Here is the headline: Sierra Railroad, the parent company of the Skunk Train, is in negotiations to purchase more than 200 acres of the old Georgia-Pacific mill site in Fort Bragg. These negotiations have been ongoing throughout 2021. The City of Fort Bragg has also entered the real estate fray.
Sierra Railroad has gone public about its desires for the mill site property since the summer of 2019. In a phone interview on May 18th, Sierra Railroad Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Mike Hart stated that the company has been considering such a purchase as far back as 2004.
The devil is in the details. On Monday, May 17th, the Fort Bragg City Council held three separate budget meetings. The final one was a closed session affair with a heading about negotiations between the City of Fort Bragg and Georgia-Pacific regarding the acquisition of mill site land. Assessor parcel numbers attached seem to indicate the amount of property involved is in the neighborhood of 215 acres, located within the southern portion of the mill site. Official parties to the negotiation were Fort Bragg's City Manager, Tabatha Miller, and Georgia-Pacific's official in charge of environmental affairs, Dave Massengill. The closed session obviously also included the members of Fort Bragg's City Council.
The only public correspondence concerning this matter was an email authored that morning by Mike Hart, CEO of the Sierra Railroad Company, owners of the Skunk Train. After opening salutations, Hart stated, “We are obviously concerned that all of our work to finalize our agreement with GP for the purchase of the remaining portions of the mill site appears suddenly to have been derailed by the city. Candidly, and the reason for my message, is that I am dismayed by what seems to have happened to our relationship with the city.”
If one goes back through city agenda packets, you can trace a history of Sierra Railroad's proposals to expand the Skunk Train line across the mill site back to the summer of 2019. At that point, Sierra Railroad Company's plan included seventy-seven acres north of Redwood Avenue. Since then Sierra Railroad has acquired fifteen acres previously purchased from Georgia-Pacific (G-P) by a group affiliated with Harvest Market's owners.
Mr. Hart's email claims that Sierra Railroad has communicated in good faith, including disclosing to city officials their ongoing negotiations with G-P. Hart asserts that his company is now shocked and surprised to see the city negotiating with G-P for purchase of the 215 acre southern portion of the mill site. From a devil's advocate position one has to wonder how Mr. Hart has gone this far in business without hearing of one party's interest in a piece of real estate prompting interest by other potential buyers.
The purchase of the additional fifteen acres, roughly west across Highway One from Cypress and Hazel Streets, was supposedly for a new train station to link to the existing Skunk rail line in the northern portion of Fort Bragg. That railroad currently extends its tracks alongside Pudding Creek, terminating near the collapsed tunnel that once joined the rail line to tracks running east up the Noyo River watershed. In the phone interview, Mr. Hart stated that Sierra Railroad had expended about five million dollars on repairs and that the tunnel would be ready to re-open in a few months.
In his email, Mr. Hart says that Sierra Railroad would only proceed with development of the fifteen acre parcel if the use was acceptable to the city. According to the Hart email, the fifteen acre lot, which contains a bevy of trees and possible riparian lands, would have housed not only a train station but a restaurant, restrooms and served as a jumping off point to the city's coastal trail as well.
Hart's correspondence cites the value of the fifteen acre parcel providing vehicle parking that would potentially free up parking spaces in the city's downtown. He does not mention the potential environmental degradation that constructing a parking lot might cause. One letter, reacting to the 2019 plan, cited Joni Mitchell's lyric, “Pave paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Hart's email conveys surprise that the city did not give prior indication to his company of its objections to the fifteen acre purchase or objection to Sierra Railroad negotiating with G-P for purchase of the balance of the mill site property. Given that Sierra Railroad notified the city in December, 2020 of their intent to purchase the fifteen acre parcel and that Sierra Railroad apparently began negotiating for the larger G-P parcels (215 acres) in February, and given the relative slowness that government wheels often grind, it is more of a surprise to this observer that the city has acted so quickly.
