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Petaluma’s 2017 was scarred by fires, shaped by Trump


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The past year will forever be remembered for the once-in- a-generation wildfires that have permanently altered the region. Epic rains that formed one of the year’s bookends fed vegetation that fueled the fires at the other end of the calendar.

In between natural disasters, Petalumans experienced a busy year that was overshadowed by national politics. Local activists representing many issues, including women’s rights, immigration, treatment of LGBT people, healthcare advocacy and climate science, became engaged as a reaction to last year’s presidential election.

Last year’s election also brought to the fore the promise of legal recreational cannabis in California, and cities across the state crafted local marijuana policies. After much debate, Petaluma settled on a middle path, approving some industries while banning cannabis dispensaries.

The biggest transportation story of the year was the launch of SMART, the North Bay’s commuter rail network. The $600 million system began service in August, carrying passengers from Santa Rosa to San Rafael with a stop in Petaluma. Meanwhile, local transportation officials planned to spend new revenue from a state gas tax increase on projects including Highway 101 widening, upgrades to Highway 37 and local street repairs.

The region continued to be gripped by a housing shortage, which was amplified by the October fires. Few new housing projects were approved in Petaluma this year, but several developments already in the pipeline broke ground, promising to increase the city’s housing stock in the future.

Two venerable Petaluma institutions — Petaluma Valley Hospital and Petaluma Valley Athletic club — underwent transitions this past year. The hospital continued moving toward a new operator while the health club abruptly closed, angering many longtime members.

Public employees were in the news this year. A union representing most teachers in Petaluma bargained for a new contract, even staging a work stoppage. The city’s police department hired a female deputy chief, the highest ranking woman in the department, while one of the only former female firefighters settled a harassment lawsuit with the city.

Also in the public safety sector, Petaluma experienced its first murder in three years when Cristian Nunez-Castro was stabbed to death in September outside of a bar on Kentucky street. The case vexed police for two months until they arrested suspect Bryan Webster in November.

In sports, the year saw the return of the Egg Bowl crosstown football rivalry game for the first time since 2011. Also this year, Casa Grande High School abruptly fired beloved football coach Trent Herzog, to the dismay of players and boosters.

In food news, several new restaurants opened in Petaluma, including The Block food truck pavilion, further cementing the city’s reputation as a foodie hotspot. The local craft beer industry took a hit when Petaluma Hills Brewery closed, but former Petaluma beer startup HenHouse Brewing Company announced plans to return its incubator. The year ended on a high note with Petaluma Gap winegrowers receiving long awaited federal recognition.

Natural disasters

After several years of drought, the year began with much needed rains. Storms that brought the wettest January on record also downed power lines and flooded streets and some houses on the upper Petaluma River. More ominously, the rains fed an explosion of vegetation growth.

By the end of a hot, arid summer, the flora had become a dangerous mass of dry kindling just waiting for a spark. That came on the night of Oct. 8, when high winds fanned wildfires that scorched through parts of Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley, sending thousands of evacuees fleeing into Petaluma. The two largest Sonoma County fires, the Tubbs and Nuns fires, burned more than 90,000 acres and destroyed nearly 5,000 houses.

Though a thick cloud of smoke shrouded Petaluma for days, the city was spared damage and instead became a refuge for those escaping neighboring communities. Petaluma opened a dozen emergency shelters, including at the fairgrounds, Lucchesi Center and the Veteran’s Building. Volunteers from throughout the community rushed to offer assistance and local restaurants prepared meals for evacuees.

The immediate economic impacts were apparent. Many Petaluma residents lost jobs when their workplace was destroyed in the fire, and those who work in Petaluma lost houses in neighboring communities. The longterm affects of the 2017 wildfires will be felt for years to come.

Trump’s world

The inauguration of President Donald Trump in January had an immediate affect on many areas of life throughout the country. Beyond the gossip and gawking at early gaffes in his presidency, the Trump administration’s policy moves took the country in a drastically new direction, one that many Petaluma residents found jarring.

Petaluma women and men joined millions of marchers in January to protest statements Trump made about women. As the administration took an aggressive posture on immigration enforcement, Petaluma activists rallied around the local immigrant community and lobbied the city to resist cooperation with federal immigration officials.

Other local groups formed to protest what they saw was the erosion of hard fought rights for marginalized groups, including Muslims, blacks and LGBT people. Petalumans rallied to protest a Republican attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, an effort that ultimately failed. Meanwhile, the city reaffirmed its commitment to combating climate change in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.

Legal weed

When California voters last November approved legalizing recreational cannabis, it started the clock on a yearlong policymaking dash before sales start Jan. 1, 2018. The measure left much of the policy crafting to local officials, who could decide how to permit and tax the sale of marijuana to adults.

Over the course of several city council meetings, Petaluma officials discussed and debated how to treat legal cannabis in the city. While some jurisdictions embraced marijuana, permitting dispensaries and taxing the industry, and others banned cannabis sales outright, Petaluma took a measured approach.

Ultimately, Petaluma permitted two cannabis delivery services and allowed companies that make cannabis-infused products, while preserving a ban on dispensaries and leaving open the question of taxation. Still left to be determined are the zones where these businesses will be allowed to operate, meaning the city won’t start issuing permits until sometime after the new year.

