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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on December 27th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 43 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 43

2017, Polarized: Join the Sun as we look back on the year that was

By SUN STAFF

What a year it has been! The Central Coast is a dynamic place, and 2017 saw a number of dramatic shifts that affected everyone. 

The historic drought continued in Santa Barbara County, despite last winter’s rains, exacerbating wildfire season—which still hasn’t ended. 

There’s been plenty to adapt to, not just change in the weather. 

Locals adapted to the administration of President Donald Trump as well. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids increased, local Dreamers worried about their DACA status, protesters took to the streets, and the fate of the Carrizo Plain National Monument was in question as well. National politics also took center stage in a big way when Congress officially placed Camp 4 into federal fee-to-trust for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.

And there was still a bevy of issues that affected locals directly: The ongoing pension crisis is hitting budgets across the county; city councils are making the change to district elections; and everyone’s getting regulations ready for legal recreational cannabis on Jan. 1.

There’s plenty to reminisce about before we take the dive into 2018, so take a moment to peruse the Sun’s look back at 2017 for our annual Year in Review issue.

 

 


The Khouris family and Pastor Lawrence Russell (pictured center) at the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Orcutt
FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

A NEW HOME

A small but tight-knit community of Syrian immigrants calls the Santa Maria Valley home. They’re mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and business owners. Families like the Khouris (pictured) are active at the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Orcutt, where Lawrence Russell (pictured center) is the pastor. Other local Syrians, like Samir Fadel, work to help their family emigrate to the U.S. from their war-torn country of origin. “We can’t say no,” he said. “We’ve got to help them out, because they do need the help. They have no other places to go.”

 

 


Service for Miguel Grijalva
FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

BROTHERS IN BLUE

After Lompoc Police Department officer and Marine Corps veteran Miguel Grijalva took his own life on March 7, local law enforcement agencies came to department’s aid immediately. Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office deputies took over police operations for Lompoc that day. On March 17, officers from Santa Maria and Santa Barbara’s police departments joined Sheriff’s deputies to patrol Lompoc during Grijalva’s funeral. The Sun spoke with experts, former officers, and Lompoc Police Chief Pat Walsh about post-traumatic stress disorder and the realities of a career in law enforcement. Walsh also spoke to the importance of first responders coming together to honor a serviceman who is lost, whether on or off the job, and what it means to families and colleagues who lay them to rest. “It leaves an indelible mark on everyone who’s there,” Walsh said. “And I hope I never have to do it again.”

 

 


Carrizo Plain National Monument
FILE PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM

PROTECT THE PLAIN?

When President Donald Trump issued an order to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review the status of national monuments around the country, the Carrizo Plane National Monument was included in the review. The sprawling acres of flat valley, punctuated by mountain ranges and an alkali lake, are home to wildflowers, endangered species, and families who had their own thoughts on the review. “I don’t know about all these monuments, but I do know about the Carrizo,” said Patrick Veesart, who grew up and lives there. “What the heck is going to be gained by messing with the Carrizo monument status?” The Trump administration’s review left Carrizo alone, and shrunk the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase National Monuments in Utah.

 

 


Supporters of DACA recipients gathered in Santa Maria on Sept. 5, 2017
FILE PHOTO BY KASEY BUBNASH

UNDOCUMENTED AND UNPROTECTED

After an announcement from President Donald Trump in September, the Department of Homeland Security initiated the rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a controversial policy that protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Since DACA’s enactment in 2012, it protected 800,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation while they worked and attended school. But initial DACA applications received after Sept. 5 were not accepted, and only applicants whose DACAs expire between Sept. 5, 2017, and March 5, 2018, were able to apply for renewal. Those renewal requests had to be done by Oct. 5, 2017. The announcement of DACA’s phase out incited outrage and fear among the nearly 9,000 DACA recipients living in Santa Barbara County and their allies. Encouragement came from a group of about 20 protestors who gathered in Santa Maria on Sept. 5 in support of DACA recipients. With signs that read, “Undocumented and unafraid,” and “Here to stay,” the protesters spoke out against DACA’s end.

