By Jack King
Sitting in a car at the raw, recently graded intersection of Wheaton Street and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway, Victor Chavez pointed north.
“From here you go a mile to the hospital,” he said. “That’s what we moved here for and why should we have to give it up? I’m thinking of the health of my family, but I’m also thinking of the neighborhood,” he said.
Chavez, who lives on the corner of Brady and Wheaton streets, is one of a group of county residents living just south of the BNSF tracks and west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard who have opposed the railroad’s efforts to close the Wheaton Street crossing.
Just how many people are active in the protest is unclear. Chavez said they have formed a group called the San Patricio Neighborhood Association with 157 members from four subdivisions: Buchanan, South Fork, Hudson and AAA. About 20 people attended a May 1 City Commission meeting.
BNSF has said the closing is necessary for an expansion that would add three tracks on each end of its railroad yard. The project would cost $15 million to build and bring 80 to 100 jobs, at a combined payroll of $6 million, into Clovis, railroad officials have said.
Curry County and Clovis officials, and local economic development groups, see the project as a shot in the arm to the region’s economy. But the residents have said closing Wheaton Street will make it harder for emergency personnel to get in and out of their neighborhoods, make it harder for them to go to work and get home, and will bring the dirt and noise of the railroad too close to their front doors.
“It’s not the expansion. I’m for the expansion, but not right here. This is a residential area. People have worked for years to get their places up in value,” Chavez said.
His neighbor, Julio Sanchez, who lives on Wheaton Street in sight of the BNSF right of way, echoed the sentiment.
“I’ve got 1,000 feet on their property line. The only concern I have is if I’m in their face and they’re in mine, would they buy me out? I really don’t know what they’re going to do. I’ve been here 12 or 13 years; I’m 50-some years old. I ain’t going nowhere,” he said.
To some, the details of the project seem to contradict the residents’ fears, and both railroad and local officials have sought to reassure them.
According to maps in the Curry County treasurer’s office, about 655 feet of land owned by ConAgra Food Inc. separate Sanchez’s property line from BNSF’s current right of way. BNSF’s Clovis terminal supervisor, Allan Potter, has said the new tracks west of MLK probably would need only 25-to-50 feet in width of new property. That suggests the current project may stay some distance from Sanchez’s property line.
County officials have said they are negotiating a plan to build an overpass at State Road 467, west of the neighborhoods, that would ensure access. BNSF has implemented measures to keep the railroad crossing at Hull Street open daily between 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. It also has established a telephone hotline that allows emergency dispatchers to call the local train control tower to open a crossing in case of an emergency call.
In addition, Clovis Fire Chief Ron Edwards said recently his department has completed a survey of personnel who have worked at its Brady Street station, which serves the area. The firefighters and EMTs reported that in the last two years trains on the Hull Street crossing have never blocked an emergency call, he said.
Chavez said the officials’ assurances are not enough. The railroad has a 100-year history of making promises to small towns, then breaking them at its convenience, and local officials say one thing and do another, he said.
Pointing out a section of the county subdivision code that states the regulations are to protect health, safety and the general welfare, and protect and conserve the value of land throughout the county, he said, “In any other part of the county they go by the book, but in this part they threw it out.”
Angelina Baca-Rodriguez, an Avery Street resident, said many people south of the tracks feel they are being “railroaded” and that the rest of Curry County doesn’t care.
“It’s like we don’t count; we’re not people of means, so our voices don’t count. For the longest time we didn’t have street signs out here. Only recently the road department has brought pieces of paper we can hang up for house numbers. In the past, if you ordered a pizza or, heaven forbid, called an ambulance, you would just stand in the street to wait. A lot of people will just take it, but I know people who are hurting inside,” she said.
She said the residents want ensured access to their neighborhoods and they want more information.
“Let’s get more questions answered. Hold more public meetings, and not at 8 a.m. These are hard-working people. The reason for the meetings is that people who make the decisions should commit to something, set some timelines, ” she said.
County Commissioner Ed Perales said he gets a little impatient when he hears some of the residents’ rationales. For one thing, officials have held a public meeting, the joint city/county meeting March 11 at the Clovis-Carver Public Library that was attended by more than 50 residents, he said.
“We had public service announcements in the paper and on the radio. We had the Road Department superintendent verbally telling people. Unless you lived under a shell and never talked to a neighbor or listened to the radio, you heard about the meeting, and this was early in the process,” he said.
For another thing, Perales said, he lived on Wheaton Street for 12 years and he knows some county residents are capable of a kind of double-think.
“When I lived in the county that was my world and the city couldn’t tell me what to do, but I was losing some things. I didn’t have natural gas and I had to run 300 feet of water line for myself. There were longer waits at railroad crossings to get into town and back. But you make a choice about where you decide to live,” he said.
“When it’s convenient for them, county residents say, ‘You’re not giving me this; you’re not giving me that.’ But you have to say to them, ‘You live in the county. You don’t pay the kind of taxes that others pay for this and that.’ We make a conscious decision to live where we can burn trash or have a cow,” he said.
Perales said he supports residents’ desire for an overpass and other measures to ensure their safety if Wheaton Street is closed. But, if those things can be obtained, closing Wheaton Street would be a valid decision, he said.
“Why? First, because it would be an economic boost. Second, because of the future of our kids. Sixty to 80 good-paying jobs spread out into the rest of the economy and create other good-paying jobs,” he said.
Chavez said the neighborhood around Casillas Street, near Guadalajara Restaurant, is an example of an area that has been hurt by proximity to the railroad.
“People have been moving out of there for 50 years,” he said. “It’s become a place where people live as long as they have to, then move out.”
But, Mike Mendoza, the owner of Guadalajara Restaurant, said the railroad’s effect on the neighborhood are much more ambiguous. Years ago, the railroad fostered a community in the area and the reasons for the neighborhood’s population loss are more complex than just its closeness to the tracks, he said.
Mendoza said he sees a different analogy between the Casillas Street and Wheaton Street neighborhoods than the one Chavez does.
“This street used to be a truck bypass. It was a major source of our business,” Mendoza said.
“When they built (U.S. 60-84) through here and we lost that bypass, we were like they are now, mad, going to get a lawyer. But we survived; we found another way. That’s the how I see Wheaton Street. It’ll take a while, but they’ll find another way.”