From wildfires raging close to the town of Santa Margarita to a roof collapsing during an early morning party near Cal Poly, there was plenty of news throughout San Luis Obispo County in 2015.
The past 12 months did little to ease the ongoing severe drought in San Luis Obispo County, but residents are hoping El Niño brings some relief in early 2016.
As San Luis Obispo County prepares to ring in the New Year, Tribune staffers ranked the top 10 stories of the past 12 months.
In order of increasing importance, here is our list:
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No. 10: Las Pilitas quarry
Stiff public opposition, particularly from local residents, doomed plans in early 2015 to construct a rock quarry three miles northeast of Santa Margarita.
Called the Las Pilitas Quarry, the facility would have produced 500,000 tons of gravel a year to be used for a variety of purposes including landscaping and road construction. The applicants said the quarry would be a local supply of a vitally needed product.
However, residents objected to the fact that hundreds of trucks would rumble through Santa Margarita daily, posing a safety hazard and greatly reducing their quality of life.
No. 9: Steve Gesell out as SLO police chief
Three years into his tenure as SLO’s police chief, Steve Gesell was suddenly placed on administrative leave May 8, and by the end of the month, he had reached a settlement with the city to provide him a lump severance of $120,000.
City officials have never disclosed why Gesell was terminated, citing personnel confidentiality laws, but City Manager Katie Lichtig indicated the split came following philosophical differences between Gesell and city brass.
Gesell and the city had “fundamental differences about the appropriate roles and responsibilities of the police chief that interfered with their ability to effectively communicate and serve the city at the highest level,” Lichtig wrote in a news release.
Following his termination, Gesell said he would move back to Arizona, where he spent more than 20 years with the Scottsdale Police Department. At one point, he was considering a run against controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, he said.
On Dec. 4, the city announced it had made an offer of employment to Deanna Cantrell, a 21-year veteran of the police department in Mesa, Ariz., to be the new chief. Cantrell is scheduled to start work Jan. 4.
No. 8: Paso Robles groundwater basin
During 2015, meetings of San Luis Obispo County’s governmental bodies were dominated by the highly controversial question of whether a water management district should be formed for the Paso Robles groundwater basin.
On Nov. 10, the county Board of Supervisors voted to schedule for March 8 a series of three elections in which voters and property owners in the sprawling basin east of Paso Robles would vote whether to form the district, establish a parcel tax to generate $1 million annually to fund the district and choose nine people to serve on the district’s board of directors.
Supporters of the district say it is necessary to stabilize falling aquifer levels in the basin while critics say the district is a needless and expensive new layer of government. Also, a new state law requires state water regulators to step in if local government agencies fail to adequately manage a troubled basin.
No. 7: Shark encounters
Elinor Dempsey hadn’t even caught her first wave of the day Aug. 29 when she saw a grayish figure approach her board just under the water’s surface.
Minutes later, she found herself surrounded by a crowd of people on the beach in Morro Bay, the onlookers gaping at the 13½-inch chunk missing from her longboard. In what turned out to be a sharky summer — perhaps fueled by unusually warm ocean temperatures — Dempsey had the most dramatic shark encounter. (Kevin Swanson of Morro Bay had been bitten by a shark at the end of 2014 while surfing at Montaña de Oro.)
While she was unhurt in the incident, Tribune photos of the 54-year-old Los Osos resident and her disfigured surfboard were carried by news outlets worldwide, and Dempsey appeared on national television.
After an examination of the bite, Ralph Collier, with the Shark Research Committee, concluded the animal that bit Dempsey’s board was an 11- to 12-foot great white. Collier predicted the territorial shark would hang around the area near Morro Strand Park for a while — which proved true. Credible shark sightings were reported there for several weeks after Dempsey’s encounter.
While Dempsey was shaken by the incident, she returned to the water roughly a month later with a board donated by her employer, TransUnion.
A shark in the South County also garnered considerable attention in August. Using a drone, a tourist from Bakersfield captured video of a 10-foot shark trolling near surfers in Oceano. That video has garnered more than 2.5 million views on YouTube.
