Skunk Train owner asks judge to consider ‘new facts’ in Willits eminent domain case
The owner of the Skunk Train excursion line has asked a judge to reopen its case against a Willits landowner who beat back the railway’s attempt to acquire the property through eminent domain.
The company, Mendocino Railway, says Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Jeanine Nadel should set aside her June 1 judgment in favor of landowner John Meyer on the grounds that it was filed prematurely.
It also wants Nadel to reopen the trial for admission of new evidence that the railway says bolsters claims it is a public utility with the right to condemn property.
The evidence, a May 2 letter from the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board, specifically confirms the railway’s status as a common carrier railroad regulated by the federal Surface Transportation Board.
It makes no mention of “public utility,” but updates a 2006 decision entered at trial saying the railway’s disrupted track and lack of access to interstate transport limited its ability to perform common carrier services.
Mendocino Railway did not receive the letter until after Nadel issued her initial decision in April.
Though it had been received by the time a formal, proposed judgment was filed May 24, the railway claims Nadel signed her final judgment June 1, before the expiration of a 10-day objection window during which it might have brought the retirement board letter to her attention.
“We did not know until Monday afternoon that she had issued the final judgment,” the railway’s lead attorney on the case, Glenn Block, said Wednesday. “She should not have done that. We’re permitted 10 days to object to the judgment, and so she signed it before that 10 days had run.”
The new motions come amid ongoing legal disputes between Mendocino Railway and Meyer in one case, and involving the city of Fort Bragg and the California Coastal Commission in another.
They are related insofar as each turns on the railway’s claims that its status as a federally regulated public utility and common carrier railroad entitle it to rights not afforded most entities, including the right of eminent domain and the right to construct and maintain rail-related projects without getting clearance from local and state governments.
Mendocino Railway has owned the popular Skunk Train since 2004, when it bought the California Western Railroad on which it runs out of bankruptcy.
For most of the past decade, a collapsed tunnel a few miles outside Fort Bragg has prevented trains from running the entire 40-mile length between the coast and Willits inland. Instead, the trains run out and back from each end of the line.
Mendocino Railway says the recent retirement board letter confirmed that limited freight operations handled by its sister company, Sierra Northern Railroad, fulfilled its obligations as a common carrier until January 2022, when Mendocino Railway assumed control of them.
“That’s just how it was structured,” Block said. “Sierra Northern Railway performed those freight operations on the line as an affiliate. That was part of the original plan when the (Surface Transportation Board) licensed Mendocino Railway in 2004.”
The railways have asked Nadel to set a hearing on June 30 to consider vacating her current judgment and reopening the case, noting she agreed to reopen the trial last fall when Meyer and his lawyer first produced the 2006 retirement board letter.
But whether the new evidence could change the judge’s mind on the matter is uncertain. Nadel disputed the railway’s right to eminent domain in large part because of 2022 letter from the California Public Utilities Commission saying the railroad was not a public utility.
Nadel also noted the absence of freight and passenger service beyond the nonqualifying excursion runs. She also said that the railroad’s initial plans for the Meyer property were meant to benefit the private business of the company, not the public good.
Meyer said he was worried about the new motions because it means more proceedings and lawyers fees, as well as delays before the matter is finalized.
Though Nadel’s final judgment entitled him to recover an estimated $250,000 in legal expenses incurred over what so-far is 2½ years of litigation, the case now “could drag on for who knows how long,” Meyer said.
“I don’t see that this is going to be able to change anything personally, but I guess we’ll see,” he said.
He added, “They thought I would either go bankrupt or fold. And since I haven’t, they’re grasping at straws to retain their false sense of being a public utility, ‘because claiming they’re a public utility has been enough to strong-arm everybody until I fought them.”
A gofundme.com campaign Meyers set up six months ago to help with legal expenses has raised $7,750 toward its goal of $20,000. The fund is titled “Help John Meyer’s family survive being railroaded.”
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or email@example.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.