 

 


FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF ICE

ICE-ING THE SYSTEM

This year saw an increase in activity from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers who have been accused by attorneys, politicians, judges, and immigrants rights activists of arresting undocumented immigrant witnesses and victims of crimes at courthouses across the country, effectively throwing a wrench in the criminal justice system and its ability to prosecute criminals. State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), told the Sun on Aug. 24 that stricter ICE enforcement since President Donald Trump’s inauguration had resulted in fewer undocumented immigrants coming forward to report crimes or give witness testimony. “[There’s] a new set of priorities, which have moved from addressing the dangerous criminal to essentially identifying any immigrant, no matter how hardworking or responsible, or connected to the community or otherwise serving as a contributing member of our society,” Jackson said. ICE officers were active in Santa Barbara County as a whole throughout the year, making multiple raids in Santa Maria and Los Alamos. 

 

 


Santa Maria Police Department (SMPD) Chief Ralph Martin retired
FILE PHOTO BY JOE PAYNE

TAKING HIS LEAVE

Santa Maria Police Department (SMPD) Chief Ralph Martin retired from the department in June of 2017, handing leadership of the department over to Phil Hansen. Martin arrived to the department in 2012 after a string of controversial incidents that led then-chief Danny Macagni to retire, a time of “turmoil” for the department, according to the city. During Martin’s time in charge of the SMPD, the police force saw reform and change. The department was restructured, moved into a large state-of-the-art facility, more officers and staff were hired to the department, and the community-based policing and engagement was made a priority. “We are healthier. Morale is high. We are engaged and proactive,” Martin said in a release.

 

 


The Thomas Fire
FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF SANTA BARBARA COUNTY FIRE DEPARTMENT

YEAR OF FLAMES

Two massive wildfires ignited within days of each other in July—the Alamo and Whittier fires—which charred mountainous terrain in Tepusquet Canyon and Santa Ynez near Cachuma Lake, respectively. Fire crews from across the state aided local firefighters in stemming the spread of those blazes, saving homes and infrastructure while containing the fire. A wildfire of that magnitude didn’t touch Santa Barbara County again until the Thomas Fire spread from Ventura County in December, which crews are still working to contain as of the Sun’s press time, when the Thomas Fire was the second largest wildfire in California’s history.

 

 


FILE IMAGE COURTESY OF CITY OF SANTA MARIA

CITY DIVIDED

The Santa Maria City Council approved district elections for the city after local businessman and failed City Council candidate Hector Sanchez threatened the city with a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit challenging the former at-large system. The council considered input from residents when drawing the district boundaries, but ultimately decided on boundaries drawn by an out-of-town demographer. Some residents criticized the council’s decision, saying during public comment that the map was chosen to avoid head-to-head races with sitting councilmembers. “For me, map N meets more of those criteria than any of the other maps,” Councilmember Jack Boysen said before the final map was chosen. “Nobody’s going to be happy with everything on the map.”

 

 


Strawberry research
FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF GERALD HOLMES

FIGHTING BY BREEDING

A group of scientists led by UC Davis received a $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in August to support its research identifying strawberry plants that are resistant to certain diseases. The team consists of researchers from various universities, including Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, who hope to accelerate the development of disease-resistant strawberries by identifying genetic markers that make some plants resistant. Cal Poly’s researchers work closely with strawberry growers in the Santa Maria area, who said California’s massive strawberry industry has been threatened by diseases since the 2005 ban of methyl bromide, a widely used fumigant that causes ozone depletion.

 

 


FILE PHOTO BY SPENCER COLE

CONDITIONAL FREEDOM

The Bill of Rights and one’s right to privacy at a subsidized housing complex was pushed into the public sphere after Marsha Waldau, a retired attorney living in subsidized housing in Lompoc, filed a lawsuit alleging management and government entities inspected her apartment and complex too much and routinely violate her civil rights. The original complaint Waldau filed included the U.S. Department of Housing and Development, Santa Barbara County’s housing assistance corporation, the city of Lompoc, and a private real estate fund manager that specializes in low-income housing tax credits. Waldau, representing herself in court, faces a steep hill if she wishes to win her case, but even if her attempt fails, the instance brings up an issue that is too often ignored: “Do people in subsidized housing have the same rights as everybody else?”

 

 


Camp 4
FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

VITRIOL IN THE VALLEY

Santa Ynez Valley community members filled 2017 with a hefty dose of arguing—heated meetings were held, intense debate was had, legal and political threats and filings were made, and despite it all, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors officially entered into an agreement with the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians on Oct. 31 regarding Camp 4. The supervisors voted 4-1 in favor of its ad hoc subcommittee’s memorandum of agreement with the Chumash on Camp 4, a 1,400-acre parcel of land the Bureau of Indian Affairs placed into fee-to-trust with the federal government on Jan. 20, essentially adding it to the tribe’s reservation and taking it out of the county’s jurisdiction. After the acquisition, the U.S. Congress forced the county’s ad hoc subcommittee to enter into negotiations with the Chumash regarding development on the land, despite the county’s previous reluctance to do so. The agreement, while allowing the Chumash to develop housing and a cultural center on Camp 4, will also give the county some limited enforceability, land-use certainty, and fiscal mitigation over the land.

 

 


FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

FREE TO GO

After the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office took a $5 million cut to its budget this year, Santa Maria’s Foster Road Jail closed its doors, forcing law enforcement officers to drive North County arrestees more than 60 miles to Santa Barbara County Jail. At about the same time, the jail’s late-night ride program—a service started in 2009 that offered taxi rides to people released from jail late at night while public buses are no longer running—came to an unannounced end. The situation left many individuals, including North County residents, without any way home late at night after they’d spent hours locked in jail for mostly minor offenses, often aided by a Santa Barbara-based church group (pictured). But after months spent searching for a willing taxi company, the Sheriff’s Office successfully revived the ride program on Oct. 23.

 

 


FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE

DEERLY DEPARTED

How much do humans affect nearby wildlife? This is but one of several questions the Sun tried to answer after discovering that California deer populations statewide had dropped by more than 300,000 since 1990. Scientists who spoke on record explained that the decrease in population was largely due to consistent human development as an impetus for pushing deer out of their traditional habitat. Meanwhile, the five-year drought devastated available food and water supplies. Los Padres National Forest biologist Kevin Cooper noted how Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo county’s booming wine industries could also create problems down the line not just for deer, but also for their predators. “If more and more lands are converted to agriculture, particularly grapes with high fences that prevent deer’s ability to move through grazing land, it really changes the population dynamics of the deer and of course their predators, mountain lions,” he said. “But the populations are probably dropping overall due to a combination of everything: drought, loss of habitat, increased number of predators, and hunting pressure.”

 

 


FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

HIGH STAKES

As California gears up to allow recreational adult-use marijuana, counties like Santa Barbara spent the past year scrambling to keep pace. The state stands to rake in more than $1 billion annually in excise tax revenue from cannabis sales by 2021-22, while the county could see as much as $60 million per year. Santa Barbara County will have to move forward diligently however, as the area already produces 3.7 million pounds of marijuana annually, or roughly twice the amount of marijuana expected to be consumed by the market (1.6 million pounds to 2.5 million pounds). Experts say a per pound and per ounce price drop for cannabis is inevitable and will ultimately make the industry sector difficult to navigate for some business owners. “Margins are going to have to be razor thin,” Mark Lovelace with the county’s hired consulting firm, HdL, said at a Dec. 14 Board of Supervisors hearing regarding marijuana regulation.




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