Looking back at SLO County's top 10 stories of 2013

Tribune staff picks the ongoing depletion of the Paso Robles groundwater basin as the top story of this past year

newsroom@thetribunenews.comDecember 30, 2013 

The year 2013 brought with it an upswing in the economy; the recession feels well and truly behind us, home prices are increasing and construction projects are picking up steam.

San Luis Obispo County residents’ view of the past 12 months will vary depending on their address. Those hailing from Los Osos, for example, have dealt with torn-up streets, delays and detours as work on the massive sewer project remains in full swing.

In Atascadero, residents celebrated the 100-year anniversary of becoming a colony with special dedications and events.

In Cayucos, most of the aging pier is off-limits as work to temporarily stabilize the structure started this month.

Residents countywide, but particularly in Nipomo, mourned the death of Supervisor Paul Teixeira in June. Arroyo Grande Councilwoman Caren Ray was appointed to fill his seat; whether she’ll keep it in 2014 may be a story for next year’s Top 10 list.

As the year 2013 winds down, staffers at The Tribune debated and ranked the top 10 stories of the year. Rather than rehash them in lengthy articles, we chose to present them in bite-size morsels to enjoy as you prepare to ring in the New Year.

Without further ado, in descending order, here is our list:

No. 10: Cyclists in the news

While statistics released in 2013 showed San Luis Obispo to be the seventh most dangerous California city for bicyclists, a deadly accident in Morro Bay revealed the risk wasn’t limited to the county seat.

In September, Jessica Goddard was driving to work — still under the influence from partying the night before — when she slammed into two bicyclists riding on Highway 1. Alan Stephens, of Los Osos, was killed in the crash. Bradley Cummins, also of Los Osos, suffered major injuries.

While Goddard was sentenced to 11 years and eight months in prison, bicyclists complained that another stretch of Highway 1 near Cambria provided different dangers.

After Caltrans resurfaced 20 miles of the scenic roadway with chip seal, a treatment that uses larger, less expensive rocks, cycling enthusiasts said it was rougher, uneven and dangerous. In October, Caltrans applied a sand seal treatment over that — part of a $1.5 million effort — but bicyclists said the road was still too rough.

Caltrans said the surface would improve over time as traffic tamps down the surface.

No. 9: Pangas on local shores

Panga boats have become an increasing problem in San Luis Obispo County as drugs, believed to come mostly from Mexico, are delivered under the cloak of night and picked up to be distributed to other areas of the state or as far away as the Midwest.

While the first panga boat was found along the county coastline in May 2012, six boats were found this year: in May, July, September, twice in October and again in December.

Most boats were abandoned, but in May, 14 adults and one juvenile were arrested after a panga boat was found on the beach at Montaña de Oro State Park. Authorities also found 53 bales of marijuana.

Then in October, 18 people were arrested and 144 bales of marijuana estimated to be worth $2.7 million were seized by law enforcement officers. The smuggling operation involved a motor home, two vans, a car and a panga boat found near San Simeon.

Most recently, authorities found a panga boat on Dec. 23 that smugglers abandoned on the beach along with 204 bales of marijuana weighing 3,570 pounds.

No. 8: Cal Poly makes headlines

A November party held by a Cal Poly fraternity that many considered offensive to women and Native Americans ignited controversy, launched a university investigation, and inspired a forum attended by several hundred people.

A controversy of another sort revolved around a proposal of a 1,475-bed freshman dormitory on a parking lot near San Luis Obispo residences.

The Nov. 16 off-campus “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” party elicited a formal complaint that it was “culturally insensitive, sexist, and offensive.” At the gathering, men wore Colonial-era costumes and the women wore sexually explicit Native American-themed attire.

Cal Poly said no campus policies were violated, but President Jeff Armstrong called the behavior “deplorable” and announced the university will survey students in February about on-campus perceptions of diversity issues and create a program to enhance the campus climate for better inclusivity. The university already hired a curriculum specialist to incorporate diversity and inclusivity into instruction.

To address the dorm proposal, the university held public meetings in November and December, which some residents said came too late in the planning process. Residents said they fear more noise, trash and public urination in their neighborhoods if the housing is built on a parking lot near the Grand Avenue campus entrance.

No. 7: Tragic murder trials

In a year that included an unusual number of murder trials in San Luis Obispo County, the trial of Rhonda Wisto and her son, Frank York, was the most anticipated and closely watched. After nearly three years of legal maneuvering, the trial, which involved five defendants, gag orders and at-times heart-wrenching courtroom drama, revealed the grim facts behind the murder of Dystiny Myers.

The 15-year-old Santa Maria girl’s burned body was found in a hastily dug pit in rural Santa Margarita in September 2010. Wisto, a meth dealer from Nipomo, had ordered the killing because she felt Myers had disrespected her.

Three other defendants — Ty Hill, Cody Miller and Jason Greenwell — all entered guilty pleas in exchange for life sentences, but only Greenwell agreed to testify for the prosecution. Both Wisto and York were convicted and given life sentences.

