We know. You’re happy 2016 is over. It was a train wreck in general, although we’re glad there wasn’t an actual railroad accident that blew up an oil train in SLO County (some people are definitely worried that could happen). Donald Trump will be our president next year (as one New Times reader put it: “Trump won. Get over it.”), and recreational marijuana is legal in California.
And if you think things aren’t going to get any weirder than that, maybe you should hold your tongue until next December. The best way to kick this year out the door is probably to reflect on all we’re leaving behind and what will follow us into 2017. It was tough to pick the top 10 news stories that came out of this county—so much can happen in 52 weeks—but here are the ones that grabbed the newsroom’s attention this year.
- FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL POLY
- RIGHTS FIGHT: Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong walked with students in a march organized by SLO Solidarity, after the student group’s leader received a death threat from a peer.
10: Cal Poly diversity woes and faculty strikes
Fed-up Cal Poly students went to war with their university administration this year after successive incidents of peer-to-peer racism and hate rocked the campus community in the winter. Students formed an activist group, SLO Solidarity, and demanded the university be held accountable to a more hospitable environment for underrepresented students. The efforts of SLO Solidarity led to new policies that aim to tackle diversity and inclusivity at Cal Poly, the least diverse four-year public college in California.
But some students opposed those efforts. In the heat of the contentious election season, the Cal Poly College Republicans Club invited “alt-right” figure Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus in January 2017—igniting controversy across SLO County.
Students weren’t the only ones fighting the man this year. Cal Poly faculty members also went to battle with their higher-ups, demanding better salaries after a decade of wage stagnation. The California Faculty Association and the California State University system locked horns for months, which culminated in a planned statewide faculty strike in April during Cal Poly’s Open House weekend. But just days before the strike, CSU Chancellor Timothy White blinked, and he offered the faculty the 5 percent raise they asked for.
- FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- SMOKY SUMMER: The Chimney Fire by Lake Nacimiento burned 49 homes and more than 46,000 acres of North San Luis Obispo County in August.
9: Summer wildfires scorch Central Coast
An epic stint of wildfires over the summer devastated 565,070 acres of drought-stricken California. Two of those wildfires dominated headlines here in SLO County—starting in July when the Soberanes Fire broke out near Big Sur and, then, a few weeks later, when the Chimney Fire took hold at Lake Nacimiento.
- FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- LOVING EMBRACE: Beth Quaintance from the Salvation Army delivered snacks and hugs to Roxanne Howard and her 6-day-old baby, Xander Earl, at the Red Cross Shelter set up at Flamson Middle School in Paso Robles while the Chimney Fire burned in August.
Thousands of weary firefighters from across the state were called to the makeshift command center at the Paso Robles Mid-State Fairgrounds to fight the Chimney Fire. The blaze befuddled firefighters—behaving unpredictably with shifting winds—and at one point it came within 2 miles of Hearst Castle. When all was said and done, the Chimney Fire incinerated more than 46,000 acres between Paso Robles and San Simeon, destroying 49 homes. The blaze followed a nearly identical path to that of 1960’s Weferling Fire, the last fire to come through the Lake Nacimiento area.
Up in Monterey County, the Soberanes Fire burned for nearly three months through 132,127 acres of rugged Los Padres National Forest and Ventana Wilderness, destroyed more than 50 homes, and killed one bulldozer operator. The Soberanes Fire stands as one of the most expensive firefighting efforts in U.S. history—costing us $229 million.
8: Water basins under pressure
The movement to comply with California’s State Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) didn’t get very far for the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin and the folks who overly it. But, it’s not like nobody tried.
In March, years of effort, almost $1 million, and polarizing political discourse culminated in disappointment for some, when voters rejected the formation of a basin-wide management district, as well as the taxes that would have paid for it.
- FILE PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
- RESOURCE MANAGEMENT: Dana Merrill was an early proponent for the Paso water district that residents voted down earlier this year. The area only has a few more months to come up with a plan B to manage the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.
