On Thursday, October 28th the City of Fort Bragg filed a lawsuit against Mendocino Railway and ten John Does. Mendocino Railway is the company name for what most folks call the Skunk Train. Attorneys for the City establish their main point right away: “The operations of the Mendocino Railway have been reduced over time and now consist of only the operation of out and back excursion trips starting in either Fort Bragg, California or Willits, California and therefore the Mendocino Railway is no longer entitled to status as a public utility, is in fact an excursion only railroad, and therefore is subject to the jurisdiction of the City of Fort Bragg and all ordinances, codes and regulations set forth in the City of Fort Bragg Municipal Code.”
In the legal filing the City of Fort Bragg cites the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) opinion authored in 1998. The CPUC stated that the Skunk Train (then known as the California Western Railroad - CWRR) was not offering a “transportation” service. The CPUC defined the Skunk Train route, which at one time ran all the way from Fort Bragg to Willits as an “excursion service,” concluding that “CWRR is not functioning as a public utility.”
Since the collapse of Tunnel #1, connecting the tracks from the Pudding Creek watershed to the Noyo River watershed, in 2016 the excursion trips from Fort Bragg have traveled only a three and a half mile out and back route to Glen Blair Junction on the west end and a sixteen mile out and back trip from Willits to Northspur Junction on the eastern end.
The City goes on to contend, “In June, 2017, City staff deemed the roundhouse as so dilapidated that it may be necessary to demolish the building and rebuild instead of repairing. The City even offered to assist with funding to assist with those costs. Attempts to inspect the roundhouse by the County Building Inspector were refused and rebutted with a message from the Defendant that the City has no authority over a railroad. In 2019, when the City red tagged Defendant’s work on a storage shed on the Skunk Train’s property for failure to obtain a City building permit, the Defendant removed the tag and proceeded with the work. More recently in August, the City sent an email to Defendant to inform them that they needed a Limited Term Permit for a special event after 10pm that would create additional noise in the neighborhood surrounding the Defendant’s property. Defendant’s response was that they are 'outside the City's jurisdictional boundaries and thus not subject to a permit'.”
The City's lawsuit appears to be a reaction to the Skunk Train's filing for eminent domain rights to acquire approximately 205 acres of what is commonly called the old mill site in Fort Bragg and 70 acres alongside Pudding Creek.
What is eminent domain? This is the right of the government or its agent to expropriate private property for public use, with payment of compensation.
How then does Mendocino Railway have that right? California Public Utilities Code, Section 611 states, “A railroad corporation may condemn any property necessary for the construction and maintenance of its railroad.”
California Public Utilities Code, Section 230 defines a railroad corporation thus: “'Railroad corporation' includes every corporation or person owning, controlling, operating, or managing any railroad for compensation within this State.”
So, the City of Fort Bragg's counterpoint is the CPUC statement from 1998 that described the Skunk experience as an “excursion trip” and that it “is not functioning as a public utility. The lawsuits make clear the contentious relationship between the Skunk Train and the City of Fort Bragg. How does the Skunk treat its everyday citizens and actual neighbors?
In the summer of 2020 the Skunk constructed a trail alongside its tracks. For lengthy stretches that trail clearly switchbacks onto and cuts into the steep hillside property of everyday citizens who own homes and land adjacent to the Pudding Creek excursion route. Simple eyeballing shows that at least one neighbor felt encroached upon so much by the Skunk trail that they constructed a barbed wire fence to prevent usage of the trail in that area. None of the neighbors were informed by the Skunk, Mendocino Railway, or Sierra Railroad before the trail work started. The Skunk did not acquire any permits from the City of Fort Bragg or Mendocino County, they simply went ahead digging out the trail, oblivious of the neighbors' boundaries or any application for permits.
Perhaps, believing themselves to be a “railroad” the Skunk owners feel they can do just about anything without repercussion from ordinary citizens. One could look at the City of Fort Bragg's lawsuit as picking up the gauntlet for all, the neighbors alongside the Pudding Creek tracks and an effort to protect the mill site property from the excursion trip company turning the mill site into an amusement park.