Editor’s note: The story has been updated to include comments from City Manager Tabatha Miller.
FORT BRAGG, 12/7/21 — The Fort Bragg City Council had nothing to report out from its three-hour closed session Monday related to the lawsuit with the Skunk Train over the railway’s public utility status. But Mayor Bernie Norvall did report the council had unanimously accepted the resignation of City Manager Tabatha Miller. Miller said her resignation is for personal reasons and is unrelated to the controversy around the Skunk Train, which recently acquired almost a fifth of the land in Fort Bragg through eminent domain.
“I actually gave the city council my resignation on Nov. 16,” Miller said, “so this has been something they’ve had for a little while.”
The city council held the special meeting to officially accept Miller’s resignation and discuss Fort Bragg’s legal battle over the public utility status of Mendocino Railway, the owner of the Skunk Train. The company used that status to acquire 272 acres of the former oceanfront Georgia-Pacific millsite for $1.23 million through eminent domain, officially taking over the site Nov. 15, to construct and maintain rail facilities for current and future freight and passenger service. However, city officials who had been working on plans to develop the mill site for almost two decades are arguing the company is a tourist train and shouldn’t have the privileges of a public utility. The suit is also seeking to make the company, which is considered a Class III railroad and is under the jurisdiction of the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB), should be subject to city laws.
Dozens of members of the public expressed their support for the city council’s suit against Mendocino Railway ahead of the closed session, including 25 written comments and about a half dozen more during the verbal public comments portion of the meeting. “I support the city’s efforts to challenge the public utility status of the Skunk Train,” said George Reinhardt. “It’s a ludicrous idea.”
About a dozen people also held a rally against the Skunk Train over the weekend, citing concerns about the impact of the train on air quality and the ability for the company to now develop the site without community oversight.
About a half dozen others who spoke at the meeting were in opposition to the city’s suit, including Mike Hart, CEO and co-founder of Mendocino Railway’s parent company Sierra Energy, who said the comments weren’t reflective of broader public sentiment and that the company did nothing wrong in acquiring the mill site. “On Oct. 6, Georgia-Pacific called us saying that all negotiations with the city of Fort Bragg had broken down,” Hart said. “You had missed all deadlines and had tried to change all terms on them in spite of a prior agreement.”
Representatives from Georgia-Pacific could not be reached to verify whether that was the case.
Hart said he wanted to have these conversations with the city in public and threatened the city with legal action if it continued causing economic harm to Mendocino Railway. “We’re also going to be seeking all of those losses back from the city of Fort Bragg,” Hart said. “And the damage is in the tens of millions of dollars, so it is a significant damage and harm that you’re causing.”
You can watch the full meeting here: Facebook.