A close reading of Mr. Hart's email seems to show us his main concern. From the outset, meaning at least as far back as 2019, any proposed deals with developers have been predicated upon Sierra Railroad not only buying the fifteen acres first purchased by the Harvest Market group, but the bulk of the mill site as well.
Of course, the development of the mill site by Sierra Railroad Company and its privately contracted developers might be an entirely different look than that envisioned by a majority of the public. Hart's email claims that the city's intervention in this possible development deal undermines an agreement with the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). There are individuals who might beg to differ, claiming that such a deal might let Georgia-Pacific off the environmental hook with the least costly methods of clean up. It would appear that city officials and much of the public who have weighed in on toxic cleanup favor a plan that is more comprehensive.
Mr. Hart cites “the need for rail in planning for industrial zoning on the southern portion of the mill site.” He goes on to say, “we only build what is essential. In this case, that only means tracks to reach our proposed Cypress station and any spur as needed to reach any industrial customers who wish to avoid trucking.”
Of course, the viability of displacing truck trips over Highway 20 means that the Skunk rail line must be able to run at least to Willits. Questioned about this on the phone, Mr. Hart maintained that the rest of the track would be good to go when the Pudding Creek tunnel is re-opened. He also referenced the possibility of connecting the railroad to Cloverdale and, thus, points south. In this regard one has to wonder how edible Mr. Hart considers “pie in the sky.”
Hart's email continues in a vein that alludes to the city “stealing” his company's plan for the mill site. He goes on at some length about Sierra Railroad being a continuum of a business that has been in Fort Bragg since the 1880s and that as a public utility it may not be subject to local jurisdiction, rather to federal rules and regulations as a public utility.
Sierra Railroad's dismay at the City of Fort Bragg entering into negotiations with G-P is made clear multiple times in Mr. Hart's email. Here is one sample. “[L]ook at our actions since we purchased the northern portion of the mill site in July: we have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare a development plan mirroring the city’s plans, making a public presentation of our plans as soon as they were completed in September 2019; we were told in that meeting that our plan was excellent and met all of the city’s desires for the property; when we then sought to start the formal (and normal) development process with the city and the Coastal Commission, the city declined to respond and instead formed an “ad hoc committee” that failed to respond to us until February of 2021; when the ad hoc committee finally responded to us and ignored every comment and document we had provided to them, it struck the Pomo Indian project from our plans and told us that they wanted us to start over with our entire plan, in one stroke invalidating years of work by us and the city. If either of us has grounds to doubt the good faith of the other in the development process, it would be us, not the city. We have at all times done exactly what the city has asked of us; doing our best to meet all of the city’s stated goals for the property. That the city does not want the railroad to “run the full length of the trail.” This concern frankly stumps me. We have embraced the “City of Trails” plans and are spending millions of dollars to develop a trail that will connect the city’s trails all the way to Willits.”
Mr. Hart makes note of his company's construction work to create a walking/biking trail alongside the railroad, including pedestrian bridges. He concludes this section by asking, “How this in any way harms the community escapes me.”
On the phone, Mr. Hart can be an engaging fellow. He cited his family roots in Mendocino County, mentioning ancestors who served as early postmasters in Anderson Valley. On the other hand, at the outset of the phone conversation he sounded peeved that his email was published along with the agenda for the City Council meeting. I explained that it was a public meeting about which he had sent a correspondence; thus, the city was obligated to publish that correspondence lest they get in trouble down the line for withholding pertinent information from the public. So, one has to wonder how public- minded Mr. Hart and his company are about their intentions in negotiating with Georgia-Pacific. How much is community-minded and how much is it simply a multi-million dollar development deal?
* Mike Hart's full email, containing an image of Sierra Railroad's plan for the mill site, can be found on the City of Fort Bragg's website: https://city.fortbragg.com. Under the City Council heading, check the 5/17/2021 meeting, click on agenda then the public comment section.