Year in Review: County labeled ‘ground zero’ in fracking debate

Joseph Alvarado

In 2014, Hollister became what actor Mark Ruffalo called “ground zero” in California for the fierce debate over fracking. Ruffalo’s tweet sent Oct. 14—in which he made the local fracking reference—underscored the broad reach of the debate in San Benito County over Measure J.
The successful, grassroots-born initiative to ban hydraulic fracturing and other enhanced extraction practices used by the oil industry was at the core of, arguably, the most intense debate in the county’s modern history.
Voters approved Measure J in the Nov. 4 election with 59 percent supporting the initiative to ban enhanced oil extraction such as fracking, cyclic steaming and well acidizing. Citadel Exploration two days after Measure J’s passage filed a $1.2 billion claim, a necessary precursor to a lawsuit. The company behind the Project Indian oil field was proposing the cyclic steaming extraction method—banned starting Jan. 1 under the initiative—in the Bitterwater area near Pinnacles National Park with plans for up to 1,000 wells.
“It is the responsibility of this county to defend Measure J,” said Supervisor Robert Rivas, who called the claim “frivolous,” at a Nov. 25 rally among initiative supporters.
While Measure J captured more attention than other issues, here is a summary of some significant stories from 2014:
Iconic store closes
To start the year, Hollister lost one of its most iconic businesses when Penny Wise Drug closed after 80 years in business. Penny Wise in its later years under Rosati family ownership became a reliable stop not only for pharmacy needs, but also as a gift shop. The Rosati family’s ownership of the Penny Wise business started in 1948, when Joe and Marie Rosati bought the business from a man named Andrew Kallstead. Joe Rosati previously worked at the store in high school and college as a stock and delivery boy.
As noted by Stephen Rosati in a narrative of the store’s history provided to the Free Lance, the family did a major remodeling to the building in 1962. In 1966, after Joan Rosati graduated from college, she returned to the business as a buyer and bookkeeper. In 1974, Stephen Rosati joined as a pharmacist, followed by sister Jeanne in 1980 as a pharmacist as well. In 1979, the Rosatis took the opportunity to expand when the old Rasco’s—known as the “Dime Store”—shut down at 549 San Benito St.
Fire chief’s up, down year
The year started off on a positive note for Fire Chief Mike O’Connor, sworn in as the department’s leader in January. O’Connor assumed the interim post in April after overseeing the transition of county fire services from Calfire to the Hollister Fire Department.
The year turned sour for O’Connor when he was placed on paid administrative leave in October following nepotism allegations from the firefighters union.
City officials about three weeks ago announced an outside investigation into allegations against the Hollister fire chief found the official did not commit any improprieties. Hollister officials received the commissioned investigative report in early December after placing O’Connor on paid administrative leave due to a then-undisclosed personnel matter in the department. City officials have confirmed the allegations surrounded O’Connor’s shifting of hours away from overtime pay for full-time employees to more hours for reserve firefighters, the ranks of which include O’Connor’s son, Ryan.
O’Connor, who announced intentions to retire at the end of January, has been with the department for more than 25 years. Capt. Leo Alvarez took on the acting chief role Oct. 22 when O’Connor was placed on paid leave.
BLM rules on Clear Creek area
Six years after closing off the popular off-road attraction in San Benito County, Clear Creek Management Area, the Bureau of Land Management announced in February it had released its decision calling for most of the public lands to remain closed permanently.
The federal government six years ago closed Clear Creek due to studies concluding there were dangerous levels of asbestos exposure on its trails. It stirred an uproar from the off-road community and county government leaders hoping to gain back the park’s economic benefits, namely the 35,000 annual visitors before Clear Creek’s closure.
The BLM released its final environmental impact statement on the area in March of last year, which allowed a small portion of street-licensed vehicles to gain access to the park. Last April, Congressman Sam Farr, D-Carmel, co-authored and introduced legislation in Congress known as HR 1776, or the Clear Creek National Recreation Area and Conservation Act. Going through Congress is one of the only options available to the county if officials want to reopen the lands. Litigation against the BLM would be the other option.
New county courthouse opens
The state finished the $33 million San Benito County Courthouse in December 2013, but the 41,500-sqiare-foot facility first opened in March due to differences of opinion over who should fund court security personnel. The state customarily does not provide additional funding for local bailiffs at such facilities, which left the county to find an extra $400,000 in the budget to cover the security gap for three new officers.
