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Skunk Train Buys Fort Bragg Mill Site

Skunk Train Owner’s Acquisition Of Fort Bragg Mill Site Upends City Plans Amid Growing Conflict, Mistrust

by Mary Callahan

The owner of Fort Bragg’s iconic Skunk Train now owns nearly the entire west side of town after using its status as a federally recognized railroad to pursue the vacant Georgia-Pacific mill site through eminent domain.

The move has unleashed a fury in the Mendocino Coast community, with one Fort Bragg official calling it “a land grab.”

Whoever possesses the more-than-300-acre bluff-top property ― with its sweeping views of the rugged coastline and the ocean beyond ― in effect holds title to the city’s future. That means a single owner will now control the type and scale of new residential, business and tourist-oriented development in a community badly in need of renewal.

Officials with the Mendocino Railway, owner of the Skunk Train and the River Fox Train near Sacramento, said they’ve long bolstered the Fort Bragg economy and are ready to move forward with a unified plan for the roughly 375 acres it now holds.

The company has spent most of 20 years trying to acquire the property and working with the city and the public on a vision for the site, representatives said.

After the decline of the timber and fishing industries over recent decades, the city has taken too long on its own planning efforts for the lumber mill site, shuttered in 2002, said Skunk Train president Robert Pinoli.

“Let’s get on with doing something that’s productive,” he said.

But for city officials, the railway’s acquisition amounts to an end-run just as the city itself was close to a deal with Georgia-Pacific. That deal, they say, would have allowed for greater civic involvement as well as enhanced environmental oversight and greater public good.

“It is a land grab,” said Vice Mayor Jessica Morsell-Haye. “There’s no other name for it. They now own 20% of this damn town.”

The company plans to tie the land to expanded rail use in an area where the city envisioned expanded open space and inroads toward a new “blue economy” focused on ocean resources and resilience.

City officials argue a small out-and-back “excursion line” with no connection to the national rail system for the past two decades hardly warrants the standing of a public utility that should enable it to condemn property.

Georgia-Pacific initially fought the eminent domain in court, but agreed to a settlement that allows Pinoli’s company to acquire it at its appraised value of $1.23 million.

The city has filed a separate suit in Mendocino County Superior Court challenging the railway’s standing as “a common carrier” providing ‘transportation.” The suit seeks in the meantime to ensure the railway complies with city ordinances, codes and authorities.

Officials are worried about federal law that grants railway-related development immunity from state and local regulation ― an arrangement over which the city and the railway already have butted heads.

For instance, Pinoli said the railway’s plan to run the Skunk Train line out to popular Glass Beach and along a relatively new public coastal trail at the very edge of the mill site will not be subject to environmental review even though most coastal development undergoes an extra layer of oversight via the California Coastal Commission.

“That’s a problem,” Mayor Bernie Norvell said.

The railway also rejected several city efforts to enforce permit requirements on structural improvements on mill property it owned before the condemnation effort, raising additional concerns about the degree to which the railroad is prepared to abide by local standards.

But Pinoli said all work still is subject to building codes, even if it is exempt from a permit. He said anything except railway-related activities ― housing, commercial uses, a hotel ― would be subject to the planning and permitting process.

He also said the city had ample notice about his company’s interest in the site, which began in 2004, when Mendocino Railway first began talking to Georgia-Pacific about acquiring some of the site ― a year after it bought the Skunk Train out of bankruptcy and two years after the mill closed down and the city lost 2,000 solid jobs.

When the railway initially purchased 77 acres of the northern mill site in 2019, company officials noted the tie to historic uses of rail in the area. The company also bought 15 acres from Harvest Market, which had planned a store there but decided against it.

The railway’s most recent acquisition includes 210 acres from the main mill site and 62 acres running inland along Pudding Creek on the north. It paid $1.23 million for the land ― a steal it would seem ― though the railroad expects to spend almost three times that much for environmental remediation, Pinoli said.

