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Top Ten Stories of 2013

During the 12 months of 2013, Sonoma Valley saw numerous changes. The county’s board of supervisors decided to fund the long awaited Highway 12 project, there were two large and destructive structure fires, the controversy over patient care and potential closure at SDC is still perking, Sonoma residents were at odds as to whether or not hotels with 25 or more rooms should be built and the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center found a home. The Index-Tribune was there all year, capturing and recording the major issues facing the Valley and its residents. Here are the top 10 most significant stories of the year as decided by the I-T editorial staff. 

1. Supervisors fund Highway 12 project

After Phase II of the Highway 12 project was shelved when the county’s Redevelopment Agency was dissolved in February 2012, the county struggled to find a way to fund the project that had taken decades for planning and approval, and that includes sidewalks, streetlights, left-hand turn lanes and gutters and curbs from Boyes Boulevard to Agua Caliente Road. Phase I, from Encinas Lane to Boyes Boulevard was completed three years ago.

The county even filed suit against the state, in a case that it won in August. But the state is expected to file an appeal against the judgment, so in May the county’s board of supervisors decided to use some of the money it was receiving from the state that formerly went to the Redevelopment Agency, to finish the Highway 12 project. With about $2.2 million in bond money and an additional $5.3 million or so in new money, the county will finish the project. It is expected that the county will call for bids sometime in the first part of 2014, start construction by mid-year and be complete by mid-2015.


2. SVH completes new surgical wing

It was a long road to get there – but on Nov. 16, Sonoma Valley Hospital celebrated the opening of its brand-new, $46 million, seismically safe and state law-compliant ER and surgical wing.

Like more than half of California’s hospitals, Sonoma Valley Hospital found out its three wings did not meet tough new state seismic standards following the Northridge quake of 1994. That incident had prompted state legislators to require all hospitals to meet the new building codes – and SVH was on the hook.

What followed was a series of engineering reports, abandoned plans, failed ballot measures, extended deadlines and, finally, a means for SVH to meet its obligations on site: a one-time exception allowing SVH to move forward in a design-build process. A final, $11 million, just-completed capital campaign made the plan a reality.


3. Ongoing drought

Sonoma County has been contending with one of the driest years – and possibly the driest year, ever – on record, and that has farmers and Sonoma County Water Agency officials scrambling.

This is the driest calendar year on record in the upper Russian River watershed, agency officials say, which is why they’re asking the State Water Resources Control Board for permission to alter their normal management of Lake Mendocino, which impounds water critical to both humans and endangered coho and steelhead. Other proposals, including requests for water conservation among consumers, are in the works.

Meanwhile, in Sonoma Valley, some farmers are cutting their losses as normally green, even flooded pastureland remains dry and bare. As a result, feed supplies are plummeting as prices skyrocket.

“I’ve been working in ag in this area on the North Coast for the last 15 years or so, and I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar.


4. Public Votes on Hotel Measure

In a public vote that generated intense passion but may have raised more questions than it answered about how Sonoma should evolve, a measure to limit future hotels to no more than 25 rooms without an unprecedented 80 percent occupancy rate in all city lodgings, was narrowly defeated.

The Hotel Limitation Measure was intended to stop the feared invasion of “large” hotels, although both the definition of “large” and the reality of an invasion were subject to fierce debate.

What was clear was that, in a special election dominated by mail-in ballots, and in which only 61 percent of registered voters participated, neither side was able to register a mandate and the margin of victory by the anti-Measure B side was a modest 124 votes.

That meant the real issues – how much tourism is too much tourism, and can the public trust elected and appointed officials to safeguard the city – remain to be answered.


5. The Future of SDC

Wracked by scandal over inadequate patient care and lapses in security, the Sonoma Developmental Center – the Valley’s largest employer with a staff of more than 1,000 – found itself under constant scrutiny in 2013. But that harsh gaze and the judgment that followed, which led to a loss of federal accreditation and the withdrawal of millions of federal dollars – was only a modest issue compared to the ultimate fate of a facility built to house and care for as many as 5,000 developmentally disabled citizens, that now is home to fewer than 500.

While battles were fought over the secretive style of state management, and the sensational cases of patient abuse, the larger question was whether and how the facility would survive at all.

While patient abuses made easy headlines, the underlying reality of SDC was a haven from the outside world for society’s most vulnerable and helpless members, cared for, by-and-large, by a dedicated and caring staff with resources and skills many observers argued are available nowhere else.

On the other side of that argument was a decades-long movement to transfer residents into comparatively small group homes and ultimately close all the state’s large developmental facilities.

A multi-member task force of stakeholders reached more or less that conclusion in December, although recommendations did emerge to salvage the facility’s 1,200-acre campus for other productive purposes, rather than simply sell it as surplus state property.


