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Armona district takes family farm

The Armona Community Services District Board of Directors got an angry response Wednesday night as they moved ahead with eminent domain plans against a family-owned farm.

"I don't think you're going to (take it), because the people of Armona have the power," said Polly Davidson, one of three Davidsons who own the farm but currently live out of state.

The district plans to use the 19-acre Davidson property east of the Armona Union Academy school for a water purification plant to remove arsenic from a contaminated well next to the property.

The well, one of two that meets Armona's water needs, has arsenic levels well above a new federal standard of 10 parts per billion that kicked in last year.

The district must bring all its water into compliance or face harsh financial sanctions from the federal government. But the district's decision Wednesday to move ahead with plans to seize the Davidson land through eminent domain didn't sit well with a packed crowd of approximately 40 people, many of whom were relatives or friends of the Davidsons.

"There's people out there who know there's different places you can go with this," said C.M. Schales, an Armona resident.

The meeting took an ugly turn when Schales suggested hanging board members outside.

Ed Bittner, board chairman, told Schales that if he ever said that again at a board meeting he would be arrested.

Others questioned whether the board had done its environmental documents correctly. Board members have stated that when they filed the documents last year they forgot to mention that the property is near a school and that it is in the Williamson Act, a law designed to keep land in agricultural use.

"So how could it be a done deal?" said Visalia resident Pauline Michalk, a relative of the Davidson family, after the meeting.

The district's attorney, Raymond Carlson, said correcting the errors will mean another public hearing to review the revised environmental documents.

But he reiterated district assertions that the project poses no threat.

Some people in attendance Wednesday joined Polly Davidson in expressing concerns about the health consequences of the proposed plant.

"But they're ... wrong," Carlson said afterwards. "There isn't going to be any toxic stuff in those (ponds)."

The district proposal calls for some ponding basins to receive water forced backward through the filters every day to clean out the trapped arsenic.

Arsenic sediment would be removed in an enclosed tank before the backwashed water reaches open evaporation ponds, district officials say.

It now appears that the matter is headed to Kings County Superior Court.

In reaching their decision Wednesday, district officials also rejected a last-minute offer from the Davidsons' attorney to use the plant's backwash to irrigate their cropland.

The proposal would have required the district to build the plant elsewhere and it would have prevented any eminent domain action against the Davidson property for the next 50 years.

Last month, district officials tried - and failed - to get agreement from the Davidsons to build the plant on 4.3 acres of their property and irrigate the rest of the plowed acreage with backwashed water.

Carlson appeared relieved to be going to court.

"Otherwise, we'll be in this endless biofeedback loop forever," he said.


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