The Cambrian

Looking back on a busy 2016 in Cambria

Foliage is seen regenerating at Tobacco Flats on Hearst Ranch after the Chimney Fire.
Foliage is seen regenerating at Tobacco Flats on Hearst Ranch after the Chimney Fire. Special to The Cambrian

As 2017 begins, we look back at some of the stories that captured readers’ attention in the past 12 months. The topics are listed alphabetically.


Some new North Coast businesses opened in 2016, changes were in store for others, and some entrepreneurs either sold their businesses or closed the doors. Some of the most notable changes included:

Centrally Grown, with its spectacular ocean view from the Exotic Garden Drive site, was closed from the start of the year until October, when the Black Cat Bistro took over operation of the restaurant, deli and store as the Centrally Grown at Off the Grid.

The former Rod and Reel mobile home park at 1460 Main St. had lain fallow for years when previous development plans were stalled by government regulations. Then, in July, the owners ordered demolition of the site’s 1950s-era house, cut off utilities and had a contractor begin removing/demolishing the remaining trailers. County code enforcement agents put a brief stop-work order on the job, because the owner didn’t have the proper permits. Later work along the Santa Rosa Creek bed triggered an investigation by state Fish and Wildlife wardens. Since late 2016, people with recreational vehicles have rented spaces there for $400 a month.

The Ragged Point Inn near the Monterey County line submitted plans for an extensive, multiphase, multiyear remodeling project of the resort. The project is estimated to cost at least $25 million. In December, the county granted a permit to redo an area of elderly employee housing trailers, but the rest of the project’s plans are still under review and being finalized.


Cambria Community Healthcare District trustees tangled loudly, vehemently, at great length and often in 2016, about issues as diverse as: the future of the district’s Main Street buildings; whom to appoint to fill a vacancy created by the sudden death of trustee Mike McLaughlin; a health care survey; if and how the district should encourage various hospitals and/or clinics to add medical facilities in Cambria; how the district should provide health care information to the public; and who should be able to post comments about the district on social media.

What will happen to the buildings is still a hot topic, with the board considering everything from repairs and remodeling to selling the property and relocating the ambulance and other operations.

Jerry Wood was appointed to fill the vacancy. In the election, former county supervisor Shirley Bianchi (who served on the board decades ago) defeated longtime trustee Kristi Jenkins, and voters re-elected incumbent trustee Barbara Bronson Gray.

The vote tallies were: Bronson Gray, 2,210; Bianchi, 2,072; Jenkins, 1,054; and Wood, 665. There were 21 write-in votes cast.

In December, the newly constituted board changed its monthly meetings to a new site (the Old Cambria Grammar School board room) and later to a new day of the month (most months, on the third Wednesday).


After an unsettled year, Cambria Fire Department has settled into its new staffing and revised, new/old routine.

When 2016 began, Cal Fire was managing the department on an interim basis, as it had since the July 2015 resignation of former CFD chief Mark Miller. The Cambria Community Services District oversees and funds the department, and after months of research, investigation and fervent public input, CSD directors finally decided unanimously in February to keep the department management in house rather than contracting with Cal Fire.

In March, Fire Engineer Emily Torlano became a permanent fire captain, after having held the post temporarily since October, and Tyson Hamilton was given the title of fire engineer on a permanent basis. In May, William Hollingsworth took on the chief’s position, after more than a decade as a fire captain with the department.

Ben Shank, Michael Castellanos and Ian Van Weerden Poelman were sworn as fulltime firefighters March 24, with their salaries being paid by a SAFER government grant for two years. Castellanos, Van Weerden Poelman and Michael Burkey were sworn in Dec. 17 as full-time fire engineers.

Chief Hollingsworth said Dec. 29 that he’ll add a new SAFER-funded firefighter Jan. 18 (promoting reservist Aaron Hunt). The chief also is in the midst of recruiting new reservists for the department.

The chief has ordered the department’s new 1,500-gpm Pierce fire engine, and expects it to be on line late this year. CSD directors authorized the $622,315.63 purchase in August, financing it with a five-year loan.


There were changes, too, in the rest of CCSD’s staff. In April, John Allchin joined the district as wastewater department supervisor. In mid-September, water department supervisor Justin Smith resigned suddenly, citing “demands placed on staff by members of the community, who feel as though it is their duty to act mulishly against the district and its staff” as a reason for his departure to a job with the county.

Later that month, Allchin took on interim management of the CSD’s Sustainable Water Facility, and got a 10 percent raise to cover the extra work. Jason Buhl was appointed

The district’s administrative staff also saw changes. Among the additions were Haley Dodson as administrative assistant and Carolyn Winfrey as assistant to district engineer Bob Gresens.

