MENDOCINO Co, CA, 4/26/23 — The Grassroots Institute (GRI) presented a primer on the status of the former Georgia-Pacific mill site on Fort Bragg’s Noyo Headlands in a video talk last week, sharing information about the critical piece of property’s history, biodiversity, and issues of ownership, while offering community members the chance to ask questions. The talk was hosted by the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Mendocino County.
The mill site’s closure in 2002 had a dramatic economic impact on Fort Bragg, but also freed up more than 300 acres of headlands. Negotiations between the city and Georgia-Pacific (owned by Koch Industries) over purchase of the site had been ongoing; then, in 2021, the company sold the property to Mendocino Railway — operators of the Skunk Train — when the railroad claimed eminent domain over the property.
Resisting judgment on the controversial purchase, the Wednesday talk covered a variety of issues related to the mill site. George Reinhardt, a co-founder of the Noyo Headlands Unified Design Group, spoke about green development hopes for the mill site, which include daylighting of buried streams and planning for low-impact electric transportation to minimally disrupt the site.
Peter McNamee of the Grassroots Institute talked about Local Coastal Programs, which dictate development in coastal zones throughout California. In Mendocino County, these are lands west of Highway 1 (though not exclusively). McNamee reiterated that the California Coastal Commission regulates all coastal land — including privately owned parcels.
“Everyone in California has a voice and a say in how those lands are used,” McNamee said.
Leslie Kashiwada, who holds a PhD in Oceanography, spoke about environmental impact at the site and the cleanup requirements for the “toxic mill ponds” left behind after Koch Industries’ exit and sale to Mendocino Railway. She also shared images of different plant, animal, and bird species she and others have spotted at the mill site.
A local lawyer, Jim Larson, offered what he hoped would be an objective framing of current litigation concerning the mill site. In the most high-profile case, set to begin trial in June, Fort Bragg disputes Mendocino Railway’s claim that it is a public utility and so has the right to exercise eminent domain over the substantial coastal property. The California Coastal Commission joined the city in the suit last fall.
Larson also said that Mendocino Railway had previously been able to take the property of another county resident, Loreen O’Shea, by condemnation after she did not appear at her court date. As such, the case automatically closed in Mendocino Railway’s favor allowing the condemnation.
Potentially complicating the Fort Bragg v. Mendocino Railway case, a judge in the Mendocino County Superior Court of California ruled last week in favor of John Meyers, a Willits man whose property Mendocino Railway attempted to take by eminent domain after he refused to sell back in 2020. Judge Jeanine Nadel found that the railroad did not sufficiently establish itself as a public utility in evidence submitted during the case, saying that the vast majority of Mendocino Railway’s revenue can be attributed to tourist operations of the Skunk Train rather than transportation of passengers or freight from one destination to another.
In last Wednesday’s talk, LWV representatives confirmed that neither Mendocino Railway executives nor city council members were invited to speak because of the pending litigation. To do otherwise would have been “inappropriate, perhaps unethical,” Jane Person said.
The one-and-a-half hour talk is available to view online.
Note: Kate Fishman covers the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice in partnership with a Report For America. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Fishman’s work with a tax-deductible donation here or by emailing [email protected]. Contact her at KFishman@mendovoice.com or at (707) 234-7735. The Voice maintains editorial control and independence.