(Santa Rosa Press Democrat)

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE       

Mendocino Railway completes acquisition of former millsite from Georgia Pacific.

FORT BRAGG, CALIFORNIA, - (November 22, 2021) – The 136-year-old Mendocino Railway completed the acquisition from Georgia Pacific (GP) of its former millsite in Fort Bragg on November 19, 2021. While once employing 2,000 workers, the GP millsite has been shuttered for two decades. The successful reuse of the millsite would be a huge economic catalyst for the City of Fort Bragg and the North Coast.

This acquisition reunifies the railroad and millsite. Mike Hart, CEO of Sierra Railroad Company (Mendocino Railway’s parent company) stated, “The railroad and millsite successfully worked together for over a century. Unfortunately, they both fell on hard times after the railroad was sold off. The millsite closed in 2002 and the railroad went bankrupt in 2003.”

“For the past two decades, we’ve been trying to put the pieces back together,” added Hart. Mendocino Railway purchased the assets of the California Western Railroad out of bankruptcy in 2004 with the approval of the United States Surface Transportation Board.

“While the railroad suffered from neglect, we’ve spent years fixing it up and we now have record ridership. We’re now completing a federal loan that will enable us to address the last big obstacle: the reopening of Tunnel #1.

While Mendocino Railway was improving the railroad, it has also been in negotiations with GP to purchase the millsite. Hart said, “One of the first calls we made after getting the railroad was to GP to begin negotiations to purchase the millsite to restore the business as a single entity. While we were close to a deal for some time, I think GP wanted to first complete its environmental remediation of the site.”

While GP worked through their remediation, they provided the City with 85 acres of the millsite in 2009. In 2019 GP sold 15 acres to the Harvest Market, a local grocery store. GP then sold the 77-acre northern portion to Mendocino Railway in June 2019. Since Mendocino Railway had been working within the City’s planning process, Mendocino Railway was within months able to present the City with detailed plans for the reuse of the property, to very positive reviews. 

One of the key features of the millsite is a 70,000 square foot historic “Dryshed” building. The city almost allowed this building to be demolished in 2018 but Mendocino Railway and local advocates helped save it. Mendocino is now rehabilitating the Dryshed and placing it back into service. Mendocino Railway will relocate its locomotive work to the Dryshed while rebuilding its historic Roundhouse. Once the locomotives can move back into the Roundhouse, Mendocino Railway will then begin work to repurpose the building, potentially as a community theater and marketplace.

The City’s Planning Process for reusing the millsite has had its setbacks. In 2019 the City let go of the Community Development Director who had led the process for 15+ years. In 2020 the Harvest Market canceled their development following concerns. In 2021 the city abandoned its own planning process and directed Mendocino Railway to submit its own master plan for review.

Despite these setbacks, Mendocino Railway pressed on. Mendocino first acquired Harvest Market’s 15-acre site. Mendocino is considering building a station at this site with a visitors’ center. Mendocino then worked with GP to acquire the balance of the millsite so it could complete a single master plan for the property as requested by the City, recently acquiring that property. 

Mendocino Railway has taken on responsibility for completing the remediation of the millsite. Robert Pinoli, CEO of Mendocino Railway, stated, “Mendocino Railway has worked with the DTSC since 2004 when we acquired the railroad, and we look forward to continuing to work with the DTSC to ensure that remediation of the millsite is appropriately completed. We also look forward to working with the City of Fort Bragg, local partners, and our community at large to do our best to ensure that development of the former millsite meets our community’s needs. We also plan to work with the California Coastal Commission to ensure that the property’s final plans reflect the best interest of all parties.”

 Hart concluded, “We believe that we are the only local organization that is both willing and able to take on this project. We hope that we succeed and are an asset to Fort Bragg and the North Coast.”

Mendocino Railway is the owner and operator of the historic Skunk Train and California Western Railroad and the provider of more than 50 local jobs. Mendocino Railway is a Class III common carrier railroad and is a wholly owned subsidiary of Sierra Railroad Company.

