By Sharon Bernstein
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California's proposed bullet train cleared a key legal hurdle on Thursday, as farmers in the state's major agricultural region removed their opposition as part of a legal settlement.
The high-speed rail line, a major priority of Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, would send passengers hurtling right through the state's fertile San Joaquin Valley as they zoomed from San Diego to points north, including Sacramento and San Francisco.
The full project, estimated to cost $68 billion, is likely to face additional obstacles as plans are made to cut through other parts of the state. Critics have said it is too expensive, and should be put on hold.
Under plans approved at both the state and federal level, the first leg to be built would stretch from Merced to Fresno in the state's breadbasket.
But last year, the Madera and Merced County Farm Bureaus sued to stop that stretch from being built, saying it would harm the region's agricultural heritage and businesses. Other opponents, including the city of Chowchilla and Madera County, also sued.
Chowchilla and Madera County settled earlier this year, but the farmers held out. On Thursday, they agreed to withdraw their lawsuit in exchange for the state's promise to pay their legal fees and put aside money to preserve agricultural land along the route, according to court documents.
Under the agreement, the California High Speed Rail Authority agreed to preserve farmland in several ways. For each acre (0.4 hectare) taken out of farming for use by the train, the authority will purchase an acre elsewhere that will stay in farming.
The state will also set aside $4 million to preserve additional agricultural land in the region. In addition, it will also pay about $972,000 for the farm groups' legal fees.
"We're a farming community, and we want to continue to be a farming community," said Tom Coleman, a pistachio grower who is president of the Madera County Farm Bureau.
The settlement was welcomed by Brown, who last week pointedly rode a bullet train in China as a way to drum up support for the California rail project.
With the lawsuits settled, the state is now free to begin purchasing land for the first leg, said Lisa Marie Alley, a spokeswoman for the High Speed Rail Authority.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Lisa Shumaker)