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.