Media Contact

Robert Jason Pinoli, President, Mendocino Railway

(Mendocino Railway Presser)

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FORT BRAGG OFFICIALS OBJECT to Skunk Acquisition of Mill Site

by Chris Calder

Fort Bragg City Council members squared off Monday night with managers and owners of Mendocino Railways, operator of the Skunk Train, over the railroad's recently announced acquisition by eminent domain of the remaining 270 acres the railroad did not already own of the town's oceanside former millsite.

The tense council meeting discussion — at which members voted unanimously to oppose a federal rail loan that Mendocino Railways has applied for to make track and tunnel repairs — followed an announcement last week that Georgia-Pacific had ceded the remainder of the millsite, vacant and on the market for the past 19 years, to Mendocino Railways after the railroad filed an eminent domain lawsuit for the land in October. The railroad has also claimed land along both banks of the Pudding Creek estuary. On Tuesday morning, the Skunk Train — which already owns the portion of the millsite north of Redwood Ave. — issued a news release on Facebook saying the transaction for the south end and Pudding Creek estuary had closed escrow and is final.

The news was greeted with frank dismay Monday by all five city council members, who had been negotiating the city's own purchase of the millsite's southern portion during closed session meetings with Georgia-Pacific over the past two years.

The city also filed suit in Mendocino County Superior Court earlier this month challenging the Skunk Train's status as a freight railroad. “Freight” status, as opposed to being considered an excursion train, gives the Skunk much broader land use powers, and losing that status could affect its ability to do things like acquire land via eminent domain or be exempt from local and state zoning laws.

Council member Tess Albin-Smith said the Skunk's recent moves make her wary.

“When you look at someone owning 20% of the town, it's like we now have another member at the council table,” said council member Albin-Smith. “It's like a takeover.”

Council member Lindy Peters said his opposition was based on years of community meetings about the millsite in which “I never heard anybody say, ‘Let's turn the whole thing into a train yard’.”

Mayor Bernie Norvell focused his opposition on reports that Mendocino Railways might be interested in operating on the now-closed North Coast Rail Authority line along the Eel River, possibly to transport gravel between Dos Rios and Fort Bragg. The NCRA line is the focus of an effort championed by State Senator Mike McGuire to create “The Great Redwood Trail,” a camping and hiking corridor along the Eel River. It has also drawn the attention of a group of Wyoming coal interests looking for a way to ship their product to the Far East, possibly using Northern California rail lines to do so.

Norvell cited a conversation he had with Skunk Train President Robert Pinoli in which he said Pinoli told him the Skunk would not be subject to any local regulations on its railroad operations, for why he was leery of the railroad's plans and opposing the federal rail loan.

Vice Mayor Jessica Morsell-Haye was frankly distrustful of the company: “It was working with them (Mendocino Railways) that has made me lose trust in them,” she said.

Morsell-Haye said she thinks the Skunk Train owning the property could end the possibility for public facilities like athletic fields, or a new hospital or college, on the millsite.

Railroad officials, who have unveiled a couple of plans for retail and housing development on the north end of the millsite in recent years but nothing detailed for the new chunk of land they now own,  expressed bafflement Monday at city officials' stances, and frustration that the city would oppose any federal rail loan  — which the city had supported on the railroad's last three tries — flowing to the community.

Mendocino Railway co-owner Mike Hart accused city government of secrecy and hostility toward the railroad over the closed session meetings the council has held to discuss a millsite purchase over the past couple of years, though the negotiations have been reported on in local media and were common knowledge.

“The city should stop hiding behind closed doors and shed some light on this,” Hart said.

Chris Hart, Mike Hart's brother and Mendocino Railways co-owner as well, said “You supported this (loan) for three years and now you're opposing it. This feels like retaliation.”

