Water was the watchword for Cambria in 2014: Residents, indeed, spent much of the year watching — and waiting — for water. With the North Coast still mired in a persistent drought and fears that the area might run out of water, eyes turned to the skies in search of rain.
The deepening water shortage and the community’s response to it topped the news for the year. It led to the closure of public toilets, herculean conservation efforts across the North Coast and a controversy involving, of all people, flamboyant pop star Lady Gaga.
Cambria Community Services District directors declared a Stage 3 water emergency (the most severe level possible) last January, and soon thereafter Cambrians responded by saving huge amounts of water. Residents’ 44 percent savings in June compared with the year-earlier period was more than twice the 20 percent that Gov. Jerry Brown had urged.
But even with those efforts, officials said Cambria risked running out of water before rains arrived.
With this in mind, the CCSD board pressed forward with plans for an emergency water project on San Simeon Creek, a water-reclamation effort that generated plenty of controversy as it changed in scope and cost as the year progressed.
It was the defining issue not just for the community at large, but for an election that saw the champions of the project prevail in a contested November election.
The cost of the project, which in April was pegged at $3 million to $5 million, rose to more than $9 million — to the dismay of opponents who accused the board of “bait-and-switch” tactics.
To help pay for the project, the board adopted a rate increase after a protest failed to halt the action: Opponents submitted 800 valid protest letters to the county clerk, which amounted to 20 percent of the district’s 3,938 customers, far short of the 50 percent-plus-one vote they needed. The increases varied by account type and usage, but most residential customers saw their bimonthly water rate increase to $85.02 from $48.02
The CCSD board applied for a $3.75 million state grant to help offset some of the water-supply project’s cost and got some bad news when the state denied the grant — part of a larger $12.1 million application meant to fund five county projects — because of a “paperwork glitch.” But the disappointment turned first to relief when the grant was reconsidered, then to excitement when one of the five projects was withdrawn and a second was tabled, allowing Cambria to actually receive more money than it had applied for: $4.38 million.
As the year drew to a close, the project had not yet been turned on. It had been scheduled to go online Dec. 22, but was delayed by paperwork and financial concerns. As of that date, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board had yet to issue a permit necessary to allow the plant to begin operating.
Other big news stories of 2014:
Voters returned CCSD incumbents Jim Bahringer and Michael Thompson to office with substantial pluralities after a campaign in which water was nearly the sole focus.
Bahringer and Thompson each collected more than 29 percent of the vote, while challengers Jeff Hellman and Richard Hawley each garnered 20 percent. The remainder went to write-in candidates.
Thompson and Bahringer both campaigned as champions of the $9 million emergency water project on San Simeon Creek.
“I think it definitely was a referendum (on the project), and the town clearly is supportive, and the board can move forward with that knowledge,” Thompson said in an interview after the election.
Hellman, who said he’s open to running again in the future, said his campaign suffered because he was characterized as opposing the project, even though he supported it, with some qualifications.
“Being affiliated with people that were opponents of the board’s made it appear that I was against the project, when that wasn’t the case,” he said. “What’s the truth? This campaign taught me one thing: It can be very hard to discern.”
In other election news, Coast Unified School District Board incumbent Del Clegg easily won re-election, and challenger Lesli Murdoch of Cambria edged out Cayucos resident Michael Foster for the seat vacated by retiring trustee Dianne Brooke.
Murdoch, who ran with Clegg’s support, said afterward she’s looking forward to serving on the board. Among her ideas is setting up a specific classroom at each campus site dedicated to helping English learners.
“I’m excited to be working not with the kids anymore, but for the kids,” said Murdoch, who spent 13 years working as a school “lunch lady” in the district. “My main goal, I do believe, is to get more help for our English language (learner) students, so they … don’t have to sit there and be frustrated with the rest of the group and hold up the other kids.”
Coast goes Gaga
Of all the places you might expect to find a wildly successful pop star drinking and dancing the night away, Cambria is probably pretty far down the list. But, in February, Lady Gaga showed up at the Cambria Ale House with her entourage after filming scenes for the video for her single “G.U.Y.” at Hearst Castle.
Gaga’s visit to the Castle in February was not without controversy, especially since it involved refilling the 345,000-gallon outdoor Neptune Pool — which had just recently been drained in response to the drought-caused water shortage.
Gaga paid handsomely for the privilege: On top of the standard $22,000-plus-expenses event fee, she agreed to donate $250,000 to the Hearst Castle Preservation Foundation and contribute $25,000 to the Cambria Community Services District for a water study. The pop star also filmed a public service video on water conservation.