But the biggest CSD staffing uproar in 2016 was about a proposed raise for General Manager Jerry Gruber, who had requested a six-year contract with cumulative raises would have hiked his salary over that period to $221,984 from $160,808.

The item was pulled from the agenda at the start of the board’s April meeting.

In June, the board unanimously approved a vastly simplified proposal, one that raised Gruber’s annual wage to $170,456.48. The new contract “shall remain in effect for an indefinite term,” according to the agreement.


The CSD and its consultants continued work on several fronts toward getting permits to operate its reclaimed water facility at will from its current status as a plant permitted to operate only during a declared emergency.

The district has spent or authorized spending nearly $13 million on the plant and the process so far.

But the road to that end has been a bumpy one. It took more than a year for a draft environmental impact report to be completed and released to the public in late August. The district and consultant Michael Baker International are working their way through more than 200 comments that were submitted by the Oct. 26 deadline.

As part of the process, the volunteers on the CSD’s Buildout-Reduction Program Citizens’ Committee have been researching such aspects of the program as how many vacant lots there are in Cambria (the working number for now is about 1,500 parcels that wouldn’t receive CSD services under current regulations, according to committee member Mel McColloch). The committee is investigating how to compensate those property owners and where the district would get the money to do so.

A judge ruled in August against a project-related lawsuit filed in 2014 by LandWatch San Luis Obispo County and the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic. In November, Judge Ginger Garrett issued a tentative ruling that LandWatch must pay $1,648.82 in court costs to the county, $1,522 to the state Office of Planning and Research and the State Water Resources Control Board and $23,786.65 to the Cambria Community Services District.

Gruber said in his December staff report to the board that the district had spent more than $313,000 on the LandWatch lawsuit.

The next CCSD board meeting is at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19, in the Veterans Memorial Building.


One of the biggest North Coast stories of 2016 was the Chimney Fire that began as a small blaze near Lake Nacimiento and ultimately burned 46,433 acres, destroyed 49 homes and 21 other buildings. At the height of the fire, close to 4,000 personnel from across the state were fighting the fire.

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.

For a few nail-bitingly tense days, the rampaging fire also threatened Hearst Castle and other structures in rural San Simeon.

During that time, 17,700 acres of Hearst property were charred by the fire.

Ben Higgins, director of agricultural operations at the ranch, said Dec. 29 that, despite the obvious impacts “and the loss of a considerable amount of fencing and infrastructure, we fared fairly well. No historic structures were lost or even seriously threatened. No livestock were injured. And most important, no one was seriously hurt during the suppression operation. That is an impressive testament to Cal Fire’s skill and professionalism.”

He said that in the burn area since then, “regeneration of native grasses especially has been excellent. Our oaks and sycamores have also recovered very well. Creeks are flowing, and so far we have not seen any major landslides or evidence of significant erosion.”

However, despite the good signs, Higgins said, “we will not graze this portion of the ranch at all in 2017. Natural restoration and regeneration of native vegetation is planned for at least one full year.”

Higgins added that “Cal Fire has been very helpful in assisting with road and firebreak rehabilitation, mostly to mitigate risk of erosion and soil transport. We will soon begin work to replace fencing and livestock facilities destroyed by the fire – an expensive effort which will take all of 2017 and beyond. We also need to keep close watch within the burn area to ensure no invasive plant species were introduced by vehicles and equipment involved in the suppression effort.”


A grass-roots effort continues to push for establishing a national marine sanctuary that would fill the gap between the existing Monterey Bay and Channel Islands sanctuaries.

There are more than 11,300 signatures on a petition urging the designation of the Chumash National Marine Sanctuary. The petition is at

If designated, the Chumash sanctuary would cover an expansive area of the Pacific coastal waters, stretching 140 miles from Cambria to Santa Barbara, with the goal of protecting a diverse ecosystem that includes dolphins, whales, white sea bass, sardines, mackerel, kelp and elephant seals, plus various cherished cultural sites for the Chumash people.

Among other things, the sanctuary would protect the coastline from offshore oil drilling.

Supporters have said they’re still hoping that President Obama will start the designation process, which takes years from start to finish, with lots of public hearings along the way.

Some entities and businesspeople, especially in the fishing industry, oppose the designation.


Contentious political differences were front and center for most of the year, as a raucous election cycle pitted veteran politicians against new faces.

Some of those new faces won seats on local boards. But the margins of victory often were razor thin.

For instance, a mere 33 votes separated the tallies for longtime Cambria resident Harry Farmer and incumbent president Gail Robinette in a CSD race that included a eight candidates vying for three seats.

