FORT BRAGG, 11/24/21 — A feud has been brewing between the city of Fort Bragg and the owners of the Skunk Train for several months, and things are starting to come to a head. Last week, Georgia Pacific agreed to cede almost 300 acres of the millsite to Mendocino Railway, which filed an eminent domain claim in August. But the city was planning on using the site as the hub for its blue, ocean-based economy and says reopening the connection to Willits would open up the possibility of the rail being used to transport coal to China instead.
On Monday night, the city of Fort Bragg voted unanimously to send a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Under Secretary Carlos Monje requesting the department deny Mendocino Railway’s application for a Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing loan. That loan is intended to repair Tunnel No. 1, which connected Willits and Fort Bragg before it collapsed in 2013, but the city’s letter states it should be denied on the basis that the railway is an excursion train and not a public utility. The city actually filed a complaint in Mendocino County Superior Court on Oct. 28 asking the railway no longer be considered a public utility and disqualified as a “federally regulated common carrier providing transportation.” That’s currently making its way through court.
“The proposed repair of the collapsed tunnel, rebuilding of the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) line and active freight and passenger service is simply a ruse to hold onto the designation as a common carrier so that Mendocino Railway can develop the 350 acres in Fort Bragg without having to comply with state and local regulations,” the letter states.
Fixing the collapsed tunnel is crucial to expanding service, including transporting freight, Mike Hart, CEO of Sierra Railroad Company, the parent company of Mendocino Railway, told The Mendocino Voice. Mendocino Railway applied for a $31.3 million loan from the DOT with Sierra Northern Railway in June to do the work. Hart said he believed the request to have the DOT deny the railway’s loan application was the city’s attempt to retaliate against the company for acquiring the millsite property through eminent domain.
Comments from members of the City Council suggested that’s partly true. “Eminent domain is a tool for public agencies to use for the public good,” said Vice Mayor Jessica Morsell-Haye. “So here is the Skunk Train doing a land grab for 272 acres in our small city on the assertion that they need it for their railway operations.” Morsell-Haye pointed to a letter sent to the council from conservation nonprofit Friends of the Eel River, which asserted that the plan to connect the Skunk Train to a larger rail system was actually part of an effort to export coal to China.
Hart said that couldn’t be further from the truth and the nonprofit was conflating the Skunk Train’s plans with those of another company that is also trying to prevent the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) from decommissioning the rail lines stretching across Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties in order to establish the Great Redwood Trail. That trail is expected to stretch from Cloverdale to Blue Lake along the rail lines in question, and Hart said he’d prefer to see the trail alongside the rail rather than replacing it.
The other company might be trying to export coal from Humboldt Bay, but Hart said the Mendocino Railway has been working on plans for transporting freight, like propane, for years. “Having trash, instead of being hauled over Highway 20, moving it by rail,” Hart said. “Water, supplies, lumber — all of these things that are currently the big trucks going over Highway 20, we would like to see it moved by rail.”
The mill used to employ most of the city at one point, but it’s been shuttered for about 20 years. The community has been working on plans for how the site should be developed for almost that entire time. But Georgia Pacific, the millsite owner, didn’t want to develop the site. It wanted only to remediate the environmental damage caused by the industrial operations there before passing off the site to someone else. Mendocino Railway expressed interest in the site and Hart said that the company did everything it could to incorporate everything the city wanted into its plans to develop the site.
“When we acquired the 77 acres in July of 2019, by the end of September, just two months after we finished the purchase, we had a complete plan … that reflected the city’s plan for that property,” Hart said, adding that’s the same plan described in The Little Stinker newsletter sent out to county residents Friday, Nov. 19. “We went to the city and said, ‘What do you want?’ They said, ‘We want housing, we need a hotel, we need commercial, we want open space.’ And we said sure, as long as it had our railroad tracks we were fine with everything they wanted.”
The city abandoned that planning process and was allowing it to be a developer-driven plan, Hart said. City Councilmember Lindy Peters contested that, saying the city’s been working for the past six or seven years to develop an amendment to the city general plan’s coastal element to address future development at the millsite. “Anytime you go through a rezone in the coastal zone, it takes a long time,” Peters said. “Whether it’s a specific plan or whether it’s an amendment. At this point, we decided to rezone the millsite, it would be quicker and cheaper and just as efficient to do an amendment rather than go through a specific plan.”
On top of that, tens of millions of dollars worth of investment is also needed in the property before a single building can be constructed and the city doesn’t necessarily have the ability to serve new development, as demonstrated by the drought emergency this past summer. And the actual amount of contamination from industrial operations that took place there is still unknown, potentially adding millions more dollars to cleanup costs.
The city had been working with the Skunk Train to develop a portion of the millsite, but Peters said the Skunk Train owners were disingenuous the first time Tunnel No. 1 collapsed, saying it would be fixed in no time. “What was that? Seven years ago,” Peters said. Now the city is skeptical that the company is actually committed to the cleanup of the site. The Skunk Train isn’t the city’s enemy, but Peters said, “Right now, we feel as though we’re being hung out to dry.”
You can watch the full Fort Bragg City Council meeting here: Facebook Live | Facebook