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Looking back at 2017, nine topics came to mind as having the most impact on the communities we serve. The reporters and editors of The Union Democrat voted and here's our collective wisdom.
9 State of Jefferson
A decades-old movement for rural counties in Northern California and Southern Oregon to form a 51st state, known as the State of Jefferson, gained new momentum locally. Hundreds attended a special meeting in March at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds where supporters and opponents presented arguments. The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors ultimately decided it wanted more research on the economic viability of the proposed state before deciding whether to support the concept, but there was little doubt about the widespread support in the Mother Lode. It's difficult to go a day anymore without seeing a State of Jefferson seal on a sign along the roadside, a bumper sticker on a vehicle, or on someone's clothing.
8 Changes in Sonora Police Department
The department entered into a new phase of its storied history. After 11 years, Chief Mark Stinson retired, ushering in a year of shared stewardship. When 2017 began, Mike Harden, a former chief of the Modesto Police Department began an about four-month stint as the Interim chief, during which he evaluated the department's staff and resources. In May, the City Council chose another interim, and this time from within. Former Lt. Turu VanderWiel has acted as the interim police chief through the majority of 2017, though his position is still technically a temporary one until made official by an appointment from the City Council.
7 School finances
It was a bleak year for most every school in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties. Most spent more than they took in and some ending up at the doorstep of a state take over. The problem stemmed from the rising cost of doing business at a time when most every school has seen a significant decrease in students. Sonora High, Curtis Creek Elementary and Calaveras High were most seriously impacted.
Sonora and Curtis Creek ended up laying off teachers and cutting programs to stay within the state mandate for reserves.
6 Democrats organize
Called to action by the surprising victory of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in the November 2016 election, left-leaning residents of Tuolumne County mobilized forces like never before in recent memory and made their presence known beginning with a protest at the County Administration Center in February. More than 1,000 people attended a rowdy town hall meeting hosted by Republican U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock at Sonora High School later that month, mirroring the tone of town halls hosted by Republican politicians throughout the country early in the year. McClintock faces a challenge to his five-term reign over Congressional District 4 from three Democrats in 2018, all of whom are women. Local groups also organized protests at Courthouse Square in Sonora later in the year to call attention to causes such as the GOP tax reform, gun violence and net neutrality.
There was newfound attention on the issue of homelessness. Sonora City Council brought back an urban camping ban in July, then appointed a homeless task force that started holding bimonthly meetings in mid-October and is still in the middle of information gathering. Thanks to lobbying by District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan (whose district includes the City of Sonora), the Sonora Area Foundation awarded a $10,0000 grant to ATCAA for a homeless census at the end of September that found 711 homeless people throughout Tuolumne County, more than four times what any previous federally funded winter census had counted.
4 Law and Justice Center
Some of the most significant developments occurred with Tuolumne County's Law and Justice Center since planning began nearly two decades ago. The mostly state-funded $20 million Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility opened in April to some controversy as two kids were the first occupants the 30-bed facility that some argued was bigger than necessary. Construction on the more than $40 million new county jail is supposed to begin in March at the Law and Justice Center site off Old Wards Ferry Road in Sonora, with completion slated for late 2019. A $60 million courthouse funded by the state remains in limbo due to a lack of funding.
3 Sonora Dome and Wildcat Ranch
As the debate raged over how to limit massive teacher layoffs at the Sonora Union High School District, school officials evaluated property holdings. Two soon arose as topics of discussion: the historic Sonora Dome, located on a parcel shared with Dario Cassina High School, and the 137-acre Wildcat Ranch, located off Wards Ferry Road and Tuolumne Road.
Seeking to quell the onslaught of public opinion demanding the sale of the dome and the retention of the ranch, the Sonora High School Board of Trustees delegated to an advisory committee the development of an unbinding recommendation which would, as they said, represent the will of the public as it pertained to the properties.
The advisory committee met multiple times throughout the summer and fall and issued their determination: sell the dome, keep the ranch.
Developers, though, had more ideas about the ranch as a site that could blend education, entrepreneurship and economic viability.
Neither the dome nor the ranch has been declared surplus property by the district, which would legally allow for discussions on a potential sale.
Whether you like it or not, cannabis was one of the topics that elected leaders spent the most time discussing in 2017 in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties. That's because a majority of California voters approved legalizing the drug for recreational use by adults 21 and over. Leaders had to come up with regulations that worked best for their respective jurisdictions, particularly when it came to cultivation now that state law allows any adult to grow up to six plants at their home for personal use.
In Calaveras County deep divisions over cannabis cultivation were particularly prevalent. The question to ban or regulate has put recovery from the devastating 2015 Butte Fire on back burners. In 2016, more than 700 registered pot farms made marijuana growing the largest industry in the county, according to one study, with estimates of an annual economic impact of $339.2 million, 3,404 jobs and income to workers of $172.2 million. But at the same time, an equal number of illegal farms operate in the shadows. The Board of Supervisors, seeking to replace the 2016 temporary ordinance that regulates pot growing, failed to make progress in the past calendar year, voting 3-2 in their most recent session to bring back drafts of laws to both ban and regulate commercial cannabis.
The issue for both counties has been booted into 2018.
1 Break in the drought
Last winter’s atmospheric river storms made water year 2016-17 one of the wettest on record in the Central Sierra, breaking five consecutive years of drought that saw hundreds of Mother Lode wells run dry and forced some families to rely on bottled water and emergency tanks.
Changes were obvious early in January, when New Melones was 35 percent full compared to 13 percent in January 2016. Then deluges came. Federal forecasters said the first week-and-a-half of 2017 brought about 25 percent of average annual rainfall for the entire state of California.
From deep snows high on the crest of the Central Sierra to heavy rains down in Moccasin, the Tuolumne River watershed soaked up close to 20 inches of water content in January, more than three times wetter than average.
February brought more rain and snow, with already-soaked slopes saturated, and increasing runoff washed out roads, eroded hillsides, undermined sewage and water pipes, and cut off access to some neighborhoods. When a cavity opened up on the lower reach of the primary spillway at Oroville Dam 165 miles north of Sonora in mid-February, there were worries for 65 dams in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties that were at or reaching capacity due to record-setting rains and runoff. No failures were reported, but the Tuolumne Utilities District board of directors declared an emergency due to public safety concerns for possible failure of the spillway at Lakewood Park dam, a small reservoir in a subdivision north of Twain Harte.
Contributing to this story were Guy McCarthy, Alex MacLean, Giuseppe Ricapito and Lyn Riddle.