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Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society

A model of the Napa Valley Wine Train travels the tracks at the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society's exhibit in February 2018.

As the courtroom fight between the Napa Valley Expo and a model railroad society enters its second year, another battlefield has emerged – over whether the train group’s exhibit merits protection as a historic resource.

The Expo’s board of directors on Tuesday turned aside a claim by the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society that the building housing its elaborate miniature train layout, which opened in 1970 at the Expo’s Third Street fairground, has historic value that requires an environmental study before fair directors can evict the group.

Rail enthusiasts’ attempt to protect their train showcase on cultural grounds is the latest twist in a conflict that began in 2017, when the Expo board declined to renew the society’s lease past the end of the year. The train group sued that December to block its eviction, and the case remains in Alameda County Superior Court.

Directors of the state-owned Expo seek to remove the model railroad building to make room for an overhaul of the 32-acre fairground property. A draft master plan calls for the model train site to become a parking area that would serve a new covered pavilion for the Junior Livestock Auction, one of the most popular events at the Town & Country Fair.

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

The model railroad group was founded in 1955 and assembled its first layout in Yountville before creating smaller, portable exhibits at various Napa sites followed by a larger one at the Yountville Veterans Home’s Madison Hall, according to the Evans & De Shazo report. Later, the train society won approval to build a permanent exhibit at the Expo, which opened in September 1970.

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.

Members of the train society have described the Napa exhibit as a mix of rail-related scenes from Napa County and other parts of Northern California. Nonetheless, the report denied that the display had inspired any “particular advancements in the model railroad industry,” or in model railroad form, landscape design or technology.

Dan Jonas, president of the model rail society, criticized the process by which the report was made, saying the Expo did not notify him or the group’s historian to learn more about the background of the society or its building.

“The report was done surreptitiously, and you need to go back and re-evaluate what’s been done. The report is incomplete as currently designed,” he said, adding that the study also failed to account for the group’s work curating and researching its train exhibits.

Since taking the Expo to court, rail group members have continued to meet and hold exhibitions in the Napa building despite the eviction order. The exhibit shut down in June 2018 and postponed its public events, only to reopen in early September.

Earlier, inspections of the miniature train showcase arranged by Cal Fire and the state Fairs Financing Authority led to reports asserting problems with electrical safety and fireproofing, as well as weaknesses in the foundation and structure. Jonas, the group president, alleged “inaccuracies” in those reports at the time but declined to say which points the group believed were untrue.

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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.