at existing at-grade railroad crossings by replacing crossings with overpasses or underpasses. And by moving people and goods quicker and cheaper than we do now, the system will boost our productivity to new heights. When it comes to safety, studies have shown that high-speed trains will reduce the number of traffic accidents on our roads and highways.

What are the benefits of high-speed trains?

Benefits of the California High-Speed Train System:

Carrying up to 117 million passengers annually by 2030, with the capacity to also carry high-value, lightweight freight.

Meeting the need for a safe and reliable mode of travel at less than half the cost of building more freeways and airport runways and would link the major metropolitan areas of the state and deliver predictable, consistent travel times sustainable over time.

Will not require an operating subsidy.

Serving tourist and leisure travel, business travel and long-distance commuters over a variety of long, intermediate and relatively short-distance trips (such as Los Angeles to Anaheim, Palmdale, Riverside, San Diego, Fresno, Sacramento and the Bay Area).

Sharing rail alignments throughout much of the system will improve joint facilities benefiting safety and operations of existing freight, commuter and conventional passenger rail services.

Providing quick, competitive travel times between California’s major intercity markets.

Providing door-to-door travel times for longer distance intercity markets that would be comparable to air transportation, and less than one-half as long as automobile travel times.

Providing considerably quicker travel times for intermediate intercity trips than either air or automobile transportation, and bringing frequent high-speed train service to many parts of the state that are not well served by air transportation.

Providing lower passenger costs than for travel by automobile or air for the same intercity markets.

Providing a new intercity, interregional and regional passenger mode—the high-speed train— which would improve mobility, connectivity and accessibility to other existing transit modes and airports compared to the other alternatives.

Improving the travel options available in the Central Valley and other areas of the state with limited bus, rail and air service for intercity trips.

Providing transportation options in cases of extreme events, such as adverse weather or petroleum shortages.

Providing a predominantly separate transportation system that would be less susceptible to many factors influencing reliability such as capacity constraints, congestion and incidents that disrupt service.

Providing superior on-time reliability.

Providing a lower accident and fatality rate than automobile travel. Will avoid over 10,000 auto accidents yearly with their attendant deaths, injuries and property damage when compared to exclusive reliance on highways.

Offering greater opportunities to expand service and capacity with minimal expansion of infrastructure.

Adding capacity to the state’s transportation infrastructure and reducing traffic on certain intercity highways and around airports to the extent that intercity trips are diverted to the high-speed train system.

Eliminating traffic delays at existing at-grade crossings where the high-speed train system would provide grade separation.

Using train technology proven to be the safest, most reliable form of transportation known through extensive regular revenue service in Europe and Asia.

Expanding airports and highways to meet the intercity travel demands of 2020 would cost two-to-three times more than building the high-speed train system.

Source: California High-Speed Rail Authority

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Doing Your Real Estate Homework: Google Earth

Source: Cirios Real Estate Inc., San Francisco, CA

Just because you don’t have a real estate license and are smart enough to know that Zillow’s Zestimates are about as accurate as the Warriors are dominant in the NBA, doesn’t mean you can’t find valuable real estate information online.

One of the most useful tools for valuing properties is Google Earth. Location still drives the value of real estate, and Google Earth makes it easy to examine a property and its surrounding area. The more research you can do from home, the fewer wasted property visits you’ll end up making.

Always analyze the following characteristics of any neighborhood:

? Lot (corner lot? back yard, front yard)
? Street (cul-de-sac, tree-lined, major artery)
? Negative Obsolescence (power lines, rail road tracks, airport flight path)
? Transportation (freeways, bus routes)
? Amenities (schools, dining, entertainment)
? Street view (house, street)
* Keep in mind the street view may be dated, so details could be different

Here’s how we use Google Earth to examine a specific property.

Property Address:
8579 Beverly Lane, Dublin, CA 94568

Lot: The house looks small, but the large lot leaves room for a possible addition in the back.

Street: The subject’s street likely gets little traffic since there is no direct access from Village Parkway (the main thoroughfare in the area.)

Negative Obsolescence: The property backs up to Village Parkway, and although there is no direct access, noise pollution could be a problem.