With help from Assemblyman Luis Alejo, the state is looking to include $400,000 in this year’s budget to fund additional court security at the San Benito County Courthouse. Alejo, D-Salinas, worked with the governor’s office and other legislators to secure $1 million in the budget for court security assistance in two counties, San Benito and Calaveras, with new courthouses funded by the state. The grant funding decision is pending at the State Department of Finance, according to the assemblyman.
Ridgemark tree debate
Homeowners in the Ridgemark Golf & Country Club gated community responded with protesting, letters to the editor and an April lawsuit after JMK Golf LLC began to cut down trees in front of houses on fallow sections of the golf course.
Company staff called the trees “unhealthy” and a liability in the event of a storm while homeowners argued the greenery added to their home values. The 125 trees in question were in a fallow part of the golf course that employees stopped watering in July when Ridgemark closed some of its fairways and moved from a 36-hole course to an 18-hole facility. A court hearing was delayed in late October as the parties tried to reach an out-of-court agreement.
The county joined the controversy and adopted a 45-day temporary moratorium against cutting mature trees Oct. 21. They later extended the moratorium—which was set to expire in December—for another 10 months and 15 days but instructed staff to prepare a permanent tree ordinance with a goal of approval within six months.
San Juan water problems
San Juan Bautista residents since May have been told to stay away from tap water due to high nitrate levels. Those high nitrate levels can come from such causes as agricultural or septic runoff, while San Juan officials expect to drill two new wells—deeper than the current two wells with nitrate issues—in order to lower the contamination levels to a safe standard. High nitrate levels are particularly dangerous to pregnant women and infants, according to city warnings. City Manager Roger Grimsley in August said city officials were hoping winter rains would help to dilute the nitrate levels, which the city has partially attributed to drought conditions.
The city does monthly testing and submits it to the state’s regional water board. Grimsley in a report at this month’s council meeting said the city had asked the state water board for relief from the ban against drinking tap water after registering measurements of 20 milligrams per liter of nitrates, well under the 45 mg maximum causing the tap water ban.
Grimsley has said that the state compliance order requires the city to have a permanent solution in place by March 2015.
Farmers market moves
The Hollister Downtown Certified Farmers’ Market opened in May with extended hours in a new location on San Benito Street. The location change became possible earlier this year after Caltrans handed ownership of the former part of Highway 25 over to the city.
Calaveras hits bottom
Hollister School District’s historically low academic performer, Calaveras School, was designated a “priority school” meaning officials will give the site additional funding and resources to pull it up to achieving levels.
In the spring, the district made the decision to post the jobs of all 20 teachers at the site, the first step in the superintendent’s efforts to reorganize the school.
School bonds pass
The Hollister School District and San Benito High School District asked for general obligation facilities bonds in elections just five months apart and the community approved them.
The high school district scored a $42.5 million bond in June with trustees promising to focus on facilities upgrades, not athletics. In November, the elementary school district ran a soft campaign using just a handful of signs around town along with mailers, phone banks and door-to-door visits to secure a $28.5 million bond for their own facility repairs and upgrade projects.
Hollister Rally with a hitch
The Hollister Rally motorcycle event had gone on without a hitch until the morning of the third and final day. That is when a shooting occurred at the Chevron gas station on San Felipe Road away from the event area, but involving rival biker gangs.
The rally finished year two of a revival after a four-year break without a sanctioned event. Those two rallies were under promoter Mark Cresswell and his company, Worldwide Dynamics. With apparent friction between the promoter and city officials, Cresswell has departed and organizers are looking to hire a new promoter.
Council members will likely consider a contract with the Hollister Downtown Association on management of the 2015 event at a Jan. 20 meeting, City Manager Bill Avera said at a council meeting this month.
Avera said organizers are talking about hosting it as a three-day event. The recently departed promoter of the past two events wanted to go with two days.
As for the shooting, Michael Richard Kich, 42, from Reno, Nev., a Boozefighter, was arrested by police for assault with a deadly weapon after he was suspected of discharging a firearm during the confrontation. Police later located and arrested Lamar Guy Jones Copeland, 27, of Sacramento, a suspected member of the Wino’s Crew biker club accused of attempted murder in connection to the shooting.
Walk of his life
In July, we followed the three-part series story of Jose Rocha, 18, who was diagnosed with leukemia and went through chemotherapy treatments that caused him to go partially blind. Despite the setbacks, Rocha finished a project he started three and half years ago: graduating from San Benito High School with his peers.
Cannery stench
That summer stench coming from the city’s industrial sewer pond was caused by low pH levels at the San Benito Foods tomato cannery, with the summer canning season starting in mid-July.