6. Health center finds new home

For about the past eight years, the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center has been searching for a new home as it has outgrown its rabbit-hutch of offices on West Napa Street. A couple of years back, the center received a $5 million grant for a new facility, but had a limited amount of time to use the money and hadn’t found a fully suitable site.

Earlier this year, the health center, which had been looking at a property on Highway 12 near the Sonoma Charter School, pulled out of that site at the last minute, in part it was later revealed, because a better location, with a building already erected, had become available across from Maxwell Village shopping center at 19270 Sonoma Highway.

The new site, which is due to open sometime in the spring, will greatly increase the amount of services the health center can offer, including the Valley’s first permanent dental clinic to address the needs of children and expecting mothers.

The need for new digs became even more important with the launch of the Affordable Care Act, which will greatly increase the number of residents with health insurance, thus increasing the health center’s patient volume.

After a fast campaign to raise $1.2 million in order to close escrow, the center also launched a three-year capital campaign to raise an additional $3.8 million to cover project costs.


7. Schellville fire

Sunday, Sept. 8, was looking like another hot, fall day in the Valley, with temperatures expected to reach the mid-90s. It was a quiet afternoon until a roaring fire broke loose a little after 1 p.m. along Fremont Drive, almost directly across from the Schell-Vista Fire Station. A tow-truck dragging a chain caused sparking that went into the tinder-dry fields along the side the road. From a small grass fire, it spread into a massive blaze that eventually took more than 180 fire personnel some seven hours to contain.

The fires ignited propane tanks, including a large one that exploded with a boom and sent a fireball hundreds of feet in the air. The fire spread to several businesses along Fremont, including a pallet factory, and an auto, boat and RV storage facility. Fire crews were putting out hot spots until mid-morning on Monday. The initial estimate of the damage was in excess of $1.5 million.


8. Father Crews resigns

Father John Crews, the revered, longtime executive director of Hanna Boys Center, who would have celebrated his 29th Hanna anniversary this summer, resigned in February following allegations of a single act of sexual misconduct dating back to the early 1970s.

The accusation was made following the death of a Sebastopol man who was related in some fashion to the person who allegedly notified diocese authorities. The alleged victim never filed a complaint and the source of the accusation has never been identified. A brief police inquiry concluded that the only possible witness was also the alleged victim and he was dead.

Crews resignation was mourned deeply and widely, as if he had died. Students and staff, going back generations, wrote letters of support, echoing the sentiment that Hanna Boys Center, and Crews personally, had rescued and redeemed them.

Crews withdrew from public view and refused to publicly address the allegation. His defenders pointed out that never in his nearly 29 years at Hanna had a single complaint, allegation or rumor been voiced about inappropriate contact.


9. Fire razes Paul’s Resort

In the early morning hours of Thursday, March 7, Paul’s Resort, a 105-year-old building on West Verano Avenue, caught fire and was completely destroyed. The initial call came in at about 2:40 a.m. and when the first fire units arrived on scene, they found the structure fully involved in flames.

The fire started in the front of the long-vacant building and spread when it reached the attic.

All Sonoma Valley units were at the scene, along with engines from Schell-Vista and Glen Ellen. The building was originally owned by Paul Vannucchi, who ran it until he died in the 1940s. It was then purchased by Paul Marcucci, who ran it until he died in 1981, and it is still owned by Marcucci’s daughter, Yvonne Thibault.

The interior had been partially renovated for a surprise party the month before.

During the blaze, one fire official said that it wasn’t a question of if, but a question of when the wood-structure would burn. Fire investigators couldn’t pin down the cause of the fire.


10. City bans, unbans leaf blowers

One vote away from a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers – objects of rage to many Sonoma residents, objects of necessity to a community of landscapers and their allies – the Sonoma City Council reversed course after hours of testimony and staff research, and after then-mayor Ken Brown underwent an 11th-hour epiphany, and voted 3-2 not to approve an ordinance it had ordered city staff to prepare.

Brown’s reversal angered leaf blower opponents, especially novelist and screenwriter Darryl Ponicsan, who had waged an eight-month campaign to enact the ban, after years of frustration with leaf blowers tending the lawns on four sides of his backyard writing office.

But leaf blower advocates insisted banning the devices would drive some of them out of work, make landscaping more expensive and deprive homeowners of a service many of them want or need.

It was the second time in three years that the City Council took, or tried to take, some action on leaf blowers, previously voting to limit hours of operation and allowable decibel levels.

But even those modest reforms are seldom enforced, critics of the ban argued, and allowing continued use of electric leaf blowers, others insisted, didn’t go far enough.

Brown insisted his vote change of heart was sincere and not coerced, and that it came in response to his sympathies for the “working class.”