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Fort Bragg Officials Object to Skunk Acquisition of Mill Site

Fort Bragg City Council members squared off Monday night with managers and owners of Mendocino Railways, operator of the Skunk Train, over the railroad’s recently announced acquisition by eminent domain of the remaining 270 acres the railroad did not already own of the town’s oceanside former millsite.

The tense council meeting discussion — at which members voted unanimously to oppose a federal rail loan that Mendocino Railways has applied for to make track and tunnel repairs — followed an announcement last week that Georgia-Pacific had ceded the remainder of the millsite, vacant and on the market for the past 19 years, to Mendocino Railways after the railroad filed an eminent domain lawsuit for the land in October. The railroad has also claimed land along both banks of the Pudding Creek estuary. On Tuesday morning, the Skunk Train — which already owns the portion of the millsite north of Redwood Ave. — issued a news release on Facebook saying the transaction for the south end and Pudding Creek estuary had closed escrow and is final.

The news was greeted with frank dismay Monday by all five city council members, who had been negotiating the city’s own purchase of the millsite’s southern portion during closed session meetings with Georgia-Pacific over the past two years.

The city also filed suit in Mendocino County Superior Court earlier this month challenging the Skunk Train’s status as a freight railroad. “Freight” status, as opposed to being considered an excursion train, gives the Skunk much broader land use powers, and losing that status could affect its ability to do things like acquire land via eminent domain or be exempt from local and state zoning laws.

Council member Tess Albin-Smith said the Skunk’s recent moves make her wary.

“When you look at someone owning 20% of the town, it’s like we now have another member at the council table,” said council member Albin-Smith. “It’s like a takeover.”

Council member Lindy Peters said his opposition was based on years of community meetings about the millsite in which “I never heard anybody say, ‘Let’s turn the whole thing into a train yard’.”

Mayor Bernie Norvell focused his opposition on reports that Mendocino Railways might be interested in operating on the now-closed North Coast Rail Authority line along the Eel River, possibly to transport gravel between Dos Rios and Fort Bragg. The NCRA line is the focus of an effort championed by State Senator Mike McGuire to create “The Great Redwood Trail,” a camping and hiking corridor along the Eel River. It has also drawn the attention of a group of Wyoming coal interests looking for a way to ship their product to the Far East, possibly using Northern California rail lines to do so.

Norvell cited a conversation he had with Skunk Train President Robert Pinoli in which he said Pinoli told him the Skunk would not be subject to any local regulations on its railroad operations, for why he was leery of the railroad’s plans and opposing the federal rail loan.

Vice Mayor Jessica Morsell-Haye was frankly distrustful of the company: “It was working with them (Mendocino Railways) that has made me lose trust in them,” she said.

Morsell-Haye said she thinks the Skunk Train owning the property could end the possibility for public facilities like athletic fields, or a new hospital or college, on the millsite.

Railroad officials, who have unveiled a couple of plans for retail and housing development on the north end of the millsite in recent years but nothing detailed for the new chunk of land they now own, expressed bafflement Monday at city officials’ stances, and frustration that the city would oppose any federal rail loan — which the city had supported on the railroad’s last three tries — flowing to the community.

Mendocino Railway co-owner Mike Hart accused city government of secrecy and hostility toward the railroad over the closed session meetings the council has held to discuss a millsite purchase over the past couple of years, though the negotiations have been reported on in local media and were common knowledge.

“The city should stop hiding behind closed doors and shed some light on this,” Hart said.

Chris Hart, Mike Hart’s brother and Mendocino Railways co-owner as well, said “You supported this (loan) for three years and now you’re opposing it. This feels like retaliation.”

Skunk Train President Pinoli emphasized the rail line’s economic importance for Fort Bragg’s tourist economy — he estimated the rail line brings $12 million a year in spending to the area. Pinoli denied that Mendocino Railways is involved in efforts to ship coal along the NCRA line, but acknowledged that the railroad has intervened to try to require the NCRA to follow formal abandonment procedures.

