Battles, scandals, and #MeToo: The riveting and riotous news that made headlines in 2019 – New Times SLO

Posted: January 3, 2020 at 10:50 am

From fights over cannabis, groundwater, and wastewater to tackling homelessness, politics upped the ante on all sides of the debates that raged in San Luis Obispo County this year. The SLO Police Department, Chief Deanna Cantrell, and the city dealt with some scandals that will continue into 2020, and the long-ranging battle over dust at the Oceano Dunes isn't letting up anytime soon. Highway 101 south of Arroyo Grande's left turns were closed to most likely never open again, and the sale of vaping products is starting to get banned in cities along the coast. We don't have the space to touch on everything, but here's a look back at some of the year's highlights.

Camillia Lanham

Rural residents pushed back against cannabis farming in 2019, as San Luis Obispo County slowly began issuing more cultivation land-use permits throughout the year. Several county-approved grows were appealed and/or challenged in court by lawsuits, injecting bad blood and distrust into the process for both sides. Meanwhile, cannabis applicants continued their complaints about the county's slow, cumbersome, and expensive permitting process. By year's end, the conflict brought a new political leader to the fore: Paso Robles vineyard owner Stephanie Shakofsky, who's behind two lawsuits against cannabis projects and is now looking to unseat 1st District SLO County Supervisor John Peschong in the 2020 election.

The nearly decade-old debate over how to best manage the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin continued this year, culminating in the December adoption of a 20-year sustainability plan to satisfy the state's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The basin, a 684-square-mile aquifer, services much of SLO County's agricultural industryso the Estrella-El Pomar-Creston Water District's exclusion from the Cooperative Committee had many farmers upset. While North County supervisors placed an emphasis on pumping cutbacks in the plan, the ag industry complained about a lack of other solutions. The debate peaked in September when the California State Board of Food and Agriculture sent a letter to the county that echoed the concerns of some farmers. In 2020, the state Department of Water Resources will decide whether to approve the plan.

The city of Morro Bay went through more than 50 public meetings and 17 possible locations for its anticipated Water Reclamation Facility before it finally pinned down the site on South Bay Boulevard and Highway 1. Amid opposition from a group of city residents, the California Coastal Commission gave Morro Bay its stamp of approval in July. That didn't stop the Citizens for Affordable Living from petitioning against the city's decision to purchase the project site. The petition stopped the city from buying the land, but it's not stopping the project from moving forward with construction.

The dust still hasn't settled on the controversy over the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, and debates regarding the issue in 2019 were no less contentious than in years past. In July, the California Coastal Commission considered imposing regulations that would have limited off-highway vehicle riding in some portions of the Oceano Dunesactivities that are thought to increase potentially dangerous dust particles emitted by the park. The proposed conditions were reluctantly voted down by the commission after hours of impassioned public comment and State Parks Director Lisa Mangat's repeated promises to commit to dust reduction efforts. But months later in November, after State Parks' failure to complete an adequate work plan for dust mitigation, an Air Pollution Control District hearing board voted to hold State Parks to a slightly more stringent stipulated abatement order. In December, State Parks fenced off 48 acres of riding area in the park to adhere to the new order.

South County was host to uproarious debate for several months in 2019 when 5 Cities Homeless Coalition and Peoples' Self-Help Housing announced plans in March to purchase Hillside Church in Grover Beach and replace it with a homeless services facility. The projectit would have included a housing navigation center and offices, transitional housing for youth, and permanent housing unitsfaced vehement opposition from neighbors to the property, who voiced concerns over safety and transparency. "Right idea, wrong location" was the rallying cry among opponents of the project, and in May, one such rival filed legal documents calling into question the ownership of Hillside Church. Peoples' Self-Help Housing and 5 Cities quickly moved on, purchasing office space at another location in Grover in August and space for supportive housing facilities in Pismo in October.

For nearly seven months, James and Becky Grant, with the help of the community, fought to close the El Campo Intersection on Highway 101 after the death of their son Jordan Grant. The first-year computer science student was killed in a motorcycle crash at the intersection in October 2018. The Grants advocated for the elimination of left turns at four intersections along Highway 101 between Los Berros Road and Traffic Way. After a comprehensive study completed by the San Luis Obispo Council of Governmentsthat brought together the California Highway Patrol, the city of Arroyo Grande, and San Luis Obispo CountyCaltrans agreed to the closures.

In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt stopped in SLO during his famous presidential tour of the West and delivered a short speech in what today is Mitchell Park. While his visit was brief, some locals view it as the birth of the city's environmental movement, and so a group led by former City Councilmember John Ashbaugh hatched a plan to put a statue of Roosevelt in the park. But, by the start of 2019, backlash emerged against the statue. Native tribal groups and political leaders like Mayor Heidi Harmon came out against the idea, condemning Roosevelt's views and policies toward indigenous peoples. The clash spilled onto social media platforms and newspaper opinion pages, with the City Council finally voting in July to amend its public art policy to prohibit any statues of individuals on public property. The council has yet to finalize the policyso stay tuned for that in 2020.