The cannery is the exclusive user of the industrial wastewater pond at the end of South Street in Hollister. One of its obligations in an agreement with the city is to maintain pH levels above an 8.0 standard. Lower pH levels amount to higher acidity, which caused the smell on the west side and the downtown area as well.
The cannery generally keeps pH levels of its effluent in line with the standard, but has previously had issues with the acidity problem and resultant odor. Most recently in 2010, the city had to work with the cannery on its pH levels due to similar odor problems.
Shooting, kidnapping in Hollister
Hollister police have been looking for 20-year-old suspect Jose Barajas and 19-year-old Vanessa Flores, both from Hollister, since the Aug. 1 murder of 19-year-old Ariana Zendejas, also from Hollister.
Police alleged Barajas fired from one vehicle into another, which included Zendejas as a passenger, at B and West streets the night of Aug. 1. Investigators surmised it was in retaliation for a confrontation earlier that day between the suspect and another male. Investigators previously reported they believed Barajas was holding another female, Flores, against her will as well.
Planned Parenthood
The satellite Planned Parenthood office in San Benito County—which provided pregnancy and STD testing, emergency contraception, cancer screenings and abortion services—closed its site in downtown Hollister in August, meaning local teens and migrant workers must travel to nearby Gilroy, Salinas and Watsonville to get the same services. The closure came before the office’s lease had ended because the facility had outdated plumbing and lacked necessary electric infrastructure, according to administrators. At least one physician assistant alleged staff were never told the reason for the closure and speculated it was financial.
Agriculture on the rise
Boosted by big increases in vegetable production, San Benito County’s agriculture industry earned record revenues in 2013, taking in more than $300 million for the first time, according to the year’s crop report released in August. That was an 11 percent gain from the prior year.
Trustee alleges Brown Act violation
Gavilan College Trustee Tony Ruiz came forward this summer alleging the board violated the Brown Act by voting in closed session to change “at-large” elections to “district” ones.
In September, six trustees—excluding Ruiz—voted to disclose that no action was taken in closed session at the meeting in question.
Breath of fresh air at SBHS
Students and teachers opened a dialogue with trustees during a regularly scheduled meeting in October, which led the superintendent to ask the district architect to conduct a study of campus buildings and draft some plans and timelines for bringing air conditioning to various parts of the school.
Teachers claim students are lethargic and perform poorly on tests in warm classrooms. Just a handful of rooms—an estimate of five—plus three computer labs have air conditioning, according to the district superintendent.
School leadership changes
County Superintendent of Schools Mike Sanchez chose to retire after more than 40 years in the field of education and Krystal Lomanto—then principal of San Benito High School—was the only one to place a name on the ballot for the position in the June 3 election.
The change of leadership at the county level wasn’t the only power shift in the area this year, as John Perales became superintendent of the San Benito High School District in April and Ruben Zepeda took the same role for the Aromas-San Juan Unified School District during the summer. Todd Dearden replaced Lomanto as high school principal this summer.
Election spurs leadership change
This was an election year and with it came a bevvy of change. Some of the key officials to retain roles on the ballot after contested races incuded Mayor Ignacio Velazquez in Hollister and Supervisor Jerry Muenzer on the county board.
Many others gained elected seats without a challenge including the district attorney and sheriff in uncontested reelection bids.
Overall, it was a crowded November ballot. This year, 63 qualified candidates caused 19 local contests to go on the ballot for public votes, compared with 29 qualified candidates and eight local contests in 2012.
Suspect tied to Boy Scouts
The county emergency medical services specialist accused of sexually assaulting two teenage boys between 2002 and 2005 was a local Boy Scouts troop leader until Friday and recently advised teenage members of the Career Explorer Program at the Hollister Fire Department.
The suspect in the case, Joseph Alvarado, was an assistant scout master for a Boy Scouts troop in Hollister from 2010 until Friday when the organization dropped him. This past summer, he also worked with the relatively new Career Explorer Program at the Hollister Fire Department.
One victim was age 15 at the time of the suspected incident. The other was between 15 and 17 at the time. Last week, Alvarado was in court for arraignment on 42 related counts in the case.
It’s raining—it’s pouring
Several big storms in mid-December brought more than four inches of rain to Hollister in the span of a few days. This year, more than nine inches of rain fell in the city, compared with 4.39 inches in 2013, the driest year on record for Hollister.
The agricultural community—especially cattle ranchers—celebrated the natural water for a state in its third consecutive year of droughts. The precipitation also caused small scale flooding, winds that knocked down trees and mudslides on Southside Road, which caused Southside School to close for two days.

Leave your comments