“We’re a rails and trails organization,” he said, “not a rails to trails organization.”

However, Pinoli insisted, “We are absolutely not involved whatsoever with anything to do with coal.”

Members of the public weighed in for and against various aspects of the Skunk Train/millsite scenario, although what that scenario is remains pretty unclear. Despite a mailer sent out last week that included an architect’s drawing of housing and retail development for the north side of the site, no formal development proposals have been made, and representatives of the railroad, which uses about four acres on the millsite for its current operations, gave no specifics Monday on how they plan to use the additional 272 millsite acres, or what they intend to use the land they now own along Pudding Creek for.

Council members voted 5-0 to approve the letter opposing a new federal loan for Mendocino Railways.


  1. Kathy Wylie December 3, 2021

    Excellent and important news coverage here Chris!

  2. Jane Doe December 3, 2021

    Where is County Supervisor Gjerde in this discussion? Seems that his leadership skills would be invaluable, to set the parties on the right track.

    • Stephen Rosenthal December 3, 2021

      Gjerde’s leadership skills? That’s an oxymoron.

      • Jane Doe December 3, 2021

        That’s for sure!!
        Along with Ted Williams! He’s also an oxymoron! We call them as they come across!!!

  3. Deirdre Lamb December 3, 2021

    I have lived on the coast for almost my whole life. I have seen Fort Bragg City make one bad decision after the next on so many projects, it would make your head spin to see them listed. How about Linda Ruffing, who spent years the head of City Planning and toiled hours and hours for years to get the Coastal Trail approved and in. Frankly, I couldn’t believe it, I was sure Fort Bragg City would designated the oceanfront part of the headlands for McMansions, an airstrip, housing, who knows. And after 10 years of Linda’s life, and the trail in and with no warning, she was fired from her job. She was reeling for a while about it, they said they wanted someone more “progressive” which equals more money. The Fort Bragg City doesn’t realize the Coastal Trail has added a priceless feature to the city, for people to wak, bike, and hike. It has made Fort Bragg a nice place to live. So, I am all for the Skunk Train, I saw their plans in the Little Stinker newsletter they sent out, and I think they are great. And, I think they will follow through with them. I do not think Fort Bragg City would follow through on making the headlands nice, and the Skunk Train will.

    • Lazarus December 3, 2021

      The whole deal is a crapshoot. But if the City were to get the control you can bet your house that NOTHING will ever happen. With the Skunk people, at the least, the community has a shot.
      Be well,

  4. Mark Taylor December 3, 2021

    As mentioned previously, not a lot of progress was made for many years on development of the millsite, except for the coastal trail and the set aside for the Noyo Center – thank you, Linda Ruffing (I wonder if the Skunk can claim all that property at some point, too? or the waste water treatment plant, for that matter.) Most of the delay was because of the remediation problems GP faced. Somehow, the Skunk convinced GP they could get out from under all that and GP walked away. There might have been other considerations between the two that we don’t know about – 1.3 million is a steal, remediation notwithstanding. While I can understand why people would doubt that the City would be able to manage development of the millsite – it’s a huge project – it wouldn’t be impossible. Bringing in a larger entity experienced in such things manage the project would have been a great idea. Having it controlled by an entity with an amusement park plan and that rejects any local rules except when it’s to their advantage is an invitation to a City takeover and a possible disaster. Real estate development and the amusement industry are both sensitive to the whims of the economy. Having all the eggs in a skunk basket is extremely dangerous. But they own it now and, unfortunately, seem bent on jamming that fact down the City’s throat and flaunting their claim of immunity from oversight. There’s a reason the City and many coastal citizens are pushing back. I wish things could be better, but I think the only way that’ll happen is if the Skunk’s public utility claim is disallowed and the playing field is leveled.

  5. Lee Edmundson December 4, 2021

    What the City of Fort Bragg — and the entire Mendocino Coast for that matter –owes Linda Ruffing for her efforts to preserve and protect not only Fort Bragg but the North Coast from inappropriate development can never be overstated. Or repaid.

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