10 stories that captivated and defined SLO County in 2016

Good, bad or just plain ugly, 2016 was a year unlike any other.

The contentious election year has passions running high, with news featuring the weird (syrup-soaked belly buttons?), the enraging (goodbye, oak trees) and the somewhat surprising (who expected the Diablo Canyon closure?). Though much of the top news was prompted by public outrage or tragedy, we also got glimpses of the heroic — like the Grover Beach man who died saving his neighbor from a dog attack, or the firefighters who risked their lives to battle the treacherous Chimney Fire threatening parts of North County.

So before we move into a fresh year, let’s take a look back at the stories that captivated our attention and defined San Luis Obispo County in 2016.

10. A not-so-sweet syrup incident lands Paso Robles coach in hot water

The first item on the list is one that could just as easily have appeared under our weirdest news category.

Paso Robles High School football coach Rich Schimke came under fire after a video showed him pouring syrup into a player’s belly button during an impromptu postgame locker room celebration. What came next in the incident, which led to the coach being placed on paid administrative leave, is in dispute.

The mother of the player said that after pouring the syrup, Schimke leaned over and licked it while it was in her son’s belly button. Schimke’s attorney said the coach only pretended to lick the syrup.

After a school district investigation into the video, Schimke was reinstated as a teacher at Paso Robles High School, but he did not rejoin the team for the rest of the season.

9. Let’s talk about marijuana … again and again and again

This year saw all the cities in the county once again taking up a perennial debate: how to balance the push for more legalized marijuana with continuing concerns over public safety.

In late 2015 and early January, city officials rushed to ban medical marijuana deliveries and cultivation, saying a new state law regulating the industry would take away local control unless cities had existing rules on the book by March 1. (State lawmakers later clarified the language of the bill to remove the erroneous deadline.)

While most of the discussion early in the year centered on medical marijuana, by the end of the year, the talk had stretched to recreational (due in no small part to Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana in the state). Now officials are rushing to draft recreational marijuana ordinances defining the scope of marijuana-related businesses in their respective cities.

That is, all except Grover Beach, which saw the green writing on the wall back in July and successfully campaigned to have a marijuana tax instated in the city. This could mean huge potential revenue for the small beach city: Some estimated up to $2 million annually.

8. Grover Beach man killed in dog attack

On Dec. 13, David Fear, 64, stepped in to help protect his elderly neighbor, Betty Long, who was being attacked by two dogs roaming their Grover Beach neighborhood.

Four days later, Fear died from the critical injuries he sustained in the heroic rescue attempt. Long suffered a broken pelvis and shoulder and is now undergoing rehabilitation to relearn how to walk, relatives said.

Grover Beach officials said the dogs — a Belgian Malinois and a German shepherd — were owned by Grover Beach police officer Alex Geiger as pets. The Malinois was determined to be the primary aggressor and was euthanized; the other dog was quarantined while San Luis Obispo County Animal Services completed its investigation. The department forwarded its findings to the county District Attorney’s Office this week.

7. SLO County named one of country’s most unaffordable counties

Here’s news that didn’t surprise anyone (but that didn’t stop you from sharing it): San Luis Obispo County was named one of the most unaffordable places to live in the nation, based on average weekly wages and the cost of buying a home.

A survey released by RealtyTrac, a national real estate firm, ranked San Luis Obispo County as the sixth most unaffordable place to live in the United States, along with places like Kings County (home to Brooklyn, New York), Marin County, Santa Cruz County, San Francisco County and Maui County, Hawaii.

The report found that 90.4 percent of average weekly wages is needed to buy a median-priced home in San Luis Obispo County, compared with 84.5 percent in Monterey County and 72.4 percent in Santa Barbara County.

6. New lead suggests Kristin Smart could be buried near Cal Poly “P”

The 20th anniversary of Cal Poly freshman Kristin Smart’s disappearance came and went in May with no new breaks in one of San Luis Obispo’s most infamous cold cases.

But just four months later, police said they had a breakthrough: a new lead “strongly suggested” that Smart’s remains may had been buried on the hillside below the Cal Poly “P.”

Smart has been missing since Memorial Day weekend in 1996, when she was last seen walking back to her dorm after an off-campus party.

In September, the FBI and San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s officials began excavating the hillside, searching for Smart’s remains.

Sheriff Ian Parkinson said the campus dig was the result of a lead that was developed during a comprehensive review over the past two years by a new sheriff’s detective assigned to the case full time. Several “items of interest” were found during the excavation, including bones that were sent off to an FBI facility for examination. The Sheriff’s Office has yet to release the findings from the excavation.

5. Justin Vineyards chops down oak trees

Justin Vineyards came under fire this summer after cutting down thousands of old oak trees at a property on Sleepy Farm Road in rural Paso Robles.

