Park closure and Mono Casino highlight 2013 news

December 31, 2013 

One of the top Mountain Area stories for 2013, which resulted in a substantial loss of income for area businesses, was the governmental shutdown in October. As a result of the inability of Congress to come anywhere close to reaching an agreement over the fiscal budget and the new health care initiative, Yosemite National Park was closed for 16 days.

With the Highway 41 south entrance historically handling the heaviest traffic flow into the park, area businesses that depend upon park visitors for economic security, quickly felt the negative impact of the closure.

"Within the first four hours this morning, we had about 15 rooms cancel," said Jerry Rankin, manager of Oakhurst's Comfort Inn. "That's $1,500 in lost income. Even as we speak, another cancellation is coming in."

Within the park itself, close to 600 non-essential park employees were furloughed indefinitely, entrance stations were staffed with law-enforcement officers and a skeleton crew of management staff remained on duty.

At the time, Dan Cunning, CEO of the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau, said, "It is unfortunate that people's well-earned vacations to Yosemite are being hampered by the government shutdown. Economically, if there is a silver lining to this cloud, it is that it didn't happen during our peak season."

Another big story with large economic ramifications for the county with an unknown ending is the referendum on next November's ballot in which Californians will vote to decide if the state-tribal compact tied to the North Fork Mono Indians proposed casino on Highway 99 north of Madera will be upheld or overturned.

The tribe had negotiated a revenue-sharing compact with Gov. Jerry Brown, regarding the proposal to build a casino adjacent to the Madera Municipal Golf Course near Highway 99 and Avenue 18, about 35 miles from the tribe's reservation in North Fork. But following a drive to oppose the project, it was determined in November of this year that enough qualified signatures were gathered state-wide to leave the fate of the compacts in the hands of the voters.

With financial support from both Table Mountain and the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, and other tribes who own and operate casinos, Cheryl Schmit with Stand Up for California, said, "We are confident that Californians will reject this compact when they see that it is a great deal for Las Vegas investors, but a bad deal for the rest of us. The compact sets the precedent of allowing reservation shopping and has already created a new 'gold rush' of investors looking to build casinos off reservation land across the state."

The opposition to the project argues that building the casino violates Proposition 1-A which was approved by California voters more than 13 years ago and states Indian gaming casinos are to be placed on tribal land.

If the referendum that will appear on the ballot passes, it would completely void the current compact, which would provide Madera County up to $5 million annually for 20 years to be used for additional sheriff deputies, fire protection, road work, and other services.

Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler feels if the referendum passes, it will clearly hinder the economic growth of Madera County.

Other news that made Sierra Star headlines during 2013 are:


JANUARY

Storms drop 10-14 inches of snow in the southern Sierra, attracting hundreds of skiers to the Badger Pass slopes.

The "Save the Met" campaign proves successful after the Oakhurst area theater closed its doors in November 2012. Thanks to the community and a trio of longtime Mountain Area residents, James Nelson, Matt Sconce and Keith Walker, 3,000+ Met "heroes" step forward to save the theater through a community membership campaign.

On Jan. 8, Madera County District 3 Supervisor Ronn Dominici concludes 12 years of public service. Incumbent District 4 Supervisor Max Rodriguez and newly elected District 3 Supervisor Rick Farinelli take their oaths of office.

Former Madera County Supervisor Frank Bigelow is sworn in as the new representative for the 5th Assembly District in Sacramento.

At the Jan. 11 Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce installation dinner, Oakhurst Physical Therapy is named 2012 Business of the Year, James Watkins is named Man of the Year, and Candace Flammang is named Woman of the Year. Outgoing Chamber president Janet Stanovich passes the gavel to incoming chamber president Greg Chappel.

After 28 years, the Ol' Kettle Restaurant closes and Denny's announces it will open in May with plans on hiring 50+ employees.

The Madera County Planning Department's Code enforcement Division deals with complaints about 6-foot tall "feather" signs and free-standing A-frame signs scattered throughout Oakhurst, which are in violation of the Oakhurst Area Sign Ordinance. Code enforcement officials make a couple trips to the Oakhurst area to 'educate" business owners about the ordinance.

