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Sonoma 2016: The stories of the year


One thing Sonoma has – other than wine, of course – is history. From the time in 1823 when Father José Altimira sketched out plans for the northernmost Spanish mission in California’s Jesuit necklace, the Sonoma Story has grown like a grapevine year after year – its tendrils wending into agriculture and military history, down train tracks and raceways, from the stone castle we call City Hall to chicken coops on the edge of town.

The year just ending was no different: rife with controversy and accomplishment. Here are 10 stories that made a lasting impression in the year that past – several of which we’ll surely be talking about well into the year ahead.

Market scans self

Any time a community market changes hands it’s news to the community; when it’s a market that’s been in business for 90 years it’s front-page newsworthy. Add a second market (and a second community), and the February sale of Sonoma Market and the Glen Ellen Village Market to Woodland-based chain Nugget Markets became the year’s first big story.

Reining in tourism

The Sonoma Valley lifestyle was on trial this past year as never before, with stubborn tussles over vacation rentals and winery events pitting new money against old traditions county-wide. The Board of Supervisors was the center ring for many such conflicts, with 1st District Supervisor standing alone against her four colleagues on several important votes that showed much of the county is less concerned about neighborhoods turning into party zones and tipsy drivers on remote roads than folks in the Valley of the Moon.

‘Housing crisis’ becomes official

The Housing Crisis was another story that hasn’t yet found a satisfactory resolution. As out-of-towners buy up second homes they may or may not ever use, rental rates skyrocket out of reach, and affordable living seems like a quaint conceit. Santa Rosa’s North Bay Organizing Project has been calling it a “crisis” for some time; in October, the Sonoma City Council agreed to place a moratorium on home-sharing services like Airbnb and VRBO, as even normally cautious councilmember David Cook began to call it a crisis, too.

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend

The Sonoma Stompers knew they’d have a hard time beating the newsworthiness of Sean Conroy, baseball’s first openly gay pitcher, tossing a two-hitter on Pride Night in 2015 – but the team pulled a hat trick in 2016. Not one, not two, but three women took the field for the home town team this year, including outfielder-pitcher Kelsie Whitmore and pitcher-infielder Stacy Piagno, who joined on June 1, and catcher Anna Kimbrell who was signed two weeks later. Throw in the first Asian-American pro ball manager, Takashi Miyoshi, and it added up to a championship season in the small but tough Pacific Association. What could they possibly do to beat all that in 2017? Stay tuned, the Stompers always surprise.

Voter referendum on the Toro 51618 Super Blower

Did someone say “leaf blower”? The issue of noisy landscaping machinery threatened to become a punch line for any story about Sonoma, as the City Council’s wrestling match with regulation vs. free enterprise stretched into its fourth year. In March, the Council finally passed a compromise regulation to ban gas-powered blowers, but allow electric – which was promptly contested by a petition demanding a public vote. With November’s razor-thin Yes on Measure V results – the ordinance was passed by 19 votes – the matter appears settled... right?

Changing face of city leadership

2016 turned out to be quite a year of change at City Hall. City Manager Carol Giovanatto announced her retirement in June, and a couple weeks later City Clerk Gay Johann also decided to step down. Then the November election saw two-term Councilmember Laurie Gallian fail in her bid for a third term, while newcomer Amy Harrington piled up a record number of votes for one of the two contested seat. With new City Clerk Rebekah Barr already on duty, and incoming City Manager Cathy Capriola warming up in the wings, 2017 is shaping up to be a new year indeed.

Schools to get 21st century funding

The November election also brought a chance to vote on a $120 million bond for the Sonoma Valley Unified School District to upgrade science labs, classrooms and school facilities. It passed comfortably with 70 percent of the vote, though only 55 percent was needed, but added to the burden that district property owners already shoulder with this third bond fee on their tax bills. Estimated cost per lot is $42.50 per $100,000 in assessed value. Some property owners may gripe about the added bond fees, but school officials say the revenue will help bring Valley schools into the 21st century.

Sonoma Music Festival unplugs

Last year it was Ringo Starr of the Beatles; this year it was… crickets. Longtime Doobie Brothers manager and part-time concert promoter Bruce Cohn had to pull the plug on the 30th year of his venerable music festival – most recently called the Sonoma Music Festival in its 2015 incarnation at Field of Dreams – when a competing event in Southern California sucked up all the local boomers’ ticket budgets. The Sonoma Music Festival’s lineup of John Fogarty, Steve Miller and country star Toby Keith, simply couldn’t compete with Desert Trip – aka “Oldchella” – and its roster of Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, the Who, Neil Young, and Nobel Prize-winning folkie Bob Dylan. Regardless, the resilient winemaker/band manager/event promoter Cohn is said to be working on something new – “He’s like a cat,” said a long-time friend.

Sparks fly over running Fourth of July parade

Another change came to Sonoma this year when the venerable Old Fashioned 4th of July Parade went shopping for new management. In March, the Sonoma Community Center announced that 2016 would be the SCC’s final year running the parade – citing the growing scope and complexity in producing an event that draws thousands to the downtown for a day of floats, patriotism, hot dogs and Bloody Marys, not necessarily in that order. After a few months of uncertainty, the Sonoma Volunteer Firefighters Association came to the rescue, absorbing the 54-year-old procession into the nonprofit’s already vigorous Independence Day commitment: they’ve been staging the evening’s fireworks display since 1972.

Alleged child abuse

Sonoma resident (Paul) Dwayne Kilgore was arrested on Aug. 27 after a Healdsburg Parkpoint Health Club member reported inappropriate behavior between Kilgore and two underage boys. He was widely known in Sonoma for having worked for several years at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley, and he “befriended” several young boys during that time. He is currently being held on $1 million bail and has yet to enter a plea. The I-T’s Lorna Sheridan has been investigating the story since it broke, and we will continue to keep close watch as the trial unfolds in the coming year.

What the heck... here’s No. 11

And what good is a Top Ten if we don’t turn it up to 11? On Sept. 10 a “Springs Celebration” marked the completion of the Highway 12 project from Fetters through Agua Caliente and Boyes Hot Springs to Verano, too long a troubled stretch of narrow highway without sidewalks, bike lanes or thriving businesses. But the community endured, from the time the upgrade was first proposed over 25 years ago through at least four district supervisors, culminating with Susan Gorin cutting the ribbon and leading a march down Highway 12 past Rico Martin’s once-controversial murals to Larson Park for a day-long party.

What big stories loom at the New Year’s horizon? Will the Wine Country Half Marathon have legs? And, of course, what changes are coming to the Tuesday Night Farmers Market? Newly legalized recreation cannabis might sneak into the headlines, and then there are multiple development projects in the works… Check back in another 12 months and we’ll see where we stand after Year 193 of the Sonoma Story.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.