The brand — which is owned by the Los Angeles-based, multinational Wonderful Co. — cut down trees and graded steep hillsides on a 380-acre property at 750 Sleepy Farm Road to make room for wine grape vines and a large agricultural pond. San Luis Obispo County officials issued a stop-work order in June.

Public outrage over the clear-cutting, including boycotts of Justin Vineyards wines, prompted county supervisors in July to enact an urgency ordinance that allows landowners to remove only a certain percentage of their oak canopies without a permit.

The company pledged to restore the land and donate it to a land conservancy or nonprofit organization.

4. Phillips 66’s oil-by-rail proposal denied by Planning Commission

To a standing ovation by opponents of Phillips 66 Co.’s oil-by-rail plan, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission voted Oct. 5 to reject the project that had gained statewide attention.

Phillips 66 had sought approval to build a 1.3-mile rail spur from its Nipomo Mesa refinery to the main rail line so it could receive crude oil by train. The refinery now gets its crude by pipeline. The proposal called for deliveries from three 80-car trains per week, with each train hauling about 2.2 million gallons of crude oil.

The proposal had pitted Phillips 66 and its supporters, who said the project was safe and would provide jobs, against residents and officials in cities on the rail line across the state who said they feared a derailment that could devastate their communities.

Phillips 66 has since filed an appeal of the decision to the Board of Supervisors. It also filed a petition in court asking it to direct the Planning Commission to set aside its findings for denial and reconsider the application.

3. Chimney Fire destroys homes, threatens Hearst Castle

What started as a small fire in the rural hills near Lake Nacimiento in August quickly grew to a massive blaze that threatened people, homes and even Hearst Castle.

The Chimney Fire burned 46,433 acres, destroyed 49 homes and 21 buildings and damaged eight other structures; at the height of the incident, close to 4,000 personnel from across the state were fighting the fire.

In mid-August, it blazed through the lakeside communities of Christmas Cove, Oak Shores, South Shore Village, Cal Shasta and Ranchos del Lago, prompting mass evacuations, destroying some homes and leaving others unmarked. Hot temperatures and strong winds stirred it into a fast-moving blaze heading directly toward Hearst Castle. Emergency crews quickly mobilized to protect the landmark, but the fire once again shifted direction, this time toward the less-populated northwest edge of the county.

The Chimney Fire was finally fully contained on Sept. 6, 24 days after it broke out. The cause is still under investigation, according to Cal Fire, though it was not believed to have been intentionally set.

2. The election

Politics dominated the local stage this year, as a contentious election cycle pitted veteran politicians against new faces, sparked complaints of online trolling among candidates, and ultimately saw the failure of a countywide tax measure that was heralded as a fix for the county’s transportation woes.

While most city councils reinstated incumbent members, at least one new face scored a big-time victory over an established local official: Heidi Harmon narrowly defeated longtime San Luis Obispo mayor Jan Marx by only 46 votes in the November election.

At the county level, reports of online trolling and ugly campaigning dominated the landscape for most of the year. Ultimately supervisors Adam Hill and Debbie Arnold retained their seats, to be joined by John Peschong for his first term on the board.

The biggest disappointment of 2016 for many local officials was likely the failure of Measure J, a sales tax aimed at making San Luis Obispo County a self-help county, which would make it easier to get funding from the state for transportation projects. The measure just barely missed the mark with 66.3 percent of the vote (it needed 66.67 to pass).

1. PG&E announces plans to close Diablo Canyon

It should come as no surprise that the biggest news of the year was PG&E’s decision to shutter Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

The utility announced in June that it would not seek re-licensing for its two nuclear reactors when they expire in 2024 and 2025. Closing Diablo Canyon will mean the end of an era in nuclear power in California. Diablo is the last nuclear power plant operating in the state, after the 2012 shutdown of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station south of San Clemente.

The closure is part of an agreement with labor and environmental organizations in which the utility agrees to increase investment in energy efficiency, renewable power and electricity storage to offset the power that will no longer be produced by the nuclear plant.

The closure will permanently change the local economy: Diablo Canyon employs nearly 1,500 workers and contributes more than $1 billion annually, according to the Economic Vitality Corp. It is San Luis Obispo County’s largest private industry employer, with an average annual salary of $157,000 in 2014, according to PG&E.

Beside the loss of jobs, several local agencies dependent on the utility for everything from property taxes to emergency service aid petitioned for more support from PG&E through the closure.

PG&E has since agreed to pay $85 million to seven local cities, San Luis Coastal Unified School District and San Luis Obispo County to support those agencies. In addition, the utility will pay between $37.5 million and $62.5 million for emergency planning efforts over the next 15 to 25 years.

PG&E’s application to close the plant is subject to approval by the California Public Utilities Commission. Hearings are expected to begin in 2017, with a decision mid-year.

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