Transportation: Using Google Earth’s transportation option under the Layers tab, you can see the nearby public transportation routes and stations. The subject is very close to the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station as well as the 680 and 580 Freeways.

Amenities: Using the Dining option under the Layers tab, you can see Village Parkway offers options like Taco Bell & Sangam Indian Cuisine. An In-n-Out Burger is less than a mile away; this should be considered a major positive.

Street View: The street has similar looking homes that are comparable to the subject. The wall between the subject and Village Parkway is very low, which could mean more noise pollution than we might have initially thought.

Conclusion: Without stepping foot outside, we learned 8579 Beverly Lane’s neighborhood is close to 2 freeways, BART and an In-n-Out Burger. Street noise from Village Parkway, however, could be a problem. Armed with this information, you can make an informed decision about whether an on-site visit is your next step.

Monday, February 2, 2009

In Time of Crisis, Looking to U.S. With Wariness and Hope

DAVOS, Switzerland:

This was supposed to be the year the United States came in from the cold at the annual gathering of world leaders here. But instead of receiving a warm embrace, American policies were rebuked again and again in rhetoric that recalled the anger of the Bush years - except the ire this time was mostly directed at Washington's economic failings, rather than its diplomatic ones.

There is a deep reservoir of good will for President Barack Obama personally and the change in direction he represents. But his administration is about to discover that the rest of the world does not seem to be in a hurry to forgive and forget - and that it sees a new threat in the form of U.S. protectionism.

Despite the pledges to encourage international trade and economic cooperation that accompanied the closing sessions of the gathering, the World Economic Forum, on Sunday, there were clear signs that deep divisions between the United States and the rest of the world remained.

Sourece: Reuters

Obama Stimulus Plan Faces Changes in Senate

WASHINGTON (AP) — A top Republican called for more mortgage relief and additional tax cuts in President Barack Obama's massive economic stimulus package as Democrats conceded privately they will drop items that have drawn bipartisan criticism.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Monday that "a stimulus bill must fix the main problem first, and that's housing." He promised that Republicans would offer a plan to have the government step in to reduce mortgage rates to the 4 percent range, which could shore up home prices and lower housing payments for millions of Americans.

At the same time, two questionable items in the plan — $75 million for smoking cessation programs and $400 million to slow the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases — have already been dropped from the most recent draft of the measure.

The Senate planned to begin debate on the legislation Monday and the process was likely to stretch into next week.

Democrats were prepared to offer amendments to add $20-$30 billion more for infrastructure programs such as roads, bridges, mass transit and water projects, according to Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Schumer also said Democrats would support a GOP-backed idea to double a home buyers tax credit from $7,500 to $15,000 and make it available to all home buyers instead of those purchasing their first home.

The bill is a major test for Obama and Democrats controlling the Senate. There's unrest among Democrats such as Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who have expressed concern that many of the items in the sprawling measure won't do much to stimulate the economy.

The price tag is already approaching $900 billion — and it's likely to grow during Senate debate.

The Senate measure is broadly similar to an $819 billion plan that passed the House last week. It contains almost $350 billion in tax cuts, including a two-year temporary $500-per-worker or $1,000-per-couple tax cut. There's also a $2,500 college tuition tax credit.

For businesses, there's a plan to infuse cash into money-losing companies by allowing them to claim tax credits on past profits, as well as incentives for investments in new plants and equipment.

The bill also contains extensive public spending: An extension and temporary increase in unemployment benefits; about $87 billion to help states with Medicaid bills; and aid to schools.

Infrastructure projects would also get a boost under the Senate plan, including $27 billion for road and bridge construction and repair, $20 billion to repair and renovate school and university buildings, and $9 billion for improved access to broadband.

The Senate plan also contains an approximately $70 billion provision to ensure that 24 million tax filers won't get trapped by the alternative minimum tax. The AMT was designed four decades ago to make sure wealthy taxpayers pay at least some tax, but it never was adjusted for inflation and therefore threatens to trap millions of people for whom it was never designed.

The White House and some Democrats had resisted the AMT provision, arguing that it wouldn't do much to boost the economy since Congress was virtually certain to address the issue later anyway.

Source: Associated Press