FORT BRAGG, 5/21/23 — Mendocino Railway, owner of the Skunk Train, has sold part of its properties in Fort Bragg for $4.15 million. The buyer of all eight parcels was Sierra Northern Railway, a sister company of Mendocino Railway. What does the transfer mean? Nothing has changed as far as who is managing the local operation. Speculation has ranged from something as simple as differing tax liabilities for two related corporations to different legal liabilities to something to bolster the company’s claim that the railroad is a public utility. Both companies operate under the umbrella of Sierra Railway — and management hasn’t told us yet.
Over the past five years, Mendocino Railway acquired about 350 acres of property around its existing Fort Bragg depot, including most of the remaining property from the former Georgia Pacific Millsite and sold a portion of that property- apparently about 100 acres.. And it is now embroiled in perhaps the biggest controversy in the history of the line, which dates to the late 19th century. The railway is involved in lawsuits with the City of Fort Bragg and the California Coastal Commission, the railroad contending, so far not successfully, that it is a public utility not subject to city and Coastal Commission regulations. During this time, the railroad completed repairs and upgrades, including fixing broken windows and putting in secure fencing, which are among the issues that the Coastal Commission considers violations. The railway now has cases filed in federal court in hopes of proving it is a public utility.
Recently, a Mendocino County judge struck a blow against the railroad’s claim, ruling in favor of a Willits area landowner who resisted the appropriation of his property by eminent domain.
The Mendocino Voice picked up the late December property transactions at a records check in January, met with Skunk Train top brass Robert Pinoli and Chris Hart, but have gained no information about the property transaction so far. While internal transfers happen all the time and are not generally big news (although would normally be reported when it involves a high profile company), the difference here is that actual money changed hands. In most internal transfers a box would be checked saying no money changed hands, thus no taxes would be collected. In this case the county collected $2,200 in transfer taxes for a transaction, which shows the money paid to Mendocino Railway by Sierra Northern Railway was $2 million on that deal. The Mendocino Voice found two others, where $1.8 million and $350,000 changed hands.
Mendocino Railway was formed in 2004 when a locally owned group went bankrupt. 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. The owners of the privately held company, Sierra Railway, said to be primarily Hart family members, sought to bring back the railroad through their ownership of Mendocino Railway . Pinoli was among the owners involved in the local group and is now involved in ownership of the company. Robert Pinoli signed the sales deeds on behalf of Mendocino Railway transferring the properties to Sierra Northern Railway. When asked, he said the sales were not him selling his ownership but represented something done for tax reasons that he would need to further research. The Mendocino Voice will add follow-up information to this story as it comes in.
In 2003, the Sierra Railroad and the Yolo Shortline Railroad merged to form the Sierra Northern Railway. West Sacramento-based Sierra Northern says it now operates over 100 miles of track in Mendocino county, and also operates in Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Yolo counties, according to its website. Sierra Northern provides rail shipping to all of California through interchanges BNSF and UP. With access to several railyards and public warehouses, ports, and industrial complexes, Sierra Northern coordinates the storage and distribution of thousands of carloads annually.
You can find our previous reporting on the Skunk Train here.
? where is the 100 miles of track in Mendocino co. located, that Sierra western operates ?
Don’t believe Pinole. More investigation needed!
the sale of the skunk train to the railroad company is a tactic to do an run around the fact that the skunk train has been classified as a tourist attraction and is thus subject to city, county and state regulations. By connecting with the railroad, the skunk train is going to make a claim that they’re not subject the rules and regulations, because they’re part of a railroad which is exempt.
I think it’s fair to say that the skunk train folks are out to “railroad” our local community.
The Skunk Train no longer exists, at least not in the sense that it a transports people or freight to or from anywhere. For over 100 years it was capable of taking people or freight the 40 some miles from Ft. Bragg to Willits. That is no longer the case. The tracks are coming apart, the trestles are collapsing, the tunnel has collapsed. Northspur was turned into a meth lab by train employees and subsequently burned down. No trains are running, other than 4 miles out and back. It is not a public utility — it is a bicycle cart path. Mike Hart and Robert Pinoli have destroyed a historical regional treasure. Despite the BS claims that it will run again, be assured it never will. All railroads take maintenance, and they aren’t doing any. What’s happening with the tunnel? Anything? We should march from Ft. Bragg to find out. Anybody have photos?
At some point, some reporter needs to examine this as a case of pure Trump-style grift. Mike Hart and the Skunk Train have attempted, unsuccessfully, to pull a stunt out of Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles and declare “eminent domain” on an ordinary private landowner whose property they coveted. The court sensibly found this to be laughable. But what of their other ongoing scams, including right here in town where they have absconded with the LP mill site? Have they taken Federal money to “work” on re-opening the tunnel east of Ft. Bragg? What happened to pandemic funds they received? What grants have they received? Follow the money that these grifters have received and you’ll find that while Robert Pinoli may care, to some degree, about the train, Mike Hart is working the long con and it has nothing to do with trains.
Just add these guys to the growing list of corruption in our county. …. I used to be a supporter but not anymore. They play dirty….in all aspects of their business dealings.
Pinole is just another spoiled rich kid…. a Veruca….”I WANT IT NOW DADDY” …. bam he’s got a railroad. He’s got his toy but he never learned to play well with others.