Greg Noll, 49, a resident of Oakhurst and 27-year police veteran, announces he will run for the position of Madera County Sheriff. A 1981 graduate of Yosemite High School, Noll received his bachelor degree in criminology from California State University, Fresno. He served with the Santa Cruz Police Department for eight years before joining the Fresno Police Department 19 years ago. Four-term Sheriff John Anderson will not seek re-election in 2014.


FEBRUARY

Yosemite High School beats five other county schools to win its 20th consecutive Madera County Academic Decathlon. The team receives 33,880 points out of a possible 65,400. Chowchilla High takes second.

"The decathlets in this year's decathlon are outstanding examples of the great students we have in Madera County," said Cyndy Dolph, associate superintendent of the Madera County Office of Education.

Hansel Kern is named North Fork's Citizen of the Year. He's recognized for donating his time, manpower and supplies for more than 13 years to help North Fork School students plant and manage an organic garden.

Madera County Department of Corrections dedicates a $30 million county jail expansion.

Nancy Ayala and Reggie Lewis both claim tribal leadership of Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians. Ayala's faction begins occupying the tribal offices, which is guarded by a new security force. Madera County Sheriff deputies and other law enforcement personnel gather in anticipation of possible violence at the Picayune Rancheria.

Jessica Tancredi and Channa Hammond, both of Oakhurst, are sentenced to state prison Feb. 21 for their attempted felony carjacking of a male Japanese tourist near McDonald's on July 5, 2013. Nathaniel Chase, 22, of Coarsegold, is called a hero by law enforcement officials for going to the aid of the man and protecting him from harm.

Madera County Board of Supervisors vote that an audit of the county's treasurer-tax collector office, headed by Tracy Kennedy Desmond, be conducted by an outside auditing firm. Although there are no accusations of fraud or malfeasance with regard to Kennedy Desmond, supervisors believe an audit is needed to review departmental procedures after concerns are brought to the board's attention by Marcia Hall, county auditor-controller.

More than 1,500 eager movie-goers come out to support the reopening of the Met Cinema during the weekend of Feb. 28 — March 2.


MARCH

Gov. Jerry Brown appoints Manuel Nevarez of Madera to fill the vacant Madera County Board of Supervisors District 1 seat after Frank Bigelow is elected to the state assembly.

Oakhurst attorney David Linn announces his intention to run for district attorney against incumbent Madera County District Attorney Michael Keitz in the June 2014 general election.

The Wasuma Elementary School eighth grade team comes home with the championship trophy from the county-wide, 13-school Academic Pentathlon.

Concerns were raised about how the Chukchansi tribe's money is being handled, while leadership standoff continues and control of casino management and government is split.

The 25th annual Elegant Auction at Tenaya Lodge March 22 raised $43,000 for the continued operation and maintenance of the Oakhurst Community Park.


APRIL

Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians is given 30-day grace period to pay casino bonds. Casino employees and vendors are currently being paid in cash from the casino cashier windows, and tribal courts are created.

Rural fire fees in California are temporarily postponed due to thousands of appeals filed with the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection challenging the legality of the fees and inaccurate billing data.

After receiving the blessing of Governor Jerry Brown, Assembly Bill 277 is introduced as a vehicle to ratify the compact between the state and the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians for the tribe's proposed casino along Highway 99.


MAY

A ribbon cutting ceremony is held for the new $1 million North Fork Volunteer Fire Department, attended by more than 150 politicians, citizens and first responders. The station is located on a portion of land once occupied by the North Fork Mill that closed in 1994. The old station, under the North Fork Library, was moldy and flooded nearly every year in winter months.

A $2 million state-of-the-art fitness center, Form Fitness, will be developed in the space previously filled by Gottschalks, adjacent to Raley's.

The Sierra Star receives 13 awards in its category in the Better Newspaper Contest sponsored by the California Newspaper Publisher's Association.

