Subscribe

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.

Aerial views of the former Georgia-Pacific lumber mill site in Fort Bragg now owned mostly by Mendocino Railway, owner of the Skunk Train. (Mendocino Railway)
Aerial views of the former Georgia-Pacific lumber mill site in Fort Bragg now owned mostly by Mendocino Railway, owner of the Skunk Train. (Mendocino Railway)

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.

Fort Bragg, Ca., and the vacant Georgia-Pacific mill site now mostly owned by Mendocino Railway, owner of the Skunk Train. (Google Maps)
Fort Bragg, Ca., and the vacant Georgia-Pacific mill site now mostly owned by Mendocino Railway, owner of the Skunk Train. (Google Maps)

A plan for the site released Friday includes medium- and high-density housing, a large modern hotel and condos, a “Railroad Square” with a larger, relocated depot, museum and large space for farmers markets and other events.

In addition, there are live/work units, a hostel, mixed-use commercial, a Pomo education center, open space with trails and decorative ponds, and a flagship restaurant.

“This is an opportunity to really work with the community and get something out there that people are proud of,” Pinoli said.

City officials are unanimously opposed to the move, however, and say the best way to reflect the community’s vision is to ensure community representation and oversight through public ownership.

They also question the railway’s need for so much more land when their current operation exists on 4 acres.

Some also suggest the company is trying to tie all kinds of unrelated development to rail operations to avoid oversight.

During a meeting Monday, Councilman Lindy Peters noted that during years of meetings and workshops on the future of the oceanfront property, “what I heard over and over again was, ‘This has been a one-company town long enough.’”

Community plans for the site had coalesced around a vision of it as a hub for innovation focused on sustainable ocean ecosystems, climate change, fisheries, renewable energy, tourism and transportation.

The city had already acquired a ribbon of land along the edge of the property equal to 107 acres, between Glass Beach and Mackerricher State Park on the north and the Noyo River on the south.

Now the Noyo Headlands Park and Coastal Trail, it will eventually provide a new home for the Noyo Center for Marine Science.

Morsell-Haye said the city was tantalizingly close to finalizing its own deal with Georgia-Pacific for the remaining real estate, working with several other agencies, including state parks and the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians, only to lose out to the railway.

A multitude of agencies were in talks to remediate millions of dollars in environmental cleanup still required on the site. Collaborators had hoped additionally to restore two creeks that had been diverted in buried pipes to feed the mill pond. They had also planned to restore the mouth of Pudding Creek at the northern end.

After almost three years, they had reached a verbal agreement for Georgia-Pacific to donate the land in exchange for freedom from all environmental liability at the site, Morsell-Haye said.

The city was doing its due diligence and had just pulled $3.5 million in bond funding to prove to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control that it was ready to tackle the site’s environmental needs when word that Georgia-Pacific had settled with Mendocino Railway arrived, she said.

Georgia-Pacific also was prepared to give the Pudding Creek land through the city to the state parks system, making it free and open to the public. That property now will be accessible only to Skunk Train ticket holders, they fear.

“We were so close,” Morsell-Haye said.

The city, which has supported grant applications by the Skunk Train in the past, on Monday unanimously approved a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation opposing the company’s bid for $21 million in Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing.

The money would be used to repair a collapsed tunnel between Fort Bragg and Willits and other projects. The letter argues the loan application “perpetuates the falsehood that the railway is a common carrier public utility, which allows it to strategically claim exemption from local and state regulations and use powers such as eminent domain to diversify its holdings well beyond railroad operations.”

State Sen. Mike McGuire said via email that he was sorry to see the land transferred to the railroad when the city had “a comprehensive plan to clean up this property, involve the community and develop it into something good for all residents.”

“No matter who owns the land,” said McGuire, D-Healdsburg, “the State of California will make very sure that it’s properly cleaned up to full California Environmental Quality standards, and that the Coastal Commission and other state agencies vet any development proposals going forward.”

He did not say how that would be managed, however.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette