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Last stop: Following legal battle, Napa model train group departs Expo after 51 years

A model railroad group’s battle to stay at the Napa Valley Expo has reached the end of the line — and with it, more than half a century of building and exhibiting its elaborate scale-model trains in downtown Napa.

The Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society has departed the state-owned fairground in downtown Napa, after battling Expo directors over its lease for more than three years.

The Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society on Friday was completing more than two months of dismantling the 1/87th-scale diorama of trains, villages, hills, and switching equipment at the Expo, ahead of the state-owned authority’s 11:59 p.m. deadline to leave the Third Street fairground after 51 years.

Expo board members confirmed the closure in a news release Thursday, as did Wayne Monger, president of the nonprofit model train society.

The departure ends a 3 ½-year clash between the rail enthusiasts’ group and the Expo that erupted when the fair authority declined to extend the train society’s $180-a-month lease beyond the end of 2017. Expo directors have sought to replace the 4,600-square-foot train display — housed in a pair of Quonset huts since 1970 — with a covered pavilion to host the annual Junior Livestock Auction, part of a proposed master plan to overhaul and modernize the fairground.

Members of the model rail group had sued to block their forced departure, arguing the eviction was an illegal maneuver to make the Expo’s redevelopment a reality without a state-required environmental study. But the model rail society ran into setbacks in court — including a state appeals judge’s January ruling that model train supporters could no longer sue the fair authority for attempted eviction because of a revised lease agreement in 2018, which collapsed after a month when the rail group stopped paying the increased monthly rent of $2,000.

The Expo’s statement on the closure steered clear of mentioning the courtroom clash with model train mavens, instead focusing on its effort to revive fairs, music concerts and other events halted by the coronavirus pandemic since California imposed a shelter-at-home order in March 2020. In the months since, the fairground has instead been occupied by a drive-through COVID-19 testing center and a wintertime shelter that Napa County kept open through the pandemic to protect homeless people from exposure to the virus.

“We are looking forward to transitioning back to somewhat normal operations as we start to welcome back a host of community activities including bingo, a modified fair/carnival experience in June, the Junior Livestock Auction in July, the BottleRock Music Festival in September, and a variety of other events and private rentals of our facilities,” Joe Anderson, the Expo’s retired chief executive, said in the statement.

A Facebook message posted by the rail group foretold the end of the line at the Napa fairground.

“It is with a sad heart we must report that we have to close and vacate our building at the Napa Expo fairgrounds,” the March 28 message read. “It will be bulldozed! After almost four years fighting in court, the decision went against us. A complete explanation will follow. We do thank you for your support of our organization. We gave it a good fight.”

The model railroad group’s exit from the Napa fairground was well advanced by Friday morning, with its signage removed from the building and a flasher-equipped rail crossing marker taken down from outside the front door.

“We expect them to have the bulldozers here within two weeks,” Monger said while taking a final stroll inside, 13 hours before his group’s deadline to leave. “All this will be bulldozer food.”

After 60 days of dismantling by members of the rail society, little remained of the pocket-size train line except for yards of rails, spaghetti-like clumps of wiring, and the swaths of painted plaster of Paris that once stood in for hills and fields and cliff faces. Green hillsides were reduced to shards as if broken up by hammers; rails emerged from tunnels only to point directly into voids where whole sections of wooden platforms already had been pulled out.

“It’s sad, it really is,” said Monger. “You have four generations, 51 years, a very complex machine here. I estimate there’s 10 miles of wiring underneath this; the mechanical tolerances are fractions of a millimeter. Literally, this was a fully operational machine in its own right. This was the work of four generations of people.”

Founded in 1955 and hosted at the Yountville Veterans Home for much of its early history, the model railroad society found a permanent home in 1970 at the Expo, where enthusiasts created an ever-evolving miniature world not only of engines and boxcars but also tiny houses, cars, forests and mountains that melded into a tableau of small-town Northern California life. Enthusiasts showed off their craft during weekend open houses when spectators could watch the miniature trains rumble through likenesses of villages, rail trestles, and valleys —and perhaps be inspired to take up the hobby themselves.

However, the clubhouse’s future was thrown into doubt by a draft of the Expo’s master plan, which recommended replacing it with a relocated livestock pavilion and a parking lot. The change was one of several contemplated in the plan, which would replace both buildings torn down after the 2014 earthquake and structures that no longer meet modern safety codes.

Train enthusiasts decried the eviction as depriving young Napans of a lifetime hobby in a city where soaring rents have crowded out numerous non-tourism uses. “Just finding another place won’t be easy; in fact it may be impossible,” Daniel Jonas, a member of the rail society, told Expo trustees of the elaborate and fragile rail exhibit before the board voted in July 2017 to end the lease.

Two days before the lease’s expiration that December, the rail society sued the Expo in Alameda County. Expo directors filed their own motion less than two weeks later in Napa County Superior Court to enforce the termination of the lease.

A Napa judge in September 2019 denied the model train group’s petition to void the eviction, saying no environmental report was needed to close the rail exhibit because the master plan calling for its replacement was not yet approved — thus pushing any demolition or construction tied to the plan a decade or more into the future.

Later, the state’s 1st District Court of Appeal overturned the Napa ruling — but also quashed the railroad society’s efforts to fight its departure from the Expo.

When the Expo in 2018 offered a new lease that initially charged the rail group $1,000 a month — more than five times the old rent — the group paid the first month’s rent, but then refused further payments after the rent was doubled, according to documents in the court case.

However, that lease offer — unacceptable as it was to the rail group — wiped away the train society’s claim to be fighting against eviction, Judge Mark B. Simons said in a Jan. 20 decision.

“Although we understand the society to dispute the validity of the 2018 rent increases, the society does not explain how the 2017 lease termination has any continued legal effect or what practical effect an order requiring the Expo to formally rescind the 2017 termination could have, given that the Expo no longer relies on it,” Simons wrote at the time.

Meanwhile, the rail exhibit closed in June 2018, only to reopen three months later and continue operating until COVID-19 caused the closure of the fairground last spring. Directors also collected donations from model train hobbyists and supporters, and a Save NVMRHS page on the crowdfunding website showed $8,255 collected toward a $30,000 target as of Thursday night.

Although the model train society had not exhausted its legal appeals, Monger conceded his group faced an increasingly costly and uncertain path to victory, with no assurance that a higher court would accept its case.

“The one option we were given was that we could have taken an appeal to the state Supreme Court, but that would cost over $200,000 to do that, which was way beyond our means,” he said Thursday. “They only choose a tiny percentage of cases to rule on, so even if we did appeal, there was only a small chance that court would take it up.”

The nonprofit that has operated the model train exhibit will stay in existence during the search for a new display location, according to Monger, who predicted the group may pursue temporary small-scale displays to keep the hobby in the public eye.

Most rolling stock at the Expo was owned by group members and was reclaimed early in the process of vacating the Expo, and members also have removed sections of the diorama, often to meld into their own train collections, Monger said. However, about half of the rail backdrops cannot be relocated and will be left in place when the clubhouse closes for good.

On his final day inside the rail exhibit building, Monger chose to remember the personal connections forged by members over years of a passion shared with visitors and one another.

“It comes down to the people, the visitors, the public,” he said. “The fair and the open houses were the best part — having this operation and seeing the response from the residents of Napa County coming in here and reminiscing about how they grew up with it, how they brought their kids to it. It was that continuation of a community experience that’s going to be the most lasting memory.”

Visitors were quite happy to re-board the Napa Valley Wine Train on Monday May 17. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the excursion had been shut down for 14 months. Take a look inside.

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. 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.

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