The 61st annual Coarsegold Rodeo takes place at Bohna Arena in Coarsegold. Longtime O'Neal's resident Pat Washburn serves as Grand Marshall, Brionna vonAh of Fresno is crowned Rodeo Queen, Jessie Lee Miles, 13, of Raymond is crowned Rodeo Princess, and Briley Dahlem, 10, of Coarsegold is crowned Little Princess.

Madera County Superior Court Judge James. E. Oakley issues a permanent injunction enjoining Madera County from releasing the Rowley Report to the public — a report on the inner-workings of District Attorney Michael Keitz's department. His attorney said the release of the document would cause Keitz "irreparable harm." The county has paid $1.4 million in out-of-court settlements in lawsuits brought against the DA by former office employees.

Oakley rules that the report is a "privileged and confidential attorney-client communication and work product."

Nearly 200 Yosemite High School community awards totaling $103,000 are presented to 77 graduating seniors at the school's Performing Arts Center.

Madera County grand jury criticizes Madera County District Attorney's office, stating the office has not prosecuted a majority of alleged crimes committed within the county jail, resulting in a "safety issue for officers and inmates." District Attorney Michael Keitz responds that his office "cannot ethically file cases that cannot be proven at trial ... just to increase prosecutions."

Named the Sierra National Forest Regional and National Campground Host of the Year, Brenda Negley receives nationwide recognition for her work at Nelder Grove.

Madera County Sheriff deputies Roy Broomfield, Gerald Marin and Larry Rich receive state commendations for their role in an unlicensed contractor's sting carried out in Coarsegold. All the 17 unlicensed contractors are given a Notice to Appear in court for contracting without a license, illegal advertising and asking for an excessive down payment.

In a report released May 15, the Madera County grand jury support allegations that Eric Fleming, county administrative officer, exhibits a domineering, over-controlling management style at times, and is considered aggressive, impatient, and short tempered by some of his subordinates. Fleming calls the report a disservice to the residents of Madera County by neglecting its legal obligation to adopt findings and make recommendations which are "based on substantiated, factual, and legal information."

Fire spreads quickly through a portion of the nearly 40-year-old Oakhurst Lodge May 23, destroying 26 rooms, with an estimated loss of $1 million.


JUNE

After serving the Mountain Area for 27 years, Oakhurst's Sierra Lanes bowling alley closes June 7. It is announced by Steve Kuljis, president of Sierra Lanes, that the building will be converted to a Grocery Outlet Bargain Market scheduled to open in mid-October.

Yosemite Unified School District names Randy Seals as Yosemite High School principal and Cindy Simmons as Rivergold Elementary School principal.

A Madera County Superior Court jury finds no negligence in the deaths of four people who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in January 2011 in Oakhurst. Family members of those who died were seeking $11.5 million in a wrongful death suit against the owners of the home.

One of Yosemite's 17 valedictorians, David Nobles, is named as Yosemite High's "Senior of the Year."

Doug Dearing, vice president and branch manager of Oakhurst's Yosemite Bank, retires after 44 years in banking.

Concern grows over 15 vegetation fires in three days — the majority of them in Yosemite Lakes Park in Coarsegold.

Yosemite Lakes Park couple are arrested June 25 on charges of arson after a vegetation fire on Revis Circle East in YLP.

On June 26, the state Senate voted 21-11 in favor of the North Fork Mono Indians plans to build a casino on Highway 99 near Madera. Elaine Bethel-Fink, tribal chairperson, said "We are very pleased that the California State Legislature, after examining our tribe's history and our project's merits, voted to ratify Gov. Brown's visionary Tribal-State Gaming compact with our tribe."

Agents with the Madera County Narcotic Enforcement Team (MADNET) eradicate more than 20,000 marijuana plants, along with nearly 6,000 pounds of waste and five miles of drip line in the Sierra National Forest near North Fork.

