Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society

The Napa Valley Expo authorized two inspections earlier this month of the building that houses Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society train exhibit, which has been based at the Third Street fairground since 1970. Fair authorities and the train group are battling court over a lease the Expo declined to extend past the end of 2017.

J.L. Sousa, Register file photo

As model train enthusiasts battle the Napa Valley Expo to stay at the fairground they have called home for nearly half a century, fair directors have asked inspections to decide whether the club’s building is fit for occupancy.

Expo officials opened the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society’s building on the Third Street fairground to inspectors Jan. 12 and again Jan. 18, according to John Dunbar, president of the fair’s board of directors.

A Cal Fire inspector went to the clubhouse during the first visit at the state-owned Expo grounds and an independent structural engineer was on hand for the second, said Dunbar, whose board last year voted to end the rail society’s lease Dec. 31 after 47 years.

Reports on the condition of the rail building – an L-shaped 4,600-square-foot exhibit built from two Quonset huts – are pending and could show whether “condemnation or remedial action” are needed, he told board members at their meeting Tuesday morning.

Afterward, the model rail group’s president, Dan Jonas, dismissed the prospect of condemning the train exhibit as simply another front in the legal fight, despite the Expo board’s assertions the building has issues with fire safety and code compliance. The rail society is suing to block the lease expiration and has not dismantled its train display.

Following the meeting, he led a spectator and a reporter on a tour of the 1/87-scale layout, whose tracks, railcars, backdrops and switching equipment remain in place and functioning more than three weeks after the order to leave.

Directors of the train society have remained publicly confident enough in their chances to keep inviting schoolchildren and other visitors to their exhibit. After a recent visit by students from Alta Heights Elementary School, Jonas recalled, “I got a letter from a third-grader who said, ‘I think the Expo should leave and you should stay!’”

Board members have called the departure of the train exhibit a necessary step toward carrying out a major makeover of the Expo property, using a master plan that would place parking at the clubhouse site to serve an open-sided pavilion that would be built to house the Junior Livestock Auction at the annual Town & Country Fair. The project also would create new exhibition and office space, in part to replace buildings that were torn down due to damage from the 2014 earthquake.

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Changes at the 34-acre facility would play out over 10 to 15 years, at an estimated cost of $65 million.

For the past month, the Expo and model railroad society have traded court filings, with the fairground seeking to enforce the eviction and the rail group arguing the removal of the building illegally jump-starts the Expo’s makeover without a state-required environmental review. (A draft of the renovation plan was released in January 2017 but has not yet been approved by the fair board.)

Miniature railroading has been a mainstay of the state-owned Napa fairground since the group opened its exhibit there in 1970. However, the Expo board voted in July not to extend the rail group’s lease past year’s end, citing its future plans to reuse the site as well as the below-market rent of $180 a month.

On Dec. 29 – two days before the deadline to leave the Expo – the model rail society sued in Alameda County Superior Court to halt the eviction. Fairground directors responded four days later with an “unlawful detainer” action in Napa court seeking to uphold the eviction, but the rail group made its own motion Jan. 10 in Napa to dismiss the Expo’s filing and allow the Alameda court to decide the matter.

Steps taken by Expo officials such as seeking to remove the rail exhibition building – and planting a fresh lawn ahead of last May’s BottleRock music festival – require an environmental impact report in advance or else amount to illegal construction, said Jonas, repeating arguments made in the group’s court filings.

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.