The North Coast Railroad Authority — the public agency that owns the dead railroad tracks and associated property around the North Coast — met in the Board of Supervisor’s office this morning, as it does every three or four months. And while the meeting kicked off with a lot of good feelings and happy talk between the board and representatives of local governmental bodies, it ended with a long line of public officials from the city of Eureka parading before the board and begging its members to do something about the railroad’s old offices near the corner of Second and A streets in Eureka — a squalid building inhabited by squatters that has been set on fire four times in the last year.
Those figures were from Humboldt Bay Fire Chief Bill Gillespie, who was the first of five staff members from the city and allied agencies to deplore the state of the abandoned office building in the neck of the Balloon Track, which — back when trains ran, over two decades ago — served as the railroad’s depot and then office headquarters. Gillespie spoke of the “hoarder-like conditions” that obtained inside the building (trash, syringes, fecal matter), the resources expended by local emergency services at the site, and of the danger to human life on the frequent occasions the building is lit on fire.
“The fact that we’ve not had a fatality in there is a miracle,” Gillespie said. “The reality is that for that building to go away would be the cheapest and easiest solution to the problem.”
Also in attendance were Eureka’s city manager, Greg Sparks, its director of public works, Brian Gerving, and its chief of police, Andy Mills. Each of them reiterated that the building was a nuisance and a magnet for crime, and they urged the railroad authority to demolish the thing.
But they would get no relief today. The railroad authority had originally scheduled the matter for “possible action,” but took that off the table at the beginning. The authority notified attendees that the property had become the subject of a legal matter that had been filed sometime within the last few days, and so the board would discuss it in closed session with its counsel after the public section of the meeting had ended.
What was the legal action that prompted this change of status? Chris Neary, the North Coast Railroad Authority’s attorney, told the Outpost that authority had recently received a letter notifying it that the city had levied an $18,000 fine on the authority.
Reached this afternoon, City Manager Greg Sparks said that the $18,000 represents code enforcement penalties that have been accumulating at the rate of $100 a day for half a year, and were prompted by one of the fires that Gillespie had reference. Sparks said that such fines are a tool that the city can use when dealing with owners of buildings it deems to be “dangerous structures.”
Though it appeared that no action would be coming anytime soon, at least one member of the NCRA board of directors acknowledged that the agency had a problem on its hands. After examining photos of the inside of the building that had passed out by Eureka staff, Humboldt County Supervisor Estelle Fennell — one of two Humboldt representatives on the railroad board — said she had immense sympathy for firefighters forced to work in such conditions.
“The idea of crawling around the floor of this disgusting mess nauseates me,” Fennell said.
The beef over the abandoned building was a sour note for a meeting that had started with a such a happy, positive presentation. The cities of Eureka and Arcata and the County of Humboldt gave an update on the state of the Humboldt Bay Trail, parts of which the NCRA has allowed to be constructed in its right-of-way.
The Eureka and Arcata segments of the line should be done by the end of the year, representatives told the board, but the four miles between those two systems — the gap between the Eureka Slough and Bracut — are going to take a lot longer, according to Hank Seeman, deputy director at Humboldt County’s Department of Public Works.
Several obstacles make that final stretch more difficult that the Eureka and Arcata segments of the line, Seeman said, including the more deteriorated condition of the railroad right-of-way, an ownership dispute and the bridge crossing over the Eureka Slough. All told, Seeman said, it will be at least “a few years” before the county is ready to break ground.
UPDATE, 4:53 p.m.: Estelle Fennell sends along a small statement to let us know what took place in closed session regarding the abandoned office building. She says:
We directed staff to work with Security National and City of Eureka to promptly develop a solution that results in addressing the public safety issue that exists at 4 West 2nd Street in Eureka.
Security National owns the land on which the building sits.
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Location of the abandoned railroad office building that the city of Eureka wants torn down.