No. 6: Haggen opens, closes
If you blinked, you might have missed it.
Haggen officially took over six San Luis Obispo County stores in April, but less than three months later, the Washington-based grocery chain, facing stiff competition in the Southern California market, announced it would lay off an undetermined number of workers from its California, Nevada and Arizona stores, including many in San Luis Obispo County.
In August, the chain announced it would close its Los Osos store, as part of an effort to downsize the company and “streamline operations.” By September, the grocery chain had filed for bankruptcy protection, allowing it to fend off creditors while figuring out a plan to repay debts, and said it would close all 127 of its stores in California, Nevada and Arizona.
Several of the stores in San Luis Obispo County were bought as part of a purchase agreement with Smart & Final, though the locations in Los Osos, Arroyo Grande and on Foothill Boulevard in San Luis Obispo are still unclaimed.
The company is going through bankruptcy proceedings and selling off its remaining assets, including 32 remaining stores in Oregon and Washington.
No. 5: Isaac Lindsey injured
In a story that was equal parts tragic and heartwarming, the high school football community and thousands on the Central Coast rallied together following the devastating injury of Templeton High School football player Isaac Lindsey in September.
Lindsey suffered a traumatic brain injury during a Sept. 18 game against San Luis Obispo High School and was later diagnosed with secondary impact syndrome, a type of brain injury that occurs when a person suffers a second concussion before a previous (in this case unknown) concussion is fully healed.
The life of the 17-year-old junior who played fullback and on the defensive line was saved, according to his family, thanks to the Templeton athletic trainer, first responders and a neurosurgeon who performed two brain surgeries. After the injury, Lindsey spent a week in a medically induced coma in critical condition at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center before being transferred to a rehab facility in San Jose.
Ninety-five days after his initial injury, Lindsey returned home to his family on Dec. 22 to a hero’s welcome, just in time for Christmas.
In the three months since the injury, supporters have donated more than $100,000 to the family to help Isaac’s recovery costs by purchasing “Team Isaac” stickers and T-shirts and giving to a GoFundMe.com page set up in his name. Teams of all sports at San Luis Obispo County high schools wore the No. 32, Lindsey’s jersey number, as a show of support during and before games.
Lindsey will continue to rehab his mind and body at local facilities, and although he will likely never play football again, he is expected to have a role on the team next season. His road to recovery has inspired everyone who knows his story.
No. 4: San Gabriel Elementary threat
Some worried parents kept their kids home from school after threatening letters and a suspicious object — later identified as a candle holder containing sodium ferrocyanide — were found at San Gabriel Elementary on Sept. 11.
The Atascadero Unified School District closed the campus and relocated the school’s 570 students to other schools for two weeks.
Letters found outside classrooms instructed officials to “play a game,” similar to the popular “Saw” horror film franchise. In one letter, the person instructed teachers to locate different sets of keys, some for classrooms and some for padlocks left on school gates.
He will face 25 counts of making criminal threats, two counts of threatening to use a weapon of mass destruction, two counts of felony attempted criminal threats and two counts of second-degree burglary, all felonies.
No. 3: Wildfires
Thousands of acres of tinder-dry vegetation and numerous structures burned in two large wildfires over the summer, both located near the town of Santa Margarita.
The Park Hill Fire started June 20 when a vehicle ejected a hot chunk of carbon from an exhaust pipe, igniting grass along Las Pilitas Road east of Santa Margarita. The flames spread quickly in the Park Hill Road and Las Pilitas Road area.
It was fully contained June 24, burning 1,791 acres and destroying two homes, four mobile homes, two recreational vehicles used as primary residences, 10 outbuildings and seven vehicles, including a boat and trailer.
The Cuesta Fire started Aug. 16 when a vehicle traveling up the Cuesta Grade sparked three separate fires, which jumped over the ridge and marched toward the town of Santa Margarita. An estimated 350 homes south of the railroad tracks that cut through the community were evacuated Aug. 17, but firefighters lit backfires and stopped the blaze from reaching the town.