Trains, roads, river

After much delay, the long-anticipated Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit authority in August brought passenger train service back to the North Bay for the first time in nearly 60 years. The shiny green and gray trains have fit mostly seamlessly into the regional transportation landscape, carrying thousands of commuters each day between San Rafael and Santa Rosa. Petaluma’s downtown station has been well-used, while plans for a second east side station took shape this year.

The rains early in the year shined a spotlight on challenges of Highway 37, which was closed for several weeks due to flooding. Officials explored ways to fund the $4 billion needed to upgrade the route, including making it a toll road. Meanwhile, transportation officials asked the state to spend a portion of the revenue from a gas tax increase to widen Highway 101 through Petaluma, a decision that is expected at the beginning of next year.

Despite much discussion this year about dredging the Petaluma River, local and federal officials are no closer to funding the long overdue project. The silted river forced the Petaluma Yacht Club to cancel events this year. An unrelated issue, a malfunction of the D Street drawbridge in October, blocked boats from accessing the Turning Basin for several weeks and delayed construction of a new public boathouse.

Housing crisis

The region remained gripped by a housing shortage that has driven rents and home prices to levels many residents find increasingly unaffordable. The October fires, which destroyed thousands of Sonoma County homes, made the crisis worse. While county and Santa Rosa leaders took swift action to find creative housing solutions, Petaluma leaders have so far been silent on the issue.

After a decade of recession, when new housing starts were negligible in Petaluma, the city saw several previously approved projects break ground this year, including Brody Ranch off Corona Road, the Marina Apartments at the Petaluma Marina, Altura Apartments on Baywood Drive and the Riverfront development off Lakeville. Together, these projects will add around 700 units to help ease the city’s tight housing market.

At year’s end, several other housing projects remained mired in the planning process, including the North River Apartments between Water Street and Petaluma Boulevard, and mixed-use developments around the downtown rail station. Also this year, environmentalists claimed a partial victory in a long running effort to block a luxury home project near Helen Putnam Park. The city council sent the 66-unit Davidon Homes project back for more review, ensuring that the battle will continue.

Facilities in transition

The 40-year-old Petaluma Valley Athletic Club closed at the end of March after a failed attempt to turn the facility into a church. The city council rejected a zoning change, effectively nixing a sale of the locally owned gym to the 360 Church of Petaluma. Longtime gym members petitioned to keep the club open, but the owners said they could not compete with the influx of large chain fitness centers in Petaluma.

The Petaluma Heath Care District, which owns Petaluma Valley Hospital, chose Paladin Healthcare as the hospital’s next operator from among three bidders. The southern California company is in line to take over the facility from St. Joseph Health, which has run the hospital for 20 years but failed to reach an extension with the district last year.

The health care district spent much of the past year working on a transition agreement, but the transfer of an electronic medical record keeping system has emerged as a main sticking point holding up the transition.

Public employees

The Petaluma Federation of Teachers in May staged the first work stoppage since the employees unionized in 1969 to protest what they said was the Petaluma City Schools District’s unfair labor practices. Many of the 360 union teachers in the district’s 18 schools demonstrated and carried signs outside campuses across Petaluma in the one-day action.

The city of Petaluma in January settled a harassment lawsuit with Andrea Waters, the city’s first female firefighter in 40 years. The city paid Waters $1.25 million to settle claims that she was denied career advancement opportunities and was not provided with separate sleeping and showering facilities. In March, Petaluma Police hired Tara Salizzoni as deputy police chief, the highest post a female officer has achieved in the city.

Fatal stabbing

In September, Windsor resident Cristian Nunez-Castro was stabbed to death in an altercation in the Golden Concourse walkway between Kentucky Street and the Keller Street parking garage. The fatal stabbing was the first murder in Petaluma since the 2014 shooting death of Arturo Hinojosa.

The suspect fled the scene, and police spent two months tracking him down. In November, police arrested suspect Bryan Webster at his home in Napa. Police said they have no indication that Webster and Nunez-Castro knew each other prior to the stabbing.

Sports news

Officials in April announced the return of the Egg Bowl, the annual crosstown football game between rivals Petaluma High and Casa Grande. A tradition since 1974, the game was put on hold following a contentious 2011 contest that involved a number of ugly incidents between players. Petaluma won the Sept. 16 game, 20-14.

Casa Grande played the game under new head coach, Denis Brunk, who was hired after the school abruptly fired beloved coach Trent Herzog in February, a decision many players and coaches initially protested.

Culinary additions

Petaluma’s reputation as a foodie haven got a boost this year with several restaurant openings. The Block had its much anticipated opening in April, offering a rotating selection of food trucks, a pizza kitchen and a beer garden just across the river from new restaurant Brewsters. Craft brewer Petaluma Hills closed this year, but HenHouse announced in November that it will take over the North McDowell Brewery next year.

As the year came to a close, Petaluma wine makers got an early Christmas present. Federal officials approved the Petaluma Gap American Viticulture Area, giving local wineries and growers an important marketing tool.