Other murder trials included defendants John Woody, convicted of murdering a stranger, Martin McWilliams, at a Paso Robles Laundromat; Christopher Shumey, convicted of shooting his mother to death outside his San Luis Obispo home; and Armando Yepez, convicted of killing 17-year-old Gabriel Salgado in a random drive-by-shooting in Oceano. Brandon Henslee was convicted of murdering his half brother, Tyler Hanks, in Cambria, and most recently Jerad Cross was convicted of second-degree murder for a DUI accident that killed Richard Gamez.

No. 6: Changing energy sources

San Luis Obispo County is turning away from energy powered by fossil fuels and toward a future powered by renewable energy.

Dynegy, the owners of the antiquated Morro Bay Power Plant, announced their intention to shut down the plant permanently in February. Many questions remain about the future of the prime real estate on which the plant sits.

Meanwhile, one of two commercial solar plants on the Carrizo Plain is fully operational. The other is expected to be completed in 2014.

Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant continues to operate but faces questions about how to meet expensive state requirements to change its cooling system to lessen environmental impacts on sea life, as well as opposition to onsite storage of its highly radioactive used reactor fuel.

The county Board of Supervisors has considered how the area would be impacted economically if Diablo Canyon were to decide not to renew its licenses in 2024 and 2025.

No. 5: Bank robberies escalate

San Luis Obispo County reached its highest number of bank robberies in a decade, with 12 robberies reported at banks countywide, including Atascadero, Cambria and San Luis Obispo.

A bank-robbing spree by a woman nicknamed the Central Coast Bandit, and later alleged to be Cristina Fernandez Padilla, who was arrested, pushed up the total. Authorities believe Padilla is responsible for six bank robberies in San Luis Obispo, Monterey and Stanislaus counties since December 2012.

No. 4: Morro Bay ousts employees

A shakeup on the Morro Bay City Council led to the forced resignations of two longtime city employees: City Attorney Rob Schultz and City Manager Andrea Lueker.

A 3-2 council majority that took office in December 2012 pushed to remove Schultz and Lueker. Mayor Jamie Irons and council members Christine Johnson and Noah Smukler cited employee confidentiality as the reason for not telling the public why they wanted the pair gone.

Under pressure, Schultz resigned in November from the position he held since 1997 and was replaced on an interim basis by Anne Russell. Schultz received about $116,000 for nine months of pay plus $4,081 for holiday pay, $4,500 for unused sick leave and $38,698 for 531 hours of vacation.

Lueker resigned in December after working for the city since 1987, moving up the ranks from lifeguard to director of parks and recreation, assistant city manager and finally taking over as city manager since 2007.

She received about $116,000 in severance equal to nine months of salary. She also received $1,756 in holiday pay, $4,500 in sick leave and $31,076 in unused vacation compensation. Susan Slayton, the city’s administrative services director, has taken over as acting city manager.

No. 3: Homeless needs unmet

The growing number of homeless in San Luis Obispo County has continued to outpace services. The number of homeless youth alone is enough to fill an entire elementary school. The needs are many: a detoxification center for people struggling with drug addiction, a larger shelter, tougher police enforcement on transients breaking laws, and more affordable housing.

Yet, some services have been lost. The South County People’s Kitchen in Grover Beach stopped serving meals after complaints by some residents led the Grover Beach City Council to deny the organization’s request for a permit to continue operating. The 5Cities Homeless Coalition is still searching for a community services center location.

The Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County has agreed to take the lead on a new homeless services campus in San Luis Obispo, but the center originally planned for South Higuera Street became a controversial and political battle. A permanent location is still being sought.

No. 2: Development recovers

The wheels of development are slowly beginning to spin again throughout the county.

In San Luis Obispo, a broad mix of residential and commercial projects is lined up for approval. Two separate residential projects totaling 355 homes are proposed for the Orcutt area at the city’s southern edge.

In addition, commercial plans include a new hotel, a bed-and-breakfast, and office and retail space proposed throughout the city. Preliminary plans also are being circulated for potential development of the 131-acre Dalidio Ranch off Madonna Road.

In Paso Robles, the Beechwood development would add 963 residences and about 5 acres of commercial development off Creston Road and Beechwood Drive.

Several projects have gained approval in Pismo Beach, including a hotel and residential development off Oak Park Boulevard. But city leaders sent back a plan to annex and develop 961 acres off Price Canyon Road, to the relief of some residents.

No. 1: Paso groundwater woes

With its water levels dropping dramatically in recent years, the Paso Robles groundwater basin sparked heated debate about the role of agriculture, specifically wine-grape growers, in hastening the aquifer’s precipitous decline.

Some homeowners dependent on the basin found that their wells had gone dry, and local vineyard owners became increasingly concerned about their ability to sustain a booming wine industry.

In response to the crisis, North County residents urged the county to adopt a two-year ordinance prohibiting new pumping from the basin unless offset by an equal amount of water conservation. Several property-owner groups have filed lawsuits challenging that ordinance.

Meanwhile, the county, as well as two stakeholder groups, is working to establish a water district, through special state legislation, to manage the basin.

Tribune staff writers Cynthia Lambert, AnnMarie Cornejo, David Sneed, Julie Lynem, Patrick Pemberton and Nick Wilson contributed to this report.

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