Now, residents who pull from the basin (which is “severely over-drafted,” according to the state) only have a few more months to form a district if they want to have a voice at the table that will eventually manage the basin.
SGMA requires the formation of groundwater sustainability agencies—a coalition of stakeholders, such as the future Paso water district(s) and SLO County—by June 2017 to come up with sustainability plans to manage the state’s overdrafted basins by 2020.
Ranchers, farmers, and residents who pull from the Cuyama Groundwater Basin were in a similar situation but voted to form a water district in September. They are now in the process of actually forming that district as well as creating the sustainability agency.
There are currently proposals for two new districts being circulated east of Paso Robles, the 77,000 acre Shandon-San Juan Water District and the 100,000 acre Estrella-El Pomar-Creston Water District.
- FILE PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
- TARP PROBS: Hundreds of marijuana grows, like this one, sprung up in the California Valley over the summer, causing SLO County supervisors to pass an urgency ordinance banning future grows.
7: Spotlight on the California Valley
People only pay attention to the California Valley when something is going wrong—at least that’s the sentiment many area residents expressed to New Times.
Using that sentiment as a guideline, 2016 was an unfortunate one for the remote valley. Tarp-enclosed plots of marijuana started propagating on once-empty parcels of residential land in March/April of this year. Upwards of 200 grows took root in a few months, concerning residents and the SLO County Sheriff’s Office. The Board of Supervisors passed an urgency ordinance to stop any future grows from proliferating.
The California Valley Community Services District (CVCSD) shut off direct access to its water spigots, which some residents had been using for decades as a water source, because of the number of marijuana growers who had started using the free resource.
The SLO County District Attorney’s Office levied multiple election fraud charges against two members of the CVCSD’s board of directors, Lisa Marrone and Misty May Lambert. Although a judge dismissed Marrone’s case, Lambert’s case is scheduled for a preliminary hearing in January.
On top of that, there was a deep divide on the CVCSD’s board that stymied progress on the things it was tasked with taking care of—roads and trash—for the small community. Residents showed their dissatisfaction with the board by voting out all three incumbents (including Marrone and Lambert) whose seats were up for grabs in the 2016 election.
- FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- NOT IN MY HOUSE: Former SLO Mayor Jan Marx faced intense criticism over her role in developing the Rental Housing Inspection Program, which could be repealed in 2017.
6: Rental housing inspections rock SLO city
Yes, the SLO Rental Housing Inspection Ordinance became law in 2015—but the staunch opposition to it really hit a climax in 2016. The expensive, bold, and controversial city policy requiring that all rental homes and duplexes be inspected for health and safety code violations became a focal point of the local election season as it faced escalating opposition from landlords, (some) renters, and constitutionalists alike.
The highlights: In August, SLO City Councilmember Dan Carpenter began collecting signatures in his quest to repeal the program via petition. In October, a group of landlords sued the city calling the policy invasive and discriminatory. In November, Jan Marx, the three-term SLO mayor and a leading voice for the program, lost her re-election bid to challenger Heidi Harmon. Out on the campaign trail, not one City Council candidate except Marx held a favorable position on the program. As a result of the election, it’s expected to be repealed or heavily amended next year.
5: Marijuana on SLO County’s mind
When it comes to Californian’s ever-evolving attitudes toward marijuana, SLO County was all over the place in 2016.
- FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- GREEN ACRES: Even before California voters passed a ballot measure to legalize marijuana, SLO County was grappling with how to handle the changing landscape of recreational and medical pot.
Various cities and the county itself all attempted to address the issues of how to handle cultivation and sales of medical and—in anticipation of the passage of Proposition 64—recreational marijuana.
After New Times reported that the remote California Valley was home to an estimated 200 marijuana grow operations and SLO County Sheriff Ian Parkinson pressured local lawmakers, the SLO County Board of Supervisors rushed to pass a county-wide urgency ordinance. The ordinance allowed existing marijuana cultivators to continue their operations as long as they registered their sites with the county within 45 days, and it banned any new indoor or outdoor grows that exceed six plants per patient for up to five patients. As of the Nov. 18 deadline, 417 marijuana cultivators have submitted applications to register their grows.