The 2,446-acre fire was finally contained Aug. 28.
No. 2: Cal Poly protests and parties
Party-related misconduct and political unrest about inclusivity and tolerance of minorities at Cal Poly created a challenging year for university officials.
Cal Poly was thrust into the national spotlight because of student involvement in a roof collapse at an off-campus home where a wild “St. Fratty’s Day” partying occurred.
Tipped off by social media posts, an estimated 3,000 people gathered along Hathway Avenue to celebrate in the early morning of March 7. At least eight people were injured when a garage roof collapsed with more than 50 people on it, leading to university discussions about how to best manage out-of-control behavior and partying.
The roof collapse came during a period in which Cal Poly had banned Greek parties in the wake of three sexual assault reports, and out-of-control partying, at fraternity events last academic year.
In recent weeks, student advocacy urging a more tolerant and inclusive campus resulted in protests over racist and anti-transgender comments on a “Free Speech Wall” and a death threat against a leader of a group called SLO Solidarity.
The SLO Solidarity group has demanded that Cal Poly make several policy, infrastructure and programming changes to create a more welcoming environment for minorities. Cal Poly is weighing its options while promising change will take place.
No. 1: The drought
The impacts of the fourth year of California’s drought have hit the Central Coast hard. Laguna Lake in San Luis Obispo saw its fish die and then its water dry up, Lopez Lake in Arroyo Grande is now 28 percent full, and Nacimiento Lake is 17 percent of capacity.
In April, Gov. Jerry Brown issued a mandate that California communities reduce water usage by 25 percent over 2013 consumption.
Cities countywide sought ways to cut back, each month measuring their totals — all exceeding their water conservation goals in August.
In October, Central Coast communities reported a 25.1 percent conservation rate, higher than statewide savings. In October, average residential water use in the county ranged from 47.8 gallons per person per day in the Cambria Community Services District to 119.6 gallons per person per day in the Nipomo Community Services District.
Los Osos Community Services District limited residents to 50 gallons of water per person per day.
Meanwhile, all signs are pointing to a year ahead of heavy rainfall with the anticipation of the El Niño weather pattern.
Storm models have shown that this rainy season could produce more precipitation than the El Niño downpours of 1982-1983 and 1997-1998, according to John Lindsey, a PG&E meteorologist.
Tribune staff writers Matt Fountain, Travis Gibson, Kaytlyn Leslie, Cynthia Lambert, Patrick S. Pemberton, David Sneed and Nick Wilson and Opinion Editor Stephanie Finucane contributed to this report.
A few noteworthy events did not make the Top 10 list.
Skate park: After nearly a decade, San Luis Obispo skateboarders, scooter riders and inline skaters finally got the skate park they had long desired when the new 15,500-square-foot, $2.2 million San Luis Obispo Skate Park opened to great fanfare Feb. 28. The story may not have made the Top 10, but it was big news to the local skateboarding community, which had lobbied the city for years to update the decrepit wooden skate ramps at Santa Rosa Park into a modern park.
Frank Mecham: In March, North County Supervisor Frank Mecham announced that he would not seek re-election when his second term expires at the end of 2016. His retirement could mean a significant change in the makeup of the Board of Supervisors. In recent years, Mecham has served as a pivotal swing vote on many contentious issues facing the county between liberal supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill on one side and conservative supervisors Lynn Compton and Debbie Arnold on the other.
Medical marijuana: Medical marijuana rose to the forefront of most local government agencies’ minds in 2015, with an unsuccessful bid to build the county’s first brick-and-mortar dispensary in Nipomo, moves to ban mobile dispensaries from operating within city limits and a last-minute scramble to draft ordinances banning medical marijuana cultivation before an accidental deadline placed all licensing control with the state. 2016 promises even more high times for the issue, as many experts expect a recreational marijuana initiative will appear on the ballot.