Skunk Train President Pinoli emphasized the rail line's economic importance for Fort Bragg's tourist economy — he estimated the rail line brings $12 million a year in spending to the area. Pinoli denied that Mendocino Railways is involved in efforts to ship coal along the NCRA line, but acknowledged that the railroad has intervened to try to require the NCRA to follow formal abandonment procedures.

“We're a rails and trails organization,” he said, “not a rails to trails organization.”

However, Pinoli insisted, “We are absolutely not involved whatsoever with anything to do with coal.”

Members of the public weighed in for and against various aspects of the Skunk Train/millsite scenario, although what that scenario is remains pretty unclear. Despite a mailer sent out last week that included an architect's drawing of housing and retail development for the north side of the site, no formal development proposals have been made, and representatives of the railroad, which uses about four acres on the millsite for its current operations, gave no specifics Monday on how they plan to use the additional 272 millsite acres, or what they intend to use the land they now own along Pudding Creek for.

Council members voted 5-0 to approve the letter opposing a new federal loan for Mendocino Railways.

12 Comments

  1. Lee Edmundson November 24, 2021

    Let’s (at the very least) be very painfully honest about this, folks:

    The Skunk Train is as much a legitimate railroad freight hauler as the Disneyland train ride excursion. That is, the Skunk Train is a ride. No different than a roller coaster, albeit across uniquely beautiful countryside views and vistas.

    Their argument otherwise is both specious and opportunistic.

    That said, I’m looking at their mailer which landed last week and it appears impressive. At (the very) least, they’ve put thought and energy into the (now) decades old question: What to do with the abandoned mill site?

    Let’s be clear: Fort Bragg currently cannot adequately maintain the athletic fields it –and the Mendocino Coast Recreation and Park District (MCRPD) and the School District — currently have. We came within a gnat’s breadth of losing our existing college campus not long ago, and whatever the local hospital’s future is, it is certainly not on the old mill site. There will not — and should not — be any talk of fields, campuses or hospitals on this site.

    I had published in the Advocate News almost 20 years ago a Community Forum piece, in which I advocated for the City to exercise its right of Eminent Domain and acquire the shuttered mill site, in toto. The idea went nowhere Clunk. Now the chickens are home roosting.

    My best advice to the City leaders is to make absolutely certain you and your planning commission have the utmost input and oversight on any and all forthcoming development proposals on the site. I’d speak directly with the California Coastal Commission to insure their staff is actively engaged.

    In the meantime, I’d fight to the last ditch to make sure the Skunk Train and its parent entity is NOT designated a railroad freight carrier, within the strict letter of the law. The Skunk Train is a ride, and a railroad in name only. Disneyland style ride, albeit unique.

    To Mr. Pinoli and partners, just this: Fort Bragg has always been a “company town.” Sometimes reaping great benefits, sometimes creating great harms. Accordingly, proceed slowly, deliberatively and — to the extent possible — collaboratively with the City. To the City’s leaders, I advise the same. Done respectfully and sensitively, this just might very well be the best outcome regarding the disposition of this property.

    And a great and grand opportunity for your community.
    Time will tell. Be Wise.

    And, a very big Yes! $1.23 million was — and is — a steal.

    Finally, when is tunnel #1 going to reopen?
    Just asking.

  2. Bruce Anderson November 25, 2021

    Insofar as it’s possible to be shocked by anything that happens in Mendocino County, the Skunk’s attempt to eat the Fort Bragg headlands is shocking. Couple points: This Toonerville Trolley-like entity can’t rehab or maintain its present line and, some of us will recall when Pinoli revealed big plans for the Willits end of the decrepit line, but when it came time to put up proof that he had the money to do it, the scheme collapsed. I predict this brazen plan will also be shot down when the money people take a close look at it.

    • Marmon November 25, 2021

      Most likely the Skunk will receive funding via Biden’s “Infrastructure” fund. Biden’s a big rail man, and he likes China too.

