Year in review: Other notable stories
More of the good, the bad and the ugly of the year in news
Mark and Amy Abouzeid’s plan to expand their downtown Chico Volkswagen dealership got a unanimous thumbs-up from the City Council two months ago, but that prospect seemed touch and go at the time.
Not long before getting the final green light, a majority of the city Planning Commission voted against the couple’s request of a general-plan amendment and rezone that would allow the business to grow from its current location on the south end of the downtown corridor to a property directly across the street.
The Abouzeids purchased that property years ago after the Foster’s Freeze there went out of business. They have since dumped more than $100,000 on plans to use the site, which stretches on both sides of Little Chico Creek, for an additional sales lot as well as employee parking.
Competing interests eventually led to a squaring off between folks in the local business community and members of the Barber Neighborhood Association, who favored a residential or mixed-use commercial/residential project.
The council took up the hot-button issue just weeks before the general election in which three incumbents were up for re-election. Given the recent economy, nixing a request to grow a local business could have proven dicey for the two liberal candidates, Ann Schwab and Andy Holcombe, who, after voicing some reluctance, voted on the side of the local business couple.
City cuts potential losses
Ending one of the longest-running conflicts in Chico’s recent history, the City Council in July decided to settle with developer Tom Fogarty—at a cost of $9.5 million.
Fogarty filed a $48 million lawsuit in May 2006 seeking costs incurred because of the city’s actions in remediating toxins in the ground resulting from the city’s decades-long operation of the Humboldt Road Burn Dump.
For a number of years, the city’s plan had been to help pay for cleaning up all the contaminated acreage, whether on city or private land. Then, in late 2003, the liberal majority of the council, led by Councilman Dan Nguyen-Tan, decided the city should take responsibility for only those acres the city had a hand in contaminating.
Fogarty, who had been trying for more than a decade to develop a 340-acre parcel that was partially in the dump area, did a cleanup on his own, then sued the city for his costs as well as lost profits associated with the delayed construction of his 1,300-unit Oak Valley subdivision.
“Though I believe we could have won in court … the settlement presents a predictive outcome and is in the best interests of the city,” said Scott Gruendl, the only councilman left from the bloc that approved the Nguyen-Tan plan.
Rescue center to relocate
The night before the CN&R visited Roberta Kirshner for an interview about her being chosen as one of the newspaper’s Local Heroes for 2008, the longtime animal advocate and trainer entered escrow on a property between Chico and Oroville.
If all goes right, those 19 acres will eventually become home to the exotic animals she currently cares for in Durham at the Barry R. Kirshner Foundation, a wildlife sanctuary named in honor of her late son.
For 15 years, Kirshner and a dedicated group of folks (none of whom are paid) have been rescuing special-needs and unwanted animals, giving the creatures exceptional treatment, and providing educational opportunities to the public.
And for years, several residents in the nearby orchards have been battling to boot the nonprofit over complaints of traffic. The Butte County Board of Supervisors recently gave the foundation its walking papers with a two-year deadline, so Kirshner is now busy working through the red tape the move requires.
Kirshner was fortunate to find a property owner who would grant her a lengthy escrow—eight months—needed to accomplish such a transition. Now she’s looking for donations and for sponsors who are willing to help with the extraordinary costs.
Enloe: bad and good
Enloe Medical Center has been on a constant roller coaster for years now, and 2008 was no different. January brought news of full accreditation from the Joint Commission, something Enloe had been working toward for some time. The same month, however, three separate malpractice/wrongful death lawsuits were filed against the hospital and several of its doctors for anesthesia-related hospital deaths.
In April, Enloe was found in compliance with state Department of Health conditions for Medicare participation—and then in November, for the third time in recent years, it was again found out of compliance. This time, an incident over the summer in which a woman was given the wrong dose of the blood thinner Heparin led to a lawsuit and the finding that the hospital was out of compliance on two of 23 conditions.
Despite the downs, Enloe ended the year on an up note, with the hospital’s service workers finally reaching a contract agreement calling for wage increases ranging from 22 to 52 percent over four years, “as well as joint labor-management committees formed to address staffing and patient-care issues, with third-party mediation.” The workers will also be eligible for fully employer-paid health insurance.
Walmart backs out
For years, Chicoans wondered whether Walmart’s plans for two supercenters would go through—one on the north end of town, where the Sunset Hills Golf Course stands, and one where the current Forest Avenue store sits.
In March 2008, people needed wonder no more. Just as the environmental-impact reports on both sites (released in January) were nearing the review process, the big box yanked its plans for the north store. This made locally minded group CARE—Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy—happy, and also led to the reopening of Sunset Hills, whose space had been limited while Walmart’s plans were under way.