Meanwhile, SLO County cities have also been taking up the issue and passing various ordinances. Grover Beach residents passed a ballot measure that will allow the city to tax medical and recreational marijuana cultivation and sales. The city is also working on an ordinance that will allow the licensing for commercial cultivation and other businesses like dispensaries. Arroyo Grande passed an ordinance that will allow up to three medical marijuana delivery services to operate within in the city, and it’s taking applications.
Pismo Beach adopted a temporary ban on the outdoor cultivation, manufacturing, laboratory testing, labeling, storing, and wholesale distribution or retail of cannabis in November. The Paso Robles City Council voted in October to ban all commercial marijuana cultivation and recreational sales.
4: Controversy 2016 (AKA, the election)
While reality television star Donald Trump was elected to the nation’s highest office in what many considered an upset, nearly 49 percent of SLO County voters chose Hillary Clinton. It wasn’t the only divisive race that SLO County voters decided on, though.
- FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- ROCK THE VOTE: SLO County voters turned out in record numbers to make their voices heard in a controversial election year on the national, state, and local level. Left to right, new SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon and new City Council members Andy Pease and Aaron Gomez were sworn into office in December.
After an expensive and competitive race, Democrat Salud Carbajal beat Justin Fareed in a bid for the open 24th District U.S. House of Representatives seat. While Carbajal won the district, SLO County voters chose Fareed, who garnered 51.5 percent of the vote. In the race for 35th District State Assembly seat Katcho Achadjian retired from, SLO voters chose Republican Jordan Cunningham, who won the entire district by 54.7 percent.
Local election results were a mixed bag. Conservative strategist John Peschong was elected to the open 1st District seat on the SLO County Board of Supervisors, while incumbent Adam Hill retained his seat as 3rd District supervisor. In a nail-biting finish that wasn’t decided until weeks after the election, Heidi Harmon defeated incumbent SLO Mayor Jan Marx by just 47 votes. Incumbent mayors retained their seats in Grover Beach, Arroyo Grande, and Atascadero.
When it came to local ballot measures, voters approved school bonds for the Lucia Mar, Shandon, and Paso Robles school districts. A proposed countywide transportation tax, known as Measure J, failed by a narrow margin. Voters in Grover Beach passed a measure to tax the sale and commercial cultivation of medical and recreational marijuana.
3: Oaks trees and outrage
When news spread in June that Justin Vineyards and Winery had cleared 375 acres of forested land and graded the side of a hill on its property outside of Paso Robles to plant some grape vines and install an irrigation reservoir, the anger that followed was about more than the loss of a swath of oak trees.
- FILE PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
- JUSTIN SCREWS UP: It was oak trees versus vineyards this year when the county found out that Justin Vineyards and Winery had leveled a swath of native trees and graded land on one of its properties.
It was about soil erosion and potential water loss, the impact all that destruction would have on neighbors, and how it was allowed to happen. But it was also about outsiders—rich ones with a history of resource abuse.
Environmentalists and viticulturalists formed an unlikely alliance pushing for a native tree ordinance to ensure people like Lynda and Stewart Resnick (owners of The Wonderful Company—Fiji Water, Justin Vineyards, and POM Wonderful) wouldn’t be able to abuse the county’s resources again.
The Resnicks made national headlines for the debacle in SLO County, but it was only the latest in a series of news stories detailing alleged resource abuse on different parcels of agricultural land they owned in California. New Times also discovered that Justin had clear-cut 100 acres of native trees five years ago.
The SLO County Board of Supervisors passed an urgency ordinance banning native tree clear-cutting and eliminated the loophole that enabled landowners to install large irrigation reservoirs without county oversight.
The uproar caused Justin to halt the vineyard project and promise to donate the land and get it restored. Although there are rumors of negotiations, that promise has yet to be fulfilled.
- FILE PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
- OIL!: Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider speaks at a protest against the Phillips 66 Rail Spur project outside of the San Luis Obispo County courthouse earlier this year. She ran for Lois Capps’ 24th District seat in the House of Representatives, but lost in the primary.