      Marmon

  3. Marmon November 25, 2021

    I thought the Coastals would be more than happy to help send coal to China. Hopefully Biden and Newsom makes this happen.

    Marmon

  4. Professor Cosmos November 25, 2021

    We all can see their plans, via that mailer we all got. The plans look great, including the housing part. Plausibility of execution is something I can’t opine on, but why be negative about that right out of the gate?

    And, why pay attention to city leaders who can’t even sustain a winter shelter?

    • Harvey Reading November 25, 2021

      Ya mean leave it in the hands of greedy kaputalist scum? Gimme a break. Seems to it’s time to break out the pitchforks, tar, and feathers, along with some sturdy rails, and ride the scum out of the county.

    • Irv Sutley November 25, 2021

      Professor Cosmos. I remember the cooperatively built homes down by Glass Beach. I stayed in several during construction, Now that Port Noyo has become the destination for the coupon clipping class looking for a 1st, 2nd, or perhaps 3rd get-a-way retreat, offers are made to the original sweat equity folks who built most of the neighborhood. Harvey Reading points out one solution.

    • Bruce Anderson November 25, 2021

      Fort Bragg PD will be passing out motel vouchers to people in need of shelter during cold weather.

  5. Coach November 25, 2021

    The railroad has intent to make it’s line useful again and possibly haul freight, which is better than having trucks do it, costing taxpayers lots of money to repair the road damage. Hence their need to keep their common-carrier designation while they pursue a loan for tunnel repairs, and to run the Eel River line. But the bigger issue is that now a private entity (not taxpayers) can develop the property, which is how it should be. The Skunk Train folks bring $$$ into the economy; City Council folks just use up money. The City has had TONS of time to figure this out–and they took way, way too long. It seems the City Council is whining due their own errors, so tough on them. I’d much rather work with a private party owner who can give an actual answer than ANY government bureaucracies who never respond, or act aloof. I consider this a very good moment for the future of Fort Bragg.

  6. Professor Cosmos November 25, 2021

    Irv,
    Housing has to stop being a commodity. The homeless need to latch onto a union-like org and if necessary pool construction skills from folks in their ranks, seize open lands, borrow Harvey’s pitchforks and man the perimeter, and build. Since Mendocino Co leaders are behind the pace of building tiny home communities in bay area counties.

    The housing project proposed looks good, take a close look. Not designed for vacation homes, nor out of area rich people.

    Bruce,
    I saw that. Cops aren’t the city leaders.

    • Irv Sutley November 26, 2021

      Professor Cosmos, In the larger Universe outside of the realm of Fort Bragg, housing is merely a commodity and only the SUPERWEALTHY cash buyers can play the game. Zillow and other listing services are undergoing some serious setbacks as they attempted to overvalue the properties they bought up in an attempt to entice the upper end of the petty bourgeoise into parting with their liquid assets. Of course, there will be a Market Correction, played with our money.

      I suspect the Housing Project proposal is only the bait to gain public support and voter approval.

      VIVA LA REVOLUSION

  7. Mary Rose Kaczorowski November 27, 2021

    Looking through the gloss of a land grab

    There is no argument that we love the Skunk Train and its history. The Skunk Train along with other California Excursion tourist trains around the state have become noteworthy historical tourist attractions. Small operations in the scheme of things. Fort Bragg area attractions are numerous from the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens to whale watching and fishing excursions, hiking trails, several State Parks and Campgrounds, local museums and art galleries and on and on.
    The land grab on the former Georgia Pacific Mill Site is out of character for the aspirations of this small town that faces water emergencies, a destination for short term tourists, as a refuge from fires and extreme heat, loss of the once thriving fishing industry.

    A college town with dorms– this could be a successful vision for Fort Bragg and would be more sustainable year round then seasonal tourism. This would build upon and coalesce around the successes of The Noyo Center for Marine Sciences, the world famous Krenov School of Fine Furniture, and the revitalize college with Mendocino College Coast Campus.