Then, in April, the Chico Planning Commission decided to postpone its much-anticipated hearing on Walmart’s plan to “supersize” its south Chico store in order to fine-tune the EIR. That meeting remains much-anticipated and could very well lead the news in 2009.
Of all the DUI arrests made by the Chico Police Department, none was quite like one on July 18. That’s when officers responded to a call from Great Harvest Bread Co. on Forest Avenue and Humboldt Road about a woman who’d parked her car smack against the building.
That woman turned out to be Chico City Councilwoman Mary Flynn.
Her arrest made headlines, which sparked criticism that she’d been tried in the media before charges were even filed. District Attorney Mike Ramsey decided to prosecute her for the misdemeanor of driving under the influence of prescription drugs. She pleaded not guilty, and the case remains open.
Flynn has a previous DUI arrest, in 1990 involving alcohol, which she disclosed during her campaign in 2006.
Gold mine gets go-ahead
A classic confrontation between modern-day gold miners and settlers played out along Dry Creek this year. Residents of the little foothills valley near Butte College protested the sudden, and massive, enlargement of a small mine that had been at the end of their road for years.
County staff took a look at the new New Era Mine and in April brought the operators, an outfit called North Continent Land and Timber, before the Planning Commission. Following a hearing that lasted two days, commissioners recommended that the Board of Supervisors require the operators to obtain an amended mining permit and reclamation plan, among other things. The original 1982 permit was for a small mine and was inadequate, they said.
Supervisor Jane Dolan, the only member of the board who had been in office in 1982, was adamant that the original permit was for a small mine. So was the planner who worked on it at the time. But a majority of the supervisors ignored their first-hand accounts, held the permit was adequate, and gave the mine their seal of approval.
Since then, lawsuits have been flying like paper airplanes. Stay tuned for more.
City Hall’s new bosses
Dave Burkland came into 2008 with a pretty good idea of where he’d work, but no guarantee. Chico’s interim city manager for five months, he didn’t get the job for keeps until the City Council’s unanimous vote on Feb. 5.
Then came the task of finding his replacement. General Services Director Dennis Beardsley moved up to interim assistant city manager when Burkland stepped in for Greg Jones. The new city manager took his time, whittling 48 applicants down to 15 semifinalists and six finalists before deciding on John Rucker, a captain with the Chico Police Department.
Chico State’s near-riot
When Chico police went to shut down a 500-strong party that had gotten out of hand, they probably didn’t expect the hundreds of revelers to take to the street instead. But that’s exactly what happened this past Oct. 11.
As police cleared partygoers from the Cherry Street fete, the rowdy crowd headed toward college bars Riley’s and Franky’s, which quickly emptied, putting even more people into the packed South Campus neighborhood. That added fuel to the fire—literally, as many small blazes were started in the street.
In all, it took the Chico PD around 45 minutes to clear the 1,000 or so people—the largest riot in Chico in more than a decade. Only two arrests were made, but stories and videos of chanting, fire-hopping and the police walking the streets in riot gear immediately hit the Internet.
University President Paul Zingg decried the incident, saying, “Chico State has built a reputation of achievement and accomplishment far beyond the poor decisions and boorish and lawless behavior of a few.”
Freeman in freefall
As the year began, Tyrone Freeman was living large. Not only was he the head of the largest union local in the state, the 160,000-member United Long-Term Care Workers in Southern California, he was also president of the California United Homecare Workers, which represents 30,000 in-home care workers, including some 2,000 in Butte County.
But in August, the Los Angeles Times published an exposé showing that Freeman had misused hundreds of thousands of dollars in union funds obtained from his low-income workers, funneling the money to firms owned by his wife and mother-in-law and spending lavishly on a golf tournament, a Beverly Hills cigar club, expensive restaurants and a consulting contract with a Hollywood talent agency.
By the end of the year, he’d lost both his jobs, been booted from his parent union (the Service Employees International Union), told to pay back $1 million, and was the subject of a criminal investigation.
Chamber makes changes
The Chico Chamber of Commerce has drawn repeated criticism over endorsements made by its political action committee. Since the organization applies to the City Council for tourism-promotion contracts, critics argue it’s a conflict of interest to support people who dole out taxpayer money.
That reasoning is debatable. Inarguable is the lack of success of chamber-favored candidates in recent elections. A pro-business slate featuring incumbent Dan Herbert lost in 2006, and only one of the two candidates endorsed this year made the cut (incumbent Larry Wahl, edging out chamber Chairman Mark Sorensen for the final seat).
