Skunk Train owner’s acquisition of Fort Bragg mill site upends city plans amid growing conflict, mistrust
The owner of Fort Bragg’s iconic Skunk Train now owns nearly the entire west side of town after using its status as a federally recognized railroad to pursue the vacant Georgia-Pacific mill site through eminent domain.
The move has unleashed a fury in the Mendocino Coast community, with one Fort Bragg official calling it “a land grab.”
Whoever possesses the more-than-300-acre bluff-top property — with its sweeping views of the rugged coastline and the ocean beyond — in effect holds title to the city’s future. That means a single owner will now control the type and scale of new residential, business and tourist-oriented development in a community badly in need of renewal.
Officials with the Mendocino Railway, owner of the Skunk Train and the River Fox Train near Sacramento, said they’ve long bolstered the Fort Bragg economy and are ready to move forward with a unified plan for the roughly 375 acres the agency now holds.
The company has spent most of 20 years trying to acquire the property and working with the city and the public on a vision for the site, representatives said.
After the decline of the timber and fishing industries over recent decades, the city has taken too long on its own planning efforts for the lumber mill site, shuttered in 2002, said Skunk Train president Robert Pinoli.
“Let’s get on with doing something that’s productive,” he said.
But for city officials, the railway’s acquisition amounts to an end-run just as the city itself was close to a deal with Georgia-Pacific. That deal, they say, would have allowed for greater civic involvement as well as enhanced environmental oversight and greater public good.
“It is a land grab,” said Vice Mayor Jessica Morsell-Haye. “There’s no other name for it. They now own 20% of this damn town.”
The company plans to tie the land to expanded rail use in an area where the city envisioned expanded open space and inroads toward a new “blue economy” focused on ocean resources and resilience.
City officials argue a small out-and-back “excursion line” with no connection to the national rail system for the past two decades hardly warrants the standing of a public utility that should enable it to condemn property.
Georgia-Pacific initially fought the eminent domain in court, but agreed to a settlement that allows Pinoli’s company to acquire it at its appraised value of $1.23 million.
The city has filed a separate suit in Mendocino County Superior Court challenging the railway’s standing as “a common carrier providing ‘transportation.’” The suit seeks in the meantime to ensure the railway complies with city ordinances, codes and authorities.
Officials are worried about federal law that grants railway-related development immunity from state and local regulation — an arrangement over which the city and the railway already have butted heads.
For instance, Pinoli said the railway’s plan to run the Skunk Train line out to popular Glass Beach and along a relatively new public coastal trail at the very edge of the mill site will not be subject to environmental review even though most coastal development undergoes an extra layer of oversight via the California Coastal Commission.
“That’s a problem,” Mayor Bernie Norvell said.
The railway also rejected several city efforts to enforce permit requirements on structural improvements on mill property it owned before the condemnation effort, raising additional concerns about the degree to which the railroad is prepared to abide by local standards.
But Pinoli said all work still is subject to building codes, even if it is exempt from a permit. He said anything except railway-related activities — housing, commercial uses, a hotel — would be subject to the planning and permitting process.
He also said the city had ample notice about his company’s interest in the site, which began in 2004, when Mendocino Railway first began talking to Georgia-Pacific about acquiring some of the site — a year after it bought the Skunk Train out of bankruptcy and two years after the mill closed and the city lost 2,000 solid jobs.
When the railway initially purchased 77 acres of the northern mill site in 2019, company officials noted the tie to historic uses of rail in the area. The company also bought 15 acres from Harvest Market, which had planned a store there but decided against it.
The railway’s most recent acquisition includes 210 acres from the main mill site and 62 acres running inland along Pudding Creek on the north. It paid $1.23 million for the land — a steal it would seem — though the railroad expects to spend almost three times that much for environmental remediation, Pinoli said.