Last year was when most of the Central Coast decided to join Monterey Bay Community Power, a multi-city and multi-county agency based in Monterey that procures power on behalf of residents as an alternative to PG&E. While the cities of SLO and Morro Bay started the wave in 2018, Paso Robles, Pismo Beach, Grover Beach, Arroyo Grande, Santa Maria, and Santa Barbara County all jumped on board this year. The transition (which starts this month for the cities that joined in 2018 and won't occur until 2021 for those that joined in 2019) marks the region's first foray into community choice energy, a public electricity model that promises cheaper and cleaner power to consumers. Monterey Bay Community Power formed in 2018 to serve the residents and businesses of Monterey, Santa Cruz, and San Benito counties and their cities.

San Luis Obispo set one of the most ambitious net-zero emissions targets for a city in the country this year, vowing to take dramatic steps to pursue carbon neutral status by 2035. City staff says the goal is only about 70 percent achievable, but that hasn't stopped elected leaders like Mayor Heidi Harmon from pushing for it. "People won't do small things for small goals," Harmon said recently. "But they will do big things for big goals." SLO's path to net-zero involves a variety of new policies and systemic changes, some of which had already generated controversy in 2019. A new proposed building code to promote all-electric development and disincentivize natural gas infrastructure drew protests from gas workers as well as some residents and policy skeptics. The code is currently on hold pending an investigation into a conflict-of-interest allegation against City Councilmember and local architect Andy Pease, stirred up by the SoCalGas workers' labor union.

Cities throughout San Luis Obispo County saw an increase in their recycling program rates due to an international policy change. China's National Sword policy, which took effect at the beginning of the year, imposes a strict limit on contaminated recyclables. The country's policy change affects what can be tossed in the blue bins across the United States, specifically mixed paper and some plastics that are now labeled as contaminates. The local increase in fees comes from a rise in the number of employees who sort through recycled material. The policy change and increased fees prompted cities to work with local garbage companies to educate residents about what can and can't be recycled.

At the beginning of 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) started looking at the potential of opening up federally-owned land to oil and gas drilling and fracking. By the end of the year, the BLM announced that fracking would cause minimal harm and opened up about 120,000 acres in the county to new oil and gas leases. Meanwhile, at the state level, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on new oil wells that use certain enhanced drilling techniques such as hydraulic fracturing. The rule will not affect any future proposals for the Arroyo Grande Oil Field currently operated by Sentinel Peak Resources. In 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency finally granted Sentinel Peak the aquifer exemption it needed to potentially expand oil drilling operations in Price Canyon.

It was a rough second half of 2019 for the SLO Police Department, starting in July with Chief Deanna Cantrell leaving her gun behind in the bathroom of El Pollo Loco. A 30-year-old Los Osos man took it home, right before a 10-year-old went in. Cantrell apologized to the community, and the city issued her a two-day suspension and mandatory firearm safety training. A few weeks later, news emerged that on the day the gun went missing, police conducted a warrantless search of a home in pursuit of a lead on Cantrell's weapon, relying on a database that mistakenly showed that the house's owner was on probation. The search resulted in no gun, but in the arrests of the owners on unrelated charges, drawing further scrutiny for the department. In September, a SLO Police Department officer shot and killed a dog in the driveway of its owners' apartment. Police were responding to a false alarm burglary call at the unit when a patrol officer fatally shot 7-year-old Bubs. The incident sparked public outcry and activism that remains ongoing.

Regional water quality regulators finally closed the book on a 20-plus-year investigation into how a cancer-causing chemicaltrichloroethylene (TCE)ended up in the wells of more than a dozen properties near the SLO County Airport. The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board blamed a decades-old local machine shop. The shop denied it and pointed to other possible sources. Airport area residents, meanwhile, berated water board officials for failing to conduct a timely investigation. In 1998, the agency dropped the case for "unknown reasons," picking it up again in 2013. To end the year, residents in the same region got the news that two additional toxic chemicalsperfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)were detected in the groundwater at unsafe levels.

Shocking security camera footage unearthed in April showed an off-duty SLO city building inspector knocking out a Santa Maria woman and attacking her male friend in an Avila Beach bar. The employee, Chris Olcott, committed the seemingly unprovoked assault in 2016but he remained employed by the city through most of 2019. Public outrage in response to the video led to more facts coming to light: In 2018, a jury declined to convict Olcott of a felony, and one juror was reportedly overheard making a racist comment about the victim. The city didn't investigate or discipline Olcott until the video's release, and Olcott ultimately accepted a misdemeanor plea deal and served his two-month jail sentence at a pay-to-stay facility in Southern California. The city announced in September that Olcott was no longer a SLO employee.