Gov. Jerry Brown wrote a letter to Gaga thanking her for the help. Hearst Corporation Vice President Steve Hearst donated the water to refill the pool and said it wasn’t actually “spent” on the video project — simply stored in a different location and ultimately used to irrigate Castle landscaping as originally intended.
Still, the move to refill the pool was controversial in some quarters, with opponents arguing that it sent the wrong message during the drought.
State Parks Superintendent Nick Franco was put on paid administrative leave after the filming, although no explanation for the move was given for what was termed “an ongoing personnel matter.” He returned to work two weeks later.
Castle’s new royalty
Mary Levkoff took over as Hearst Castle’s director in the fall. Levkoff, 61, already knew she wanted to be there well before the job opened: She had purchased a home in Cambria during Labor Day weekend in 2011.
“I loved Hearst Castle, and Cambria was the Magic Kingdom and Brigadoon,” she said in an interview with The Cambrian after receiving the position.
But her experience stretched far beyond the Central Coast and, indeed, around the world. Levkoff took her formal curatorial training at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and had lectured about the Castle for nearly 20 years, beginning with a 1995 program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) where she was curator of European sculpture from 1989 to 2009.
Levkoff has also lectured at The Loevre in Paris and has published numerous papers, including studies in the French Renaissance, a catalog of the LACMA’s 19th-century European sculpture and a paper on Hearst’s Spanish art. Her book “Hearst the Collector” won Sotheby’s 2011 prize for distinguished publication in the history of collecting.
Victoria “Vicki” Schumacher took the reins at Coast Unified as the district’s superintendent July 1, moving to Cambria after working as an assistant superintendent in San Bernardino County.
Schumacher, who earned her doctorate in education at UCLA, said she wants to emphasize core subjects — English, science, history and math — but also stress technology, the visual and performing arts (she’s a singer), world languages, career technical education, athletics and “the need to be active. In the 21st century, we need to be tech savvy,” she said. “And it’s really important to have more than one language.”
Schumacher, 52, began her career as a teacher and later served as an assistant principal, principal, director of assessment and assistant superintendent.
She was hired at an annual salary of $148,000 plus benefits. She replaced Chris Adams, who left the district in September to take a state-level job in Sacramento.
Main Street bridge work Cambria got a new Main Street Bridge across Santa Rosa Creek in October, when the $3.2 million, two-year project opened to traffic. It replaced a span that had been in place for 92 years.
The new bridge features two 12-foot-wide traffic lanes and a pair of 5-foot-wide lanes for bicycles and pedestrians.
The cast-in-place concrete bridge spans the creek, with no in-stream pillars to trap debris, allowing more space for floodwaters to flow underneath.
During the seven weeks when the new bridge was being constructed, traffic on Main Street was rerouted through town, with no access to downtown from the south via the street, which is also old (or business) Highway 1. The new bridge opened Oct. 17.
Cayucos Pier project
The historic Cayucos Pier had seen better days. So much better, in fact, that it was closed in July 2013 for safety reasons after the structure was found to be heavily damaged: some cross bracing was severely deteriorated, as were some piles — many of them had rotted from the inside and others were missing altogether.
Machelle Vieux, deputy director of the San Luis Obispo County’s General Services Agency, warned that a strong winter storm could cause the pier to collapse.
Residents, however, rallied to the cause and raised more than $500,000 to pay for the repairs.
The county, meanwhile, spent $557,670 to stabilize the structure on an emergency basis, and two state agencies kicked in an additional $1.5 million for repairs. County supervisors approved a contract in September authorizing Associated Pacific Constructors of Morro Bay to rebuild the seaward two-thirds of the pier and perform additional repairs. Cost of the work, which is underway: $1.7 million.
• Developers hoping to build a senior living project in Cambria withdrew their application for the Kingston Bay Senior Living project in October. Plans for a 33-room facility on 1.3 acres at Green Street and Ardath Drive were pulled two days before an appeal of the county’s permit was to have gone before the California Coastal Commission. Principal partner Jeffrey King of Fresno said he hoped to resubmit the application.
• The one-block town of Harmony got a new owner in July, when members of the Mehdizadeh family of Los Angeles sold the 2.5-acre property after 17 years. The buyers were Alan (a Cal Poly graduate) and Rebecca Vander Horst. The purchase price was not disclosed.
• Bert Etling, editor of The Cambrian for nearly 14 years, left in July to take a job as editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings in Oregon. Etling, 56, guided the newspaper to a General Excellence Award in its division from the California Newspaper Publishers Association in 2013, along with dozens of other state-level awards and three national honors.