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Property fight: David vs. Goliath

PG&E locks horns with farm couple over easement issue

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POSTED April 16, 2010 2:24 a.m.
The powerful PG&E company is locking horns with two Manteca farmers over easement issues. Pitting the utility giant against lifelong farmers Arnold and Roseline Rothlin is like watching a David and Goliath battle.

The Rothlins of Nile Garden Farms are, by industry standards, mid-sized farmers who raise various crops during the year such as alfalfa and corn, plus a small herd of beef cattle totaling nearly 150 heads.

The problems began soon after PG&E crews started working on the company’s Line 108 Natural Gas Pipeline Replacement Project which is being done “to ensure the reliability and safety of gas service to the Stockton, Manteca, Lodi region and to meet increasing demand in the region, from existing and new customers.”

The project, which started several days ago, runs through a number of farming properties including that of the Rothlins’, between West Ripon Road to the south and Woodward Avenue to the north.

Before work started, the Rothlins signed a right-of-entry contract with PG&E which the Rothlins don’t dispute. However, they maintain that several points in the agreement have been violated by the company and by members of the work crew. For one thing, the Rothlins point out that PG&E went ahead and started excavating parts of their alfalfa field without first compensating them for the crops they lost in the process plus the three-year losses they are going to incur for not being able to use that portion of their land. When PG&E ignored their complaints, Arnold Rothlin planted homemade billboards – about half-a-dozen of them – along Woodward Avenue and Nile with messages that read: “PG&E Take Rothlin land” and “PG&E took our land.”

The Rothlins estimate that PG&E crews all together took about three and a half acres of their alfalfa field, about twice what they understood would be the total easement involved.

On Thursday, the Rothlins woke up to black graffiti spray-painted over their red-letter signs. The black messages read “PG&E is #1,” “Don’t mess with PG&E,” and “Don’t f…k up with PG&E.” Things came to a head later in the day when, according to the Rothlins, they irrigated their alfalfa field as they normally do every 10 days and water flooded into the area where the crews were working on the west side of Nile Garden School. That’s when things got ugly, the couple said, with one of the workers telling them, “don’t sleep at night; what you guys are doing is making more trouble for yourselves.” The Rothlins said another PG&E worker told them that “if his truck breaks, we will have to pay for it.”

The Rothlins said they felt they were being threatened and reported these to their attorney who was recommended to them by the Farmer’s Bureau. They also reported this incident to the South San Joaquin Irrigation District. “The irrigation district said we have every right to the water and they took pictures of our fields and the fields in front and behind us,” Roseline Rothlin said.

 The couple said they did not call police or report it to law enforcement officials because they felt it was enough that they reported the incident to their lawyer, and that there were several witnesses including Jason Andre, the 20-year-old who works for them.

They also said that the utility company is not holding to its side of the agreement of  not infringing on their farming operations for the duration of the project. To prove their point, Roseline Rothlin showed several pictures she took of some workers climbing over wire fences and trespassing inside their property to work in such areas as the corral where they keep their cows.

“That’s what started our agitation, the crews disrupting the cows. The cows were running like crazy while two guys were dragging wires across our pasture. That was not in the contract,” Arnold Rothlin said.

PG&E spokesperson says they are following agreement to the letter
PG&E spokesperson Nicole Liebelt responded to that complaint by saying, “We have a Right of Entry agreement that we have agreed upon. We have been working with the customer and the customer’s legal representation and we worked out the Right of Entry agreement with understanding of customer’s normal operation.”

Liebelt added, “You know, we’re utilizing different techniques on the Rothlin property and we have not received that information from the Rothlins. We’re following the Right of Entry agreement. If, for some reason, the Rothlins feel as though we’re not understanding the agreement, that’s something that they need to bring to our attention.”

As to the Rothlins’ complaint about the lack of compensation on their property losses, Liebelt said, “We’re currently still negotiating with the customer on appropriate agreeable compensation.” She did not elaborate any further.

Informed about the spray-painted signs put up by the Rothlins, Liebelt said, “We were made aware that the Rothlins’ signs were defaced.”

Commenting on the spray-painted graffiti and the suspicion that PG&E was behind that act, Liebelt stated firmly, “It’s absurd to even suggest that PG&E is involved with anything like that, that we’d be involved with anything like that.”

She was not aware, though, of the threats made on the Rothlins. “I can tell you, we uphold our contractors and employees to the highest standards,” Liebelt said while emphasizing, “We have been working with the customer and the customer’s legal representation and we worked out the Right of Entry agreement with understanding of customers’ normal operations.”

Liebelt concluded by saying, “We’ve been trying to work with the Rothlins for more than a year to negotiate. We have negotiated with several other customers and we continue to negotiate with the Rothlins. We have made multiple offers that have been declined by the Rothlins, so we are working in good faith. We want to make sure that we’re meeting the customers’ needs, but we got an agreement.”

She added that the company hopes “to reach an agreement soon” on the monetary compensation for the Rothlins.

Rothlins: Signs will remain until they receive compensation
“Pay us our money and attorney’s fees and we’ll take the signs down,” Arnold Rothlin defiantly stated.

Noting he put up at least six to seven of the plywood signs, he gave an ironic laugh as he pointed out, “I did more signs than when I ran for SSJID,” referring to the latest elections for board member of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District which he lost.

The Rothlins’ worry is not just the money that they feel PG&E owe them for their lost alfalfa crop. They are concerned even more so about the productivity of the portion of their field that they will not be able to use for planting for at least three years. In fact, they say their entire 18-acre field on the west side of Nile Garden School will need to be entirely re-leveled, which means they will potentially lose the whole crop. Since they irrigate their field east-west from the area where the PG&E Line 108 will run, any low spots or level discrepancies on the land will affect the irrigation of the field and would lead to some spots not receiving enough water or no water at all, the Rothlins said.

Any compensation, they believe, should also factor in the fact that they would lose three crop years with each crop year roughly amounting to $30,240. That’s based on each acre producing a ton of alfalfa, multiplied by six cuttings per year on 18 acres times $140 per acre. In three crop years, the loss translates to a total of $90,720.

The Rothlins farm a total of about 600 acres which include leased farm lands including the 165 acres on either side of McKilney Avenue between Yosemite and Louise avenues that belong to J.R. Simplot in Lathrop.
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