The legal battle between the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) and the Friends Of the Eel River (FOER) became a battle of words at the rail agency’s meeting last week.
Mutual resentment was on full display in front of a sizeable audience at the NCRA’s July 11 meeting in Eureka. During its public comment session, FOER executive director Scott Greacen summed up his group’s take on its lawsuit against the agency’s “clearly inadequate” environmental review of railroad redevelopment.
“Having taken the money of the taxpayers to do the environmental review, you then say you’re not subject to the law,” he said. “I think you owe all of us an explanation for this position,” he added, since “the federal court has again rejected this attempt.”
Greacen then offered a path to resolution, one that he said he’s offered before. His group would enter a settlement, he said, which would “ensure that you would not be rebuilding the rail line through the Eel River Canyon without adequate environmental review and mitigation.”
Chris Neary, the NCRA’s attorney, asked to respond to the “outright misinformation” and stood up to be heard, as the microphones in the meeting room weren’t working. He faced Greacen, who was standing nearby, and told him, “Scott, you’re just giving misinformation here.”
A somewhat courtroom-like debate ensued. Neary said the NCRA offered to “enter into a binding agreement not to enter the Eel River Canyon and what that fell through on was your attorneys wanted $100,000 in attorney’s fees – that’s why the settlement was not consummated; it was over money.”
He added, “You’ve misled everyone in this room by what you’ve just said.”
“So that’s a nice trick – you’ve just told the public what you think the contents of the confidential settlement arrangements were,” Greacen responded.
“It’s in writing,” said Neary.
“But I’m not supposed to talk about it?” Greacen said.
Contrasting descriptions of the settlement negotiation followed. Boardmember John McCowen of Mendocino County interrupted, saying the exchange was “inappropriate” — but he also joined in.
“I can’t help but say that there was complete agreement or at least that was what your people represented, except for the one fact and that was how much money does [FOER] get out of the deal,” said McCowen.
“Everything else – we have an agreement today,” he added.
The exchange ended with Greacen saying, “I repeat my offer.”
But the court case became the focus of discussion for some boardmembers as they considered a proposal to form a committee to consider railbanking the Humboldt Bay segment the rail line and converting it into a trail.
Boardmember Hal Wagenet (also of Mendocino County) referred to the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) which was “reissued specifically and mainly to get a proper trails policy in place.” The lawsuit over the EIR needs to be resolved before any trail-related action is taken, Wagenet continued.
“The fact that we are being sued over something that contemplates this very issue and it is not resolved means that those folks who are interested in railbanking should have a conversation with Mr. Greacen,” he said.
A deadlocked vote on forming the railbanking committee was revealed when McCowen said he couldn’t support it. “It always kind of amazes me, that people come forward seeking support for something and they can’t resist kicking you in the teeth while they’re doing it,” he said.
Prefacing the rest of his comments by saying that legal counsel would probably advise against making them, McCowen said that FOER members have “assured us on numerous occasions” that they don’t oppose rail service restoration south of the Eel River Canyon.
“But in their zeal to try and ensure that no train ever rolls through the Eel River Canyon, they do everything they can to bleed the agency dry,” he continued. The “curious effect” of it, he said, is to “ensure that the maximum amount of truck traffic stays on the highways forever.”
The tie vote on the railbanking committee meant the proposal was struck down, which has disappointed trail advocates in the Eureka/Arcata area.
A follow-up vote was unanimous but less focused – boardmembers agreed to support a general committee that would consider rail restoration, railroad redevelopment and trail options consistent with NCRA policies.