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The Skunk — Point, Counterpoint

We live in our wonderful community fronting the 2+ miles of prime ocean frontage we call the Noyo Headlands. We love our historic Skunk Train, but since it was sold in 2003 to Mendocino Railway, the future of Fort Bragg has become precarious.

When the Mendocino Railway, a so-called “public utility,” obtained the 260+ acres of the Noyo Headlands from the Koch Brothers’ Georgia-Pacific by eminent domain last November, the future of our town became murky. 1) The cleanup of the toxins (e.g., dioxin, arsenic, heavy metals) is no longer guaranteed; 2) the City’s plan for environmentally protected headlands with day-lighted creeks, a wildlife corridor, modest housing, and extension of the business district is being ignored, and 3) the rare stretch of undeveloped ocean and Pudding Creek frontages may become a tourist Choo Choo Land!

To wit: The Mendocino Railway submitted a map of proposed train tracks from Laurel Street to Glass Beach to the Coastal Commission for approval. They are purchasing properties in the area (e.g., on Alger Street). They contend that they are not subject to local and state regulations for toxin cleanup, and they are advertising on commercial vehicles, airport carts, billboards, and other media.

Therefore, the City of Fort Bragg is suing the Mendocino Railway, challenging MR’s claim that they are a public utility in Superior Court, thereby challenging the ownership of the Headlands. We applaud the City and urge residents who want to preserve our community to run for City Council in November.

— Susan Nutter, Fort Bragg


RESPONSE TO SUSAN NUTTER’S RECENT LETTER TO THE EDITOR,

Some Corrections And Clarifications

First, I think Susan's letter greatly understates what happened in 2003. You state our purchase made things precarious. As a reminder, the Skunk Train was bankrupt and closed! While I spent months in town during that 8 month closure, businesses told me of their hardship due to declined visitation. Our company stepped in and spent millions to reopen and improve the railroad.

Second, you and others complained about GP cleaning up the site (for example I see a post in 2018), but now you write that it was "guaranteed". Our company is already doing the remediation yet not you complain about the good old days when GP was responsible. Talk about spinning things.

Third, please show me the City's plans that you outline in your letter. Other than the Ad Hoc Committee map that is based on our plans, the City has not issued a plan. Frankly, it sounds like you're talking about our plans that include modest housing, an extension of the business district, wildlife corridor, 40% open space, extended setbacks & so much more.

Fourth, the "rare stretch of undeveloped" frontage is actually a brownfield site. It is covered in asphalt, concrete and needs remediation. You complain about all the toxins and then refer to the site as pristine and undeveloped. It was covered by a lumber mill! You can't have it both ways calling it pristine in one breath and then complaining that we won't clean it up.

Fifth, our company has NEVER stated we are not subject to regulations for clean-up. We have been working with the DTSC for years. You are simply spreading false rumors.

Sixth, you are against us advertising and supporting other businesses and organizations in the area. Is supporting the local radio station so bad? Is putting a sign on public transit so bad?

— Christopher Hart, Mendocino Railways (Skunk parent co.)


SUPERIOR COURT JUDGE RULES IN THE CITY V. MENDOCINO RAILWAY CASE

On April 28, 2022, the Mendocino County Superior Court issued a ruling in the City v Mendocino Railway case. To read the Press Release, please click here: 04-29-2022 Court Rulings. We have also copied it below:

Mendocino County Superior Court Rulings Reject Mendocino Railway’s Request to Dismiss City Lawsuit 

On Thursday, April 28, citing an abundance of case law and legal precedent, Judge Clayton L. Brennan of the Mendocino County Superior Court ruled against Skunk Train operator Mendocino Railway’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the City of Fort Bragg (City) concerning the City’s ability to exercise authority over land use within city boundaries. In ruling for the City, the Court found that excursion service railroads like the Skunk Train “are not operating as public utilities and should not be regulated by the [California Public Utilities Commissions] as such.” 

This early decision of the court is an important step in dispelling the falsehood that the Skunk Train is a public utility and therefore not subject to local regulatory oversight. The City is committed to ensuring that development on the former Georgia Pacific Mill Site meets the needs and character of the community, that environmental hazards are appropriately remediated, and that current and future public infrastructure requirements are addressed with water supply, sewer facilities and roads. 

Since acquiring 272 acres of coastal land, which comprises approximately a third of the land within city limits, Mendocino Railway has not acted in good faith with regard to development within the City of Fort Bragg. Rather than seeking a Coastal Development Permit application and committing to abide by the same rules as all other developers, Mendocino Railway has instead claimed to operate as a common carrier public utility. If unchallenged, this common carrier determination would allow Mendocino Railway to strategically claim exemption from ocal and state regulations and bypass the community’s ability to participate in planning reuse of the site. 

As such, late last year the City filed a lawsuit in Mendocino County Superior Court disputing Mendocino Railway’s claim. In response, Mendocino Railway promptly submitted a legal pleading, known as a Demurrer, requesting dismissal of the case. The basis of this request rested on the false assumption that by virtue of Mendocino Railway’s status as a federally regulated railroad and public utility, the Mendocino County Superior Court lacks jurisdiction, or is preempted from even considering the City’s lawsuit. 

However, citing extensive legal precedent, as well as a previous California Public Utilities Commission determination that Mendocino Railway “is not engaged in interstate transportation related activities but rather simply provides a sightseeing excursion loop service,” the Court ruled that Mendocino Railway’s preemption argument is overly broad. 

The City now looks forward to this case progressing toward a resolution that results in a declaration from the Court that Mendocino Railway is not exempt from local land-use authority. 

(Fort Bragg City Presser)

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