Skunk Train stay request denied
The Skunk Train’s future in Fort Bragg is up in the air now that the railroad has lost its attempt to delay an expensive and potentially damaging discovery process and trial. On Thursday, Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Clay Brennan rejected the Skunk’s request for a stay or delay in the case brought by the city of Fort Bragg against the railroad. The California Coastal Commission has joined the city in efforts to make Mendocino Railway, operator of the Skunk train, comply with their laws and permits and stop using eminent domain.
The railroad had asked the judge to delay the case until appeals on two still ongoing cases, one an eminent domain case in state court and the other in federal court, are concluded. In one case, the railroad claims it is a “common carrier” regulated only by the federal government. In the other, it is seeking to be ruled a state utility, regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission. The Skunk has lost both cases but is appealing.
Brennan said the two cases aren’t similar enough to the current case to be reasons to deny the stay.
The case was delayed for 30 minutes while Brennan shuffled the docket so that Krista Macnevin Jee, the attorney for the city, could arrive. After she arrived late, all three attorneys presented oral arguments. They also submitted written arguments, which totaled hundreds of pages.
Brennan ruled in favor of the Skunk on an effort by the city to get the railroad’s filings disqualified because they arrived six minutes past the deadline. The judge said the 12:06 p.m filing had no impact on the case and ruled it timely.
The case will be back in court on December 14, at which time both sides will propose trial dates and a discovery schedule. Neither side has commented publicly outside the case. Chris Hart vice president of the company that owns the Skunk Train, said only that he was disappointed by the series of adverse decisions Brennan has handed down against the company.
In a recent city council presentation, David Figueirido, owner of the company store, the marquee building in downtown Fort Bragg, told the city that the Skunk had pulled out of buying his building and could leave town over the city’s hard fight against delaying the case and begged both sides to sit down and talk for the good of the town.
The California Western Railroad started in 1885 to move lumber to and from the Union Pacific millsite and take mail to workers in the many lumber camps where loggers worked and lived by the hundreds back then. The railroad first attracted tourists in the early 20th century, when people from San Francisco often came to ride and see the redwoods and the incredible 150 bridges the line somehow maintained in those days. That’s also when it was nicknamed the Skunk, some say because of smelly rail buses made by Mack Trucks. The financial issues began in the 1990s, when a group of local investors bought the line. Things got worse in 2002 when the mill closed and the railroad went bankrupt in 2003 and shut down. It was rescued from bankruptcy in 2004 by Mendocino Railway, a company formed by Sierra Railroad Company to operate the local line, one of several Sierra operates in both tourist trains and freight trains. Trouble began anew in 2013 when a tunnel collapsed just outside Fort Bragg. That collapse was repaired but efforts to repair the tunnel by a contractor resulted in complete collapse of the tunnel in 2015, resulting in a need for complete reconstruction.
Then in 2019, the line bought 77 acres of the millsite, creating complaints from local environmentalists. Next, the railroad bought 17 acres at the end of Cypress Street that Harvest Market had purchased but changed their plans for placing a new store there.
In 2021 the railroad bought the remaining 210 acres of the millsite for $1.23 million, while the city was negotiating to buy it for more than three times that much. The Skunk got the property through “friendly” eminent domain, with owner Georgia Pacific surrendering title and the responsibility for continuing cleanup to the railroad. Georgia Pacific also issued a quitclaim deed on two parcels to the Sherwood Valley Rancheria, ending any claim it had on native lands, an act many had hoped they would do for a long time.
The railroad has indicated it plans to comply with the cleanup but not submit to the city and state on railroad related construction. However, the railroad plans to submit any plans for housing or hotels to the same process as anyone else. That statement has never been put in writing and doing so could be a point of negotiation, if there is any of that going forward.