2: No Phillips 66 rail spur, Maybe
This year marked a major development for oil giant Phillips 66’s controversial plans to build a rail spur at its refinery on the Nipomo Mesa.
After multiple lengthy public hearings that brought out crowds of protesters, the SLO County Planning Commission voted 3-2 to deny the project.
The project would allow the company to deliver crude oil by rail to the refinery. If passed, the company could bring in three 80-train cars per week. Opponents of the measure—which include local residents, as well as activists and government officials from SLO County and other California cities—argued that the project would increase the risk of severe damage to the environment, health, and safety of the SLO County due to the possibility of spills, derailments, and explosions.
“How can you ignore the actual pleas of our neighboring representatives who represent more than 10 million,” Commissioner Eric Meyer said in an impassioned statement shortly before the vote.
But the battle over the project is far from over. Phillips 66 not only appealed the Planning Commission’s denial to the SLO County Board of Supervisors, it also filed a legal petition against SLO County in superior court. The petition, which has not been resolved, asked the court to require the Planning Commission to reconsider its denial of the project. Phillips 66 has also asked any appeal hearings before the Board of Supervisors be stayed until the court makes its decision.
1: Goodbye Diablo
One of the biggest stories of 2016 came as a shock to many SLO County residents. In June, PG&E suddenly announced that it would not seek relicensing for the two reactors operating at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, effectively shutting down the plant by 2025.
- FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- DECOMISSIONED: PG&E announced plans to shut down the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant beginning in 2025.
Since it began operating in the 1980s, the plant has been a magnet for controversy, drawing protest from anti-nuclear groups. But it also provided jobs and pumped nearly a billion dollars of revenue into the county annually.
Even after the announcement, the company has a long way to go before the plant actually shuts down. First, the California Public Utilities Commission must approve PG&E’s proposal to shut the plant down as part of an ongoing rate case. In the wake of the announcement, six local municipalities, SLO County, and the San Luis Coastal Unified School District raised concerns over the economic impact of the plant’s closing. In December, the company upped the amount of a package to offset those losses from $49.9-million to $85 million.
The CPUC could reach a decision on the closure of the plant by the end of 2017. Even after the plant shuts down in 2025, the decommissioning process could take up to 20 years, according to PG&E officials.
PG&E has said it plans to replace the output of the nuclear plant with a portfolio of renewable, greenhouse-gas-free energy production.
After a year of investigation, there is still no definitive answer for how high levels of a toxic solvent showed up in wells in the Buckley Road area.
The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board has been conducting an investigation into how the industrial solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, got into ground water in amounts above the EPA guidelines. To date, the board has tested 67 supply wells, and found that 13 had TCE levels exceeding the EPA’s drinking water standards.
The contamination was first brought to light in December of 2015, and the investigation into the source has been going on ever since. Some suspected the nearby San Luis Obispo County regional airport might be to blame for the contamination, but after testing soil, gas, and groundwater samples, investigators announced that they believed the airport was not the source. They have now moved on to the industrial areas near the contamination and have issued letters to three businesses on nearby Thread Lane, requiring them to submit plans for further testing by January 2017.
Cambria CSD goes for permanent water
Crafty or shady?
The Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) is working on turning what was originally termed an emergency water facility into a long-term water source for the community of 6,000. The $9-million facility, permitted by SLO County in 2014 under a drought emergency permit, treats brackish water (a mix of fresh and salt water) and pumps it into the groundwater. Ever since, community members have unceasingly fought over whether the CSD is scheming to dupe regulatory agencies into lifting a building moratorium that’s been in place in Cambria for years—or whether it just makes sense to have it in place for the long haul.
In September, the CCSD released a long-awaited draft environmental impact report for the facility that’s been viewed critically by agencies like the California Coastal Commission. It remains to be seen whether Cambria’s “Sustainable Water Facility” has the legs to get through the permitting process, so stayed tuned for 2017.