After a mandate from the State Health Department and eight years of planning, including an extensive feasibility study, the Bass Lake Water Company prepares to move forward with a $4 million modern microfiltration water treatment plant and related facilities to serve about 1,000 residential and business connections. Construction is expected to begin early summer 2014, and be completed in mid-2015.

Denny's on Highway 41 opens after extensive interior remodeling work and hiring 75 employees.


JULY

Yosemite Lakes Park couple Kenneth Jackson and Allison Waterman are charged with arson in connection with the fires around YLP in Coarsegold. Jackson faces 32 charges of arson of wildlands, one count of arson of an inhabited structure and one count of conspiracy to commit arson; Waterman is charged with one count of arson of wildlands and one count of conspiracy to commit arson.

The California State Senate passes AB277 — the North Fork Rancheria State-Tribal Gaming Compact — for the tribe's proposed $350 million casino on 305 acres west of Highway 99 near Ave. 17, north of Madera.

Paul Cliby of Coarsegold announces he will run against Madera County District 5 incumbent Tom Wheeler in 2014 general election. Ray Krause of O'Neals announces his intention to run for the District 1 supervisor's seat.

The Marine Corps League Department of California has named the Griswold Mountain Detachment 1121 the "Detachment of the Year" — in recognition of their outstanding work in the community and for the Marine Corps League.

Three months of campaigning and fundraising come to an end July 10 when Brian Gearhart is announced as Oakhurst's 2013 Honorary Mayor. Gearhart, with the help of volunteers, raises a record-breaking $115,900 for the Eastern Madera County SPCA.

A self-proclaimed gambling watchdog group, Stand Up for California, files a referendum to reverse the Legislature's approval of the North Fork Rancheria Mono Indians' proposed casino near Highway 99 north of Madera.

Madera County Undersheriff Michael Salvador, 48, announces his intent to run for Madera County Sheriff in 2014. He has served as Undersheriff since Jan. 1, 2013.


AUGUST

All five members of the Madera County Board of Supervisors, along with Madera County Sheriff John Anderson, are named defendants in a lawsuit filed by the Reggie Lewis faction of The Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians. The lawsuit alleges, according to a prepared statement from the Lewis group, that Anderson was made aware of numerous illegal actions taken by Nancy Ayala and her faction of supporters but failed to take action.

Anderson, the suit said, allowed supporters of Ayala to illegally remove records from the Chukchansi Indian Housing Authority offices.

A third tribal faction, headed by Morris Reid, who won a tribal election in 2011, and says the election was illegally invalidated, is not named in the suit.

The Old Mill Site in North Fork is transformed into a helibase in response to the Aspen Fire, which was ignited by a lightning strike. At this time, more than 21,000 acres of forest between Mammoth Pool and Huntington Lake had burned, with the cost in manpower and equipment to battle the fire at $23.4 million.

A roadside vegetation fire, quickly moves north from John West Road at West View Drive up a ravine parallel to Crane Valley Road (426), threatening several homes. This brings up the importance of property owners clearing brush around their homes and the issue of inadequate emergency exit roads in the area during such emergencies.

Sierra Senior Center struggles to pay bills, causing concern over its future. Madera County used to pay the center's utility bills, but, due to budget cuts, stopped doing so late 2011. All bills are now paid by the Sierra Senior Society (SSC) — a non-profit 501C-3 organization. However, the SSC's only income is through fundraisers and donations. With bills averaging almost $2,500 a month, paying those bills is not always an easy task.

After 38 years of service to the developmentally challenged, Heartland Opportunity Center in Oakhurst closes its doors.


SEPTEMBER

Larissa Bond, a seventh and eighth grade teacher at Wasuma Elementary School is named a "California All-Star Teacher" by Students First.

At the request of the Madera County Board of Supervisors, Fresno accounting firm, Hemming Morse, performs an evaluation of Madera County's office of treasurer/tax-collector Tracy Kennedy Desmond, and highlights 18 findings and recommendations the department should implement.

In mid-September, the California Highway Patrol Mountain Division moves into its new $7.2 million facility on Highway 49 and Redbud Drive.

