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Fort Bragg’s Skunk Train owner finalizes buy of 77-acre coastal tract from Georgia-Pacific

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Mendocino Railway, owner of Fort Bragg’s popular Skunk Train, has acquired part of a vacant mill site from Georgia-Pacific, giving the company room to expand rail operations and providing it with significant influence over new development in the Mendocino Coast city.

The long-sought acquisition of 77 acres was finalized Friday, a key step in the evolution of the vacant site — a 320-acre swath of coastal land with the potential to revitalize the community, culturally and economically, nearly two decades after Georgia-Pacific’s lumber saws fell silent and the last of what were once more than 2,000 well-paying mill jobs were eliminated.

“Of course, it’s a huge relief because we have been working on this for 15 years, and it was only last year we were able to say something about it in public,” Mendocino Railway Vice President Robert Pinoli said. “It’s also a huge accomplishment. That property has sat vacant for so long and unused, and people are clamoring for something to be done.”

Mendocino Railway now owns the northernmost end of the vacant property, where the city envisions a likely mix of medium- and high-density housing, light industry, retail, restaurants, hotels and other visitor-serving businesses.

City officials are still mapping land-use designations for the entire site, with an eye toward creating new employment, attracting tourists and exploiting views of the scenic 3½-mile coastline long hidden to the public behind sawmills, log piles and fencing.

While the new owners are dealing with a distinct level of uncertainty, they have been moving forward with plans that they hope to see fulfilled one day — plans that include extending Skunk Train passenger trips up along the coastline toward Glass Beach and a new station they hope to build in the vicinity, Mendocino Railway President Mike Hart said.

Railway executives also have been in talks with four different hotel groups about prospects for “an iconic hotel overlooking the Mendocino Coast” and have in mind a tourist attraction that would celebrate “this incredible history of Fort Bragg,” from its Native American history to timber and steam railroads to whale migrations, Hart said.

The company also has talked extensively with Fort Bragg-based North Coast Brewing Co. about a possible partnership that might include putting new beer production space inside a 60,000-square-foot drying shed left behind by Georgia-Pacific, in addition to a beer garden and other amenities.

Doug Moody, senior vice president and co-owner of the 31-year-old brewery, said that his company is undergoing its own change, including the retirement last month of president and co-founder Mark Ruedrich and his own likely transition at the end of this year.

He also said that an expansion of existing production capacity is nearly completed, so the company was not prepared to discuss a decision about any future plans vis-a-vis the mill site.

“Right now, I don’t have anything to say about any actual commitment about where we’re going to go from here,” Moody said.

But Hart said he remains committed to the process and hopes to work out arrangements that serve both parties’ needs.

He said the company’s first priority is to reclaim long-held territory cut off from it when the mill was shuttered and the grounds secured, blocking access to a large part of the railroad that had grown up with the mill when it was first opened by Union Lumber Co. in 1885.

“There are tracks criss-crossing that whole property,” Hart said. “That’s where our yard was. That’s where we turned cars. All of that was on the Georgia-Pacific property. ... So that’s the first thing. That’s the most important thing.”

The city, meanwhile, has held more than 30 public meetings about how the mill site, equal to a third of the city’s land base, should be used.

The city of Fort Bragg already has managed to acquire 107 acres of coastal property between Glass Beach and Mackerricher State Park on the north and the Noyo River on the south, creating a ribbon of open space that includes the Noyo Headlands Park and Coastal Trail, as well as what eventually will be the new home of the Noyo Center for Marine Science.

But the remainder of the land offers a rare opportunity to provide scarce housing and good-paying jobs that might take some time to develop but could be offset by more lower-paying hotel jobs that might be available earlier, Fort Bragg Community Development Director Marie Jones told City Council members during a special meeting Saturday.

Jones said she thought the city’s proposal might be ready by December to turn in to the California Coastal Commission for its input. The coastal commission has final approval over last use on the coastal property.

“This is an exciting time,” former longtime city councilman Dave Turner said at the meeting. “... The rubber’s hitting the road.”

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

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