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A courtroom battle has played out for the past 18 months, pitting the Napa Valley Expo against a model train group suing to block its eviction from the fairgrounds after nearly half a century in residence.

The Napa Valley Expo board of directors met June 25 in closed session to discuss the lawsuit. No decision was reached, according to Expo CEO Joe Anderson. The board will next meet at 10 a.m. Tuesday, July 23, at the directors’ house on the Expo fairgrounds, 575 Third St. in Napa.

The model railroaders’ group sued the 25th District Agricultural Association to block its eviction, saying the plan would illegally jump-start renovation of the fairgrounds without the required environmental study.

The case remains in Napa County Superior Court, and the model train society has continued hosting open houses, with its next one from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, July 20 on the Expo grounds. The trains will be running and admission is free, according to the group’s website, nvmrc.org.

Two-story building

In January, the Expo’s board of directors turned aside a Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society claim that the building housing the miniature train layout has historic value.

The Napa train society argues tearing down its building – a two-story structure attached to a pair of Quonset huts – would illegally launch the fairgrounds overhaul without performing site studies required by the California Environmental Quality Act.

In rejecting the society’s claim of historic protection, the Expo cited a 68-page study by the Sebastopol-based historic preservation consultancy Evans & De Shazo Inc., which studied the history both of the fairground building and the 1/87-scale railroad and diorama it houses to determine whether they meet the standards for inclusion in the California Register of Historic Places.

The building “does not appear to be associated with any events or patterns of development that are significant in local, state or national history,” the report’s authors stated. Furthermore, the structure’s construction carries no particular architectural style or historic form, the study added.

Draft master plan

In 2017, the Napa Valley Expo board voted not to renew a below-market-rent lease for the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society, which has operated at the fairgrounds since September 1970. A draft master plan to overhaul the Expo grounds calls for converting the site of the clubhouse into a covered pavilion and parking area that would host the Junior Livestock Auction, a centerpiece of the annual Town & Country Fair in August.

The draft master plan also called for the removal of a number of buildings on the fairgrounds, including those damaged by the August 2014 earthquake: Cabernet Hall, the grandstands and the nonprofit food booths. The plan also recommended repairs to Riesling Hall.

According to the master plan, it “is intended to provide both ‘big picture’ planning and practical management strategies that can guide day-to-day decisions, operations and long-term implementation of the Napa Valley’s Expo and Mission.”

To successfully fulfill its mission and vision, the board “must upgrade existing, relevant facilities; remove limiting and currently irrelevant facilities; and construct new facilities that respond to the needs of the Napa community,” according to the master plan.

GoFundMe page

According to model railroaders’ website, the “lawsuit will be expensive, but it is in the community interest, as expressed by the overwhelming wishes of Napa citizens, to require the Expo Board to follow the law that protects the Model Railroad.”

In the past year and a half, the model railroad group has been raising funds to pay for legal and associated costs to keep the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society open and in its current location.

As of last week, 199 people had contributed $7,940 of its $30,000 goal, through a GoFundMe page.

The website states, “If any funds are raised in excess of those costs, they will first be used for physical repairs or upgrades and then for expenses involved in continued free visitor access to this exceptional resource.”

Again from the website:

“The mission of the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society is to represent and interpret to the public the agricultural and industrial heritage of the Napa Valley region through the use of a 4,600 square foot scale model railroad exhibit at the Napa Valley Exposition Fairgrounds. The organization is dedicated to providing a welcoming environment where disciplines in railroad operating practices, miniaturization, electrical engineering, computer programming, mechanical engineering, landscape artistry, regional history and economics can be learned and shared with the public in a multi-generational setting.

“The layout occupies a 3600 square foot “L” shaped room. With a 1,600 square foot second floor serving as a meeting area, library, and workshop.

“The general concept of the Napa Valley Northern is of a railroad line running from Napa north through Lake County, with northbound connections to Portland, and southbound connections to Stockton. The layout has over 1,500 feet of track. The time period is from 1940 to present. The observer will see various types of prototype and freelance rail equipment and buildings around the layout. Because of space limitations, areas are not reproduced in their exact geographical configurations.

“The Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society was formed in 1955 for the purposes of constructing an HO Scale layout and to advance the hobby of model railroading in the Napa Valley and surrounding areas. The Society was incorporated in 1966.

“We have had several layouts in various locations, settling in our current home at the Napa Valley Expo in 1970 when fair management donated two Quonset structures and a two-story 40-foot by 40-foot building was built by our members connecting them.”

Register reporter Howard Yune contributed to this report.

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St. Helena Star Editor

David Stoneberg is the editor of the St. Helena Star, an award-winning weekly newspaper. Prior to joining the Star in 2006, he worked for the Lake County Record-Bee, the Clear Lake Observer American, the Middletown Times Star, The Weekly Calistogan and st