    How many years since we have seen the ole 45 locomotive that is widely used in their advertising? We are still waiting to see the Mendocino Railway walk it’s talk. (Read more about this below.)

    Interestingly, Mendocino coastal residents found something unsolicited in their mailboxes and post office boxes this past week –” The Little Stinker”.

    The four color 8-page 11×17 newsprint newsletter entitled “The Little Stinker” (yep that is the name of it!) put out by the Mendocino Railway/Skunk Train/Sierra Energy outfit presents some ambitious development that runs roughshod over the City of Ft. Bragg’s “Mill Site Specific Plan.” The Mill Site Plan was informed by hours of public scoping sessions and expert input with keeping in mind the General Plan Update processes and Local Coastal Program (LCP) amendments, etc. (see https://city.fortbragg.com/176/Georgia-Pacific-Mill-Site)

    The “Little Stinker” makes a whole host of claims one of which states, “Taking ownership of a large portion of the historic coastal Mill Site, the Skunk Train will work with experts to develop a world class-destination, breathing new life into this unique stretch of coastline.”
    Hmmn?

    Who is the “stinker” that says taking ownership will trump public input and all the General Plan zoning, and policies and guidelines set forth by Ft. Bragg City Council and which in turn must be certified by the Coastal Commission?

    This tourist train with its ticket office/gift shop/depot located at the Foot of East Laurel Street is much loved and one of the several attractions in Ft. Bragg’s historic downtown. However who is in charge of Fort Bragg’s future is the question.

    The Skunk Train public relations press releases keep shifting including with some unrealized plans over the years, and more so, ever so recently, to fit what appears to be the whim of private development.

    This time, as indicated in the “Little Stinker,” it is about the increasing the railroad’s footprint along the former Georgia Pacific Mill site with expanding enterprises as in hotels, condos and a sundry of what not transport ideas. All that and more are part of the scheme of things. Is this all really about investors and developers’ ocean side dream property? A Cypress Station at Cypress Street on Highway 1 with a restaurant?

    Why now is this enterprise claiming rights as a federally operating railroad? Hmmn? By the way who has been paying into the Railroad Retirement and Survivor Benefits for the Skunk Train R.R. employees? Many more questions need to be asked here.
    Meanwhile precarious geological complications have not once but twice have put this tourist excursion train out of action.
    The Skunk Train’s Round House in Ft. Bragg has been in disrepair for years. The former Mill Site dry sheds still stand waiting for their promise of rebuild and repair. The area public wants daylighting of creeks and the toxic cleanup on the closed areas of the Mills Site and HOUSING and so on.

    Are the tracks and bridges along the railroad’s switch backs and canyons still stable on the way to Willits? Who keeps it all in repair along the rugged terrain?

    The Skunk Train tunnel west end collapsed in 2015 and the east end collapsed in 2013. In 1998 Rail-Ways Inc. private freight operator for NCRA Line north of Willits closed because of slides.
    In 1989 a series of devastating storms flooded the Eel River to record heights effectively destroying the line between Willits and Eureka forcing its closure. Further storms and subsidence closed the section from Willits south to Petaluma.
    In February 2001, after repairs, the NWP resumed operations south of Petaluma. However, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) declared the track unfit for traffic in October 2001 and operations ceased. Not sure what is in the mix now after all that.
    A skunk does not change its stripes and the Skunk Train – a tourist train it is!

    According to the Federal Railroad Administration, “Tourist, scenic, historic, or excursion operations are railroad operations that carry passengers, often using antiquated equipment, with the conveyance of the passengers to a particular destination not being the principal purpose.”
    By the way- The Skunk Train is one of many numerous and noteworthy attractions that bring vistors to this beautiful coast: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attractions-g32400-Activities-Fort_Bragg_Mendocino_County_California.htmlnumerous attractions

    https://mendofever.com/2021/07/23/skunk-train-smokes-and-sputters-in-fort-bragg-due-to-exhaust-system-fire/

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