Farmer was sworn in Dec. 15, along with re-elected directors Amanda Rice and Greg Sanders, who were subsequently elected president and vice president of the board, respectively.

The vote counts were: Rice, 1,654; Sanders, 1,556; Farmer, 1,438; Robinette, 1,405; and challengers DeWayne Lee, 1,184, Thomas Kirkey, 1,053; Jeff Walters, 373; and write-ins (including registered write-in candidate Steve Kniffen), 144.

In San Simeon, Mary Margaret McGuire eked out a win after a margin of eight votes put her in the CSD seat formerly held by Leroy Price. The tallies were: Alan Fields, 76 votes; McGuire, 59; Daniel Williams, 56, and Price, 51.

In the Coast Unified School District race, the candidates winning four-year seats on were Tiffany Silva of Cayucos, who received 2,655 votes, Dennis Rightmer (2,600) and Samuel Shalhoub (2,353).

Eileen Roach received 1,615 votes and Eric Endersby got 1,525 votes, and 56 votes were cast for write-ins (again, with Kniffen in the race).

Lee McFarland won a two-year school-board seat with 2,170 votes. His opponent, Elizabeth Weatherly, got 2,054 votes, even though she had suspended her campaign in October, citing “cruel and relentless retaliatory actions taken against my children and me.”

For the health care district vote counts, see the CCHD section above.


Rainy weather has delayed the completion of the $483,000 Fiscalini water-tank-replacement project, but the newly constructed tank has been painted, inside and out. According to Judy Bellis (who coordinates the Cambria CSD project with husband Will Bellis), when the weather allows, the Crosno Construction crews are working on underground piping and the technology that will regularly send updates to the district office.

“With the holidays and the rain,” she said in a Dec. 29 interview, “the schedule looks like it (the tank) will be in service around the middle of January.”

The 24-foot tall, 320,000-gallon tank sits on a hillside site on the Fiscalini ranchland south of the Top of the World neighborhood.

During the construction, water is being provided to area customers from four temporary tanks on site. Each tank holds 10,000 gallons.


The North Coast’s 3,400-acre forest has for years been under duress from drought, infestations of bugs and diseases, development and other stresses. Estimates of the mortality throughout the rare, native stand of pines vary from 40 to 90 percent, depending on the location. San Luis Obispo County officials put the overall mortality at 40 to 50 percent.

The forest also has been on the radar screen, so to speak, of scientists, firefighters, governmental officials, homeowners and others who want to do all they can to preserve and protect the rare native stand of Monterey pines, which has many neighborhoods of homes built within it. The North Coast forest is one of three remaining native stands of Monterey pines in the U.S., with two other small ones on Mexican islands.

Several studies of the stand, and/or sections of it, are ongoing.

Meanwhile, CCSD, the county Fire Safe Council, Cambria FireSafe Focus Group, Cambria Forest Committee and other groups are seeking funding to help the forest in a variety of ways. Possible actions range from removing dead and hazardous trees and finding beneficial uses for the lumber to creating more “shaded fuel breaks,” especially in areas where the public could be at risk, and buying a nearly $600,000 “biomass” plant that uses heat (just below the combustion level) to convert wood chips into electricity and biochar.

CSD directors Dec. 15 unanimously approved working with Dan Turner of the Fire Safe Council to seek the $381,700 Cal Fire Urban and Community Forestry Program Greenhouse Gas Biomass grant.

The county continues to have an expedited process for issuing permits to remove dead and hazardous trees, with Cal Fire foresters making the call on which trees qualify.

Meanwhile, scientists said at a December meeting in Cambria that sudden oak death has been confirmed to be in some bay laurel trees along Santa Rosa Creek Road.


Last year was a busy one for the San Simeon CSD and the 460-or-so residents in the tiny town.

In February, Director Ralph MacAdam resigned. The next month, the rest of the Board of Directors appointed their former peer John Russell to complete the term.

In May, CSD and county officials joined community members to cut the ribbon launching the district’s new $926,000 reverse-osmosis, wellhead-treatment plant that’s designed to reduce undesirable components, such as chlorides, in the town’s water supply. Increased chloride levels have plagued the community seasonally.

After back-to-back meetings Oct. 12, the board stood pat on its current water conservation ordinance, despite a volley of data and comments from some residents who oppose it.

The determining factor seemed to be staff advice that if the board changed the ordinance, it could put the district at risk of having to pay back a state drought-related grant.

The district has had a water-shortage-triggered building moratorium since April 1988, and has negotiated unsuccessfully for years with the state Coastal Commission about rip-rap placed long ago at the shoreline to protect district infrastructure.