In May, Velia Talamantes, Veronica Olivares, and Eulogio Espinoza filed a lawsuit on behalf of themselves and 200 current and former tenants of the Grand View Apartments against the owners, Ebrahim and Fahimeh Madadi, and property manager, Nicolle Davis. The suit accused the property of being insect- and vermin-infested for at least the past four years, having severe mold problems, and dangerous gas and electric lines that render the property uninhabitable. The SLO County Superior Court issued a temporary restraining order protecting the tenants of Grand View by requiring the owners to make the complex habitable, refrain from retaliating, and refrain from collecting rent. After eight months of hearings, tenants get their security deposits back and a deadline to leave the premises, as the owners are taking the property off the rental market due to an estimated $2.5 million in repairs. Tenants are now forced to find housing in a city with a vacancy rate of less than 2 percent.

After major spikes in the popularity of vaping among teens, local politicians buckled down on the issue in 2019 despite inaction at the state level. In May, a bill that would have banned flavored tobacco products in California entirely stalled out, but local anti-tobacco programs in Santa Barbara and SLO counties continued pushing for flavor bans locally. Still not a whole lot was accomplished until after June, when the first vaping-related deaths and injuries were reported across the U.S. Both Morro Bay and Arroyo Grande passed ordinances banning the sale of e-cigarette and vaping products on Nov. 12, and Arroyo Grande's ban included a controversial law making it illegal for individuals under 21 to possess e-cigarette products. San Luis Obispo is still considering its own ban on vaping, as is SLO County as a whole.

For years SLO County had only one known physician providing gender-affirming carenoninvasive medical services that transgender and nonbinary individuals sometimes go through to align their bodies with gender identities. Nonbinary residents reportedly waited for months for their initial appointments. That all changed in June 2019, when Planned Parenthood offices on the Central Coast started offering hormone replacement therapy. Then in December, Cal Poly announced it too would offer gender-affirming care to students as a basic medical service covered by student health fees. Both moves were applauded by the local LGBTQ community, which surveys show have disproportionately high rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, and unmet needs locally. "It literally saves lives," Cal Poly student Autumn Ford told New Times.

Since President Trump took office in 2016, with a campaign promise of enforcing immigration laws to protect American communities and jobs, the border discussion has loomed over the country. Locally, Latinos have felt the effects of being seen as immigrantsregardless of their citizenship statusbut advocacy groups such as Allies for Immigration Justice and other organizations have stood by the community. The nonprofit aided a woman and her son that fled their country and sought asylum in the United States. The community support continued when former Grover Beach resident Neofita Valerio-Silva was deported in 2018 and barred from returning to the U.S. for 10 years. Cambria resident Courtney Upthegrove's husband Juan Murguia was also barred from returning to his home and she is routinely traveling with their son to visit Murguia in Tijuana, Mexico.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a pair of bills into law in September that would create oversight of medical exemptions for vaccines required by schools and day care centers throughout the state. Senate bills 276 and 714 were written to crack down on doctors who write faulty medical exemptions for children. The statewide legislation met with local opposition from a group of San Luis Coastal Unified School District parents who describe themselves as ex-vaxxers. They asked the San Luis Coastal school board to speak out against the bill. The district must adhere to the law, district representatives told New Times.

Stalking, physical and emotional abuse, outright threats to killJosiah Johnstone has developed quite the list of accusations. At least six separate individuals have been granted restraining orders against Johnstone in SLO County. Some have filed charges, and nearly 30 individuals claim to have been stalked, harassed, or worse by the Atascadero native. Johnstone, who was arrested in 2017, pleaded no contest to a count of stalking and a count of criminal threats in May 2019, caused when he no-showed a sentencing hearing and a warrant was issued for his arrest. A bounty hunter tracked Johnstone down and found him in Nevada, where he was apprehended by law enforcement and brought back to SLO County. During a hearing on Oct. 17, he was ordered to a 90-day mental health evaluation and his sentencing hearing was rescheduled for Jan. 28, 2020.

In November, Mountainbrook Church, a nondenominational community church that's part of the Association of Vineyard USA, sent an email to its congregation announcing that Lead Pastor Thom O'Leary and his wife Sherri O'Leary are on a leave of absence until February 2020. A week later, the church board informed the community that the pastor was on leave due to "credible allegations" of inappropriate behavior and they launched an investigation with a third-party. On Dec. 8, the all-male church board spoke to the congregation to ask for prayer and continued patience during the investigation. In an email to New Times, board member John Waddell stated that new allegations had been raised and the board couldn't disclose any new information.

Lyft is involved in a complaint that claims the ride-hailing company misrepresented the safety of its rides to women and the general public. The complaint filed on July 24, on behalf of three Jane Does (one of whom is a San Luis Obispo local) against Lyft. Inc. and Lompoc resident Jason Fenwick, alleges that the company falsely claimed that its rides were safe and its drivers properly screened. Fenwick (a Lyft driver) was arrested for sexual assault and battery charges after assaulting a female passenger. Alfonso Alarcon-Nunez, an Uber driver and Santa Maria resident, is facing 12 felony charges in multiple incidents where women across the Central Coast say they were sexually assaulted and stolen from while nearly or completely unconscious. A jury trial is scheduled for Jan. 7.

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Battles, scandals, and #MeToo: The riveting and riotous news that made headlines in 2019 - New Times SLO

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