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Skunk Train suing landowner in eminent domain case

A view from below of a building with a long column of windows and the words MENDOCINO COUNTY COURTHOUSE across the top center of the outer wall.
The Mendocino County Courthouse in Ukiah.

September 6, 2022 — Court proceedings in an eminent domain case between Mendocino Railway and a Willits-area property owner wrapped up last week, with Judge Jeanine Nadel planning to accept final briefs and issue a judgment next month.

Mendocino Railway, also known as the Skunk Train, is suing John Meyer to acquire a 20-acre undeveloped parcel he owns off Highway 20, just a few miles west of the Willits city center. The railway says it’s authorized to take the property because its use of it would serve the most public benefit, by taking trucks off the road and transporting goods and passengers. The company’s stated plan for the property is to grow the business by building an indoor maintenance shed and expanding its freight operations by transloading, which is exchanging freight between trucks and train cars.

But the defense argued that high-level company officials spent months corresponding about how to use Meyer’s property as a campground, only creating a document outlining the current plan in late June of this year.

Robert Pinoli, the President and CEO of Mendocino Railway, testified for three and a half days under questioning from his own attorney, Glenn Block, and Meyer’s attorney, Steve Johnson. He said the railway considered seven properties along Highway 20, including Meyer’s, but that the others were all unsuitable for a variety of reasons.

Johnson relied heavily on an email thread between Pinoli and Mike Hart, the CEO of Sierra Railroad Company, which owns Mendocino Railway, about buying a property outside of Willits. The topics of freight and maintenance never came up, he said, citing several passages that extolled the sightseeing virtues of various parcels, and considered the benefits of running a campground. Pinoli replied that Hart is an “energetic entrepreneur” who was exploring an idea that Pinoli never planned to pursue.

The only train line that intersects with the Mendocino Railway is the North Coast Rail Authority, or NCRA line. This year, the debt-ridden NCRA was replaced by the Great Redwood Trail Agency, which has ambitious plans to build a hiking trail from the Mendocino-Sonoma County line to the Humboldt Bay. But NCRA still owns part of the track that Mendocino Railway uses at its depot in Willits, on East Commercial Street. If that line is officially abandoned, the Skunk Train will no longer be able to use the Willits depot.

The Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that regulates railroad lines, does not allow trains to use the NCRA track north of Willits for safety reasons. Pinoli insisted that with the appropriate repairs, it would be legal to use the tracks south of Willits, but the last time Mendocino Railway interchanged a freight train with another train was the day before Thanksgiving of 1998. Pinoli told Johnson that he does not know the last time a freight train left Mendocino County.

NCRA has filed a request with the Surface Transportation Board to abandon the line north of Willits, including the section in the depot, which is a key part of the infrastructure for Skunk Train maintenance and parking. The Surface Transportation Board has not yet acted on that request, but Pinoli told Nadel that if the federal agency rules that the line can be abandoned, Mendocino Railway would no longer be able to use its facility in Willits .

Trains are currently unable to travel between Willits and Fort Bragg, due to a tunnel collapse in 2015. The railway is trying to re-engineer the hillside and rebuild the tunnel, which is estimated to cost $5.5 million. Pinoli recounted that the tunnel has been unusable multiple times: once in 1976, when an overly tall car went through and the sensor malfunctioned; another time twenty years later when a landslide affected the west portal; and again in 2005 due to hillside slumpage on the east portal. Pinoli noted that it took just a few months to get trains running again when a rock came through the tunnel ceiling in the spring of 2013. He blames contractor negligence for the 2015 incident that led to the current years-long closure.

At about 40 miles long, Mendocino Railway is a short-line railroad, which Pinoli argued is a vital element in the nation’s infrastructure. While the Skunk Train mostly serves sightseeing and recreational opportunities with its short excursions and rail bikes, it is unusual among the narrow-gauge railroads built during the heyday of logging because its track is standard gauge. Pinoli believes this means it could connect to the national rail system and haul standard-sized freight cars.

As an example, he testified that in 2020, the railway hauled 120 cars full of steel and aggregate for a streambed restoration project with Trout Unlimited. He estimated it would have taken four times as many trucks to haul the material. During that project, he said “a mini version” of transloading was accomplished, when freight was transferred between trucks and train cars. No special facility was required for the transfer.

Pinoli also said the railway transported law enforcement during a manhunt, and that it regularly carries workers for other utilities like AT&E and PG&E. The train does not specialize in providing the legal definition of transportation, which is picking people up at one location and taking them to another, rather than offering a round-trip ride. But Pinoli said the train does offer commuter fares that are only available to people who live along the line, as well as their guests.

One of the tunnels has been closed since 2015 in the latest of a string of unrelated incidents that have shut it down periodically since 1976. But Pinoli said when the tunnel was open, the train had an agreement with the Mendocino Transportation Authority to offer commuter service to people traveling between Willits and Fort Bragg. Hikers occasionally ride out to a junction and walk back into town.

Pinoli argues vigorously that the Skunk Train is a public utility, which greatly improves its assertions of serving the public good. But last month, the California Public Utilities Commission wrote a letter to Hart, saying, “While Mendocino Railway is a Commission-regulated railroad, it is not a public utility within the meaning of the California Constitution, the California Public Utilities Code, and the Commission’s orders.” The letter goes on to say that in 1997, the Commission determined that California Western Railroad, the company operating the Skunk’s excursion service at the time, “did not constitute a public utility to the extent it provides excursion rail service, which constituted 90% of its overall business.” The CPUC regulates the safety of all rail operations in California, but the Commission’s letter states that “Mendocino Railway is a regulated railroad but not a public utility…While some California railroads do constitute public utilities, “railroads” and “public utilities” are not synonymous under the Public Utilities Code.”

Mendocino Railway shot back, arguing that the decision “is based on facts that have not existed for almost a quarter century,” including that Mendocino Railway is no longer affiliated with California Western Railroad. The company’s attorney also argued that as a railroad corporation, Mendocino Railway meets the definition of a common carrier, which qualifies it as a public utility.

Judge Nadel will accept final briefs in the Meyer case on October 7, with a focus on the issues of excursion versus transportation and freight, and plans for transloading.

Local News
Sarah Reith is the lead reporter for KZYX News. She joined the KZYX News team in 2017, and covers local politics, water, law enforcement and the arts in Mendocino County.