A North Fork couple, Marc McMurrain, 35, and his wife, Jennifer, 32, are arrested Sept. 25 — Marc for suspicion of murder, and Jennifer for suspicion of accessory to murder in the death of Marc's brother, Christopher Garrity, 28.

After a May 23 fire destroyed 26 of 62 rooms, The Oakhurst Lodge is acquired by First Citizens Bank in foreclosure.

After 11 years of operation, the Wild Wonderful King Vintage Museum closes due to lack of financial support and volunteers to keep it open.

A tour bus driver faces felony charges for releasing raw sewage from his charter bus down a storm drain in the Old Mill Village Shopping Center.

The Sierra Historic Site Association names Roger and Loris Mitchell Volunteers of the Year because of the countless hours they have devoted to the Fresno Flat's Historical Research Library.

More than 400 mature marijuana plants (with a street value of $800,000) are discovered within 75 yards of Coarsegold Elementary School. No arrests are made.

The 17th Annual Mountain Heritage Days pay tribute to the early settlers of the Mountain Area and serve as a fundraiser for the Sierra Historic Fresno Flats Historic Village. Matt Sconce and James Nelson are named the 2013 Heritage Days parade Grand Marshals, after developing the idea to save the Met Theater.

The Coarsegold couple arrested in June (Kenneth Jackson, 40, and Allison Waterman, 46) in connection to a rash of fires started in Yosemite Lakes Park and surrounding areas face Madera County Superior Court Judge Dale Blea for a preliminary hearing.

Former California Highway Patrol officer and current realtor, Dennis Fairbanks, announces his intent to run for Madera County Sheriff-Coroner in 2014.


OCTOBER

The Grocery Outlet Bargain Market opens Oct. 3 to enthusiastic crowds of more than 3,500 during its first four days of operation.

Having served nearly 10 years as Chowchilla's Chief of Police, Jay Varney announces his candidacy for Madera County Sheriff/Coroner in the 2014 election. Varney has a 30-year career in law enforcement and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy.

Bass Lake residents and businesses will pay more than $12 million for significant improvements to the community's sewer system that was first constructed in 1974, and has been out of compliance with state regulators for about 11 years.

The 15th annual Animal Faire, sponsored by the Eastern Madera County SPCA, is successful, and adds revenues to help reach the organization's goal of raising $1.5 million to build a Mountain Area no-kill shelter.

A police chase that began on Highway 41 in Fresno, continues through Oakhurst and into Yosemite National Park, before Azar Moore, 34, of Atascadero and Christie Asberry, 38, of Paso Robles, are arrested. Moore is charged with driving under the influence, felony evading, possession of a controlled substance (methamphetamines), being in possession of drug paraphernalia (pipe), possession of marijuana, and being under the influence of a controlled substance.

With increased need and dwindling donations, Manna House makes the decision to cut traditional Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter food give-aways.

Michelle Chenowith, a 1983 Yosemite High graduate and a 20-year Yosemite math teacher/coach, is named 2013 Teacher of the Year for Madera County.

After 40 years of service, Sierra Hotshots Superintendent Kenneth Jordan retires.

Madera County Sheriff John Anderson files a countersuit against the Reggie Lewis faction of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians to stop enforcement of a restraining order to prevent Anderson from sending county law enforcement on tribal land.

Oakhurst Certified Public Accountant Todd Miller announces his candidacy for the office of Madera County auditor-controller in the 2014 election.


NOVEMBER

After learning of the financial struggles of Manna House, area ministries, businesses and individuals step forward to ensure the organization can hold its annual Thanksgiving food give-away to assist needy families.

Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler and Patti Law-Poggi are named man and woman "Angels" of the year at the 17th annual Angels Amongst Us dinner.

Agents attached to the Madera Narcotic Enforcement Team (MADNET) seize 360 pounds of marijuana from a home on Indian Springs Road, less than a mile from Oak Creek Intermediate and Oakhurst Elementary schools.

The Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians