2015 in Review: Community faced adversity, tragedy

Todd Dearden

Here is a sampling of the biggest stories during the past year in San Benito County as reported by the Free Lance:
Fire chief changeover
With former Fire Chief Mike O’Connor departing the city after 25 years at the start of 2015, Hollister went with an interim chief for about half the year in Bill Garringer before getting a new chief, Bob Martin Del Campo, in July. Del Campo now leads the department of 40 or so firefighters covering Hollister, San Juan Bautista the unincorporated county.
Drought water rules
Four consecutive years of drought hit California hard, and San Benito County was no stranger to the water problems plaguing the rest of the state. In April, Gov. Jerry Brown called for a 25 percent reduction in water use from 2013 levels. Local water agencies carried out the orders with new restrictions for watering times, yard irrigation and sidewalk runoff in Hollister and San Juan Bautista.
Local residents embraced the cutbacks. The Water Resources Association of San Benito County’s Turf Removal Program, which launched at the outset of July, was so popular the agency hit its $100,000 allotment cap by the start of August. The program offered $1 per square foot of grass up to $500 and rewarded people who chose to replace grass with native plants, sand or rocks.
Solar greenlight
After six years of roadblocks throughout the approval process at the county level from environmentalists and neighbors, the Panoche Valley Solar Project gained another approval from a widely supportive board of supervisors in May and then passed what could be a final legal hurdle in September when Judge Harry Tobias ruled against environmental groups’ in their final push against the project. Construction should start soon at the 247-megawatt facility.
Highway fatalities
Hollister resident Omar Carino Mendez, 33, was killed in a seven-vehicle accident on Highway 25 that occurred during rush hour June 15. The accident involving six cars and a big rig carrying about 2,000 pounds of produce closed Highway 25 in both directions overnight.
The day before the accident, motorcycle rider Armando Gonzalez, 37, of Hollister, was hit in a head-on collision, ejected into a field and died at the scene on Highway 25 between San Felipe and Wright roads. The accidents sparked talk of rekindling a “Stay Alive on 25” grassroots campaign that started in response to a series of fatalities on the road in 2000. Widening the road would be expensive, with the first phase—which would add a lane to both sides of the highway from San Felipe Road to Hudner Lane—costing $67 million, said Mary Gilbert, the interim executive director of the Council of San Benito County Governments. Phase two would cost $181 million, she said.
Biker rally in limbo
This was the third year in the latest revival for the on-again, off-again Hollister motorcycle rally. Under a new promoter in 2015, the rally had a focus on name acts and celebrity appearances, but drew modest crowds overall and left the city pursuing $90,000 from the now-departed promoter, Las Vegas-based ConvExx. The city is pursuing a possible third promoter in four years through a request for proposals process.
Illegal fireworks
San Benito County prosecutors in November charged Hollister resident Shawn G. Bourdet, 35 at the time, on suspicion of felony counts alleging he caused injuries to a child in the July 4 fireworks incident on Brigantino Drive. The multi-injury incident incited debate about increasing enforcement of illegal fireworks in the local area and sales of safe and sane varieties.
Boy’s death
The community mourned the passing of Joshua Rodriguez, 11, who was struck by a county transit bus July 27 while crossing Memorial Drive near the skate park. Following the tragedy, community members organized a candlelit vigil and created a streetside memorial. Several local restaurants held fundraisers to collect money to help his family. The Hollister Police Department found the bike Rodriguez had been riding did not have “brakes that were operational” but declined to disclose to the Free Lance whether the boy had been wearing a helmet.
Police did not issue a single citation to minors for violating the state’s helmet law between 2011 and late September of this year, according to documents obtained by the Free Lance through a records request.
Fatal plane crash
A plane crash in August at Frazier Lake Airpark resulted in the death of Douglas Jackson, a Hollister airport commissioner and enthusiast, while on a riding mower. Federal investigators believed the single-engine plane on the way from San Jose to the private landing strip in San Benito County touched down on the grass runway and then struck the riding mower. Jackson, 75, had been appointed to the airport commission eight years prior.
Ridgemark golf club sold
JMK Golf, LLC sold Ridgemark Golf & Country Club to John Wynn in early August for about $11.5 million. A four-year drought—along with a general decline for the golf industry—hit during JMK’s ownership tenure. The company purchased the course in 2009 but closed some of its fairways and moved from a 36-hole to an 18-hole facility last year. A lawsuit with a Ridgemark homeowners’ association initially slowed the sale. In the complaint, the association asked for a judge to review whether JMK had the right to develop a shopping center and residential developments on any portion of the golf course. The group later added concerns about which party should pay for road maintenance and nearby landscaping.
Bond fund progress
San Benito County residents may have seen summer construction at local schools after two districts passed bonds last year and were putting the funds to use. Voters approved the San Benito High School District’s Measure G—a $42.5 million general obligation facilities bond—in June 2014. The high school planned classroom modernizations, which included air conditioning for the 300 and 400 wings, to be complete before school started. Other projects, such as parking lot off Nash Road along with new tennis courts, were set to happen later in the year with bond money.
Voters also passed the Hollister School District’s Measure M—a $28.5 million general obligation facilities bond—in November of 2014. The district planned to complete a re-roofing project at its oldest campus, R.O. Hardin School, before classes started and had other projects in the design phase or out to bid.
Teacher shortage
The statewide teacher shortage has meant San Benito County’s three biggest school districts—Hollister School District, San Benito High School District and the Aromas-San Juan Unified School District—are putting administrators in the classroom each week because they can’t find enough substitutes. The deficit left the rural Aromas-San Juan Unified School District hit especially hard as the district’s San Juan School started the year short two instructors, with the superintendent, Ruben Zepeda, teaching until the positions could be filled.
Marijuana legalization
San Benito County was set to have among the strictest anti-marijuana laws in the state after the board’s 3-2 approval Sept. 22 supporting a ban against all outdoor pot grows in unincorporated areas. Supervisors in September initially failed to gain enough votes for an urgency ordinance needing a four-fifths approval. By making subtle changes to language that day, they indicated support in a 3-2 vote for a regular ordinance that had to come back the next month for an official adoption, which was rejected after public backlash. County and Hollister officials are examining regulations to meet a March state deadline for any ironing out of local pot laws. San Juan Bautista’s council has reaffirmed support for a ban against pot dispensaries and cultivation.
Kinsella’s coming retirement
Gavilan College President Steve Kinsella in October announced plans to retire near the end of June 2016. Kinsella has been Gavilan Community College president since the fall of 2002 and has been widely influential on the school’s direction. His retirement will come four months before the first election in which the community college district moves to a new district map. Those new district lines are intended to ensure Gavilan complies with state and federal voting laws protecting minority communities. Kinsella will leave a job that paid $296,216 in 2014 along with $51,243 in benefits, according to the state controller’s office.
Del Webb finds footing
In early October, county supervisors OK’d the new Del Webb community at San Juan Oaks Golf Club. The Pulte Homes subsidiary is set to build 1,017 single-family, age-restricted homes on the San Juan Oaks property targeted toward active adults 55 years and older, along with a host of amenities that include a resort, community center and a skilled-nursing facility. Additionally as part of the project, San Juan Oaks would build 67 market-rate homes along the golf course. The proposal amends plans originally broached by San Juan Oaks in 2004 for 186 homes. Del Webb—which had a 4,400-unit senior community near the airport rejected by Hollister voters in 2006—first publicly acknowledged the possibility of partnering with San Juan Oaks two years ago.
Wildfire hits hills
A mid-October wildfire that erupted close to Cienega Road, southeast of Hollister, grew to 670 acres before it was 100 percent contained. The blaze didn’t threaten any structures in the mountainous area, while weather conditions eventually cooperated with rain and cooler temperatures moving in a few days after the fire started.
High school principal resigns
San Benito High School Principal Todd Dearden resigned in early December, after being placed on paid administrative leave in November pending an ongoing investigation. In 2014, trustees had unanimously selected Dearden as the replacement for former Principal Krystal Lomanto after she had pursued and obtained the elected county superintendent position.
Library site hijacked
The San Benito County Free Library since around the start of December has been informing the public about a new web address after a “glitch” occurred causing the institution to lose its old one, which shows pornography. Library officials have responded to the issue by creating a new web address—SBCFL.org—and by informing customers about it, but have not found a way to remove the porn on the old one and are unsure if they have any legal capacity to do so. County officials are looking into legal options.
Homeless shelter on tap
Supervisors in early December changed course on the direction for a permanent homeless shelter three months after pinpointing an area near the airport for the 24-hour center. The board OK’d an idea to focus on a property at 1161 San Felipe Road, near health and human services facilities, as the preferred location for a new homeless shelter.
Back in September, the board had redirected its attention away from a previously chosen, controversial site on Southside Road for another location on Flynn Road near the jail and airport that garnered its own share of discontent, largely from surrounding business owners. The latest shelter decision comes as officials and nonprofits address a growing homeless population in the area.
Superintendent says he’s retiring in 2016
In December, Hollister School District Superintendent Gary McIntire notified the district that he would retire at the end of this school year, a full year before his contract runs out. His last official day of work in the district will be June 30, 2016. McIntire currently lives in Hollister but must drive six hours to the house he owns with his wife in Susanville, he said.
Sales tax talk
Talk among a host of local government entities heated up in 2015 for sales tax initiatives on 2016 ballots. The City of Hollister is moving ahead on pursuing a second extension to its 1 percent sales tax. San Benito County supervisors are considering a 1 percent special sales tax for unincorporated areas as well, while the Council of San Benito County Governments is considering a third municipal sales tax to cover highway repairs.

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