In November, the chamber announced it no longer would offer endorsements, shifting its approach to issue-based advocacy. The decision met with full approval from new CEO Jolene Francis, hired after Jim Goodwin stepped down as president to become city manager of Live Oak.
McLaughlin’s road to recovery
After surviving a freak bicycle accident that crushed two of his vertebrae, leaving him paralyzed from just below the neck down, longtime Chico “bike king” and tireless cycling advocate Ed McLaughlin spent the early part of 2008 undergoing intensive therapy in San Jose at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center’s spinal injury rehab unit.
McLaughlin returned home to Chico in early March, about three months after his crash in Bidwell Park. By mid-March, he had attended an Avenues Neighborhood Plan meeting. In May, he served as Grand Marshal of the Pioneer Day Parade.
The irrepressible McLaughlin relies on the help of an electric wheelchair, a feeding tube and his partner of five years, local vet Suzanne Hanson, as well as the aides and friends who see him on a daily basis. Despite a constant battle with health issues, McLaughlin continues to live life to the fullest extent he can, as has always been his way.
While he no longer can be actively involved in his beloved Chico Velo cycling club, McLaughlin sits on the organization’s board of directors. One can occasionally catch him tooling around downtown—on four wheels now instead of two—catching up on the lives of the many friends and acquaintances he has made over the years.
Council calls for preservation
In June, the Chico City Council did something historic preservationists have wanted for years: It initiated a process to create a historic-preservation ordinance that will also become part of the city’s new general plan.
The ordinance, which is being developed by city Senior Planner Bob Summerville, will not only give city government more ability to limit the loss of historic properties, it will also provide a template for identifying historic buildings in the city and creating a zoning overlay to protect them.
Summerville said he expects the ordinance to be completed at about the same time as the general-plan update, which is by the end of 2009.
Lookout Point rededicated
Long known as a preferred spot for suicidal drivers to plunge into Butte Creek Canyon, Lookout Point has finally become a real lookout, following Butte County’s purchase of the property in 2007.
In April, the Butte County Board of Supervisors gave the OK to develop the site into a safe, accessible place from which to enjoy the spectacular canyon view. In May, salvagers removed 52 wrecked vehicles from the canyon below the point, and the spot on Skyway has since reopened with safety and decorative features.
Lookout Point is now listed on the Paradise Ridge Chamber of Commerce’s Web site as one of the area’s attractions.
Smoke gets in your lungs
Which is more important, the right of people to burn wood for heat or the right of people to breathe clean air? The question became a hot topic this year, as county air-quality officials tried to deal with levels of fine particulate matter (called PM 2.5) in Chico’s air during winter months.
As they did so, federal Environmental Protection Agency officials were looking over their shoulders and threatening to declare the entire county out of compliance if Chico’s air—the worst in the county—wasn’t cleaned up.
After a series of workshops countywide, they initiated a new, voluntary program, called “Check Before You Light,” in an effort to decrease Chico’s pollution levels. But it didn’t do the job. People either didn’t know about it, didn’t get the daily advisory notices, or didn’t care.
Finally, at a Dec. 11 workshop, the county Air Quality Management District’s Board of Governors decided it was reluctant to tell Chico what to do and would wait to hear what the City Council wanted.
The driveway to nowhere
A small story that wound up taking a long time to resolve involved a father-and-son team from Southern California who wanted to build two homes in Butte Creek Canyon. So they cut a small gorge in the hillside for a driveway to their property. Problem was, they didn’t have a grading permit. Neighbors complained, and county staff issued a stop-work order.
That was way back in 2005. Three years and three public hearings later, on Sept. 23, the Board of Supervisors took up the matter for the last time. “It’s remarkable to me the amount of information we’ve received regarding a driveway,” Supervisor Jane Dolan said.
Everybody thought it had been a done deal a year earlier, when supervisors ordered the cut filled. But a legal technicality required it to be heard again. The proponents, Dan and Ben Allen, argued their driveway was the best option environmentally, but the board voted 3-2 to nix it anyway.
A book among us
Let’s face it, for many people, the value of an hour spent with a good book registers way below the value of a Sunday afternoon watching football. So, it came as a very pleasant surprise to learn that, after Chico State adopted Three Cups of Tea as its Book in Common for the 2007-08 school year, so did the cities of Chico and Oroville and the county of Butte.
The book tells the remarkable story of mountaineer-turned-humanitarian Greg Mortenson who, after being nursed back to health by Himalayan villagers after a failed climb of K2, made a promise to the impoverished region to build schools throughout war-torn areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan. To date, 55 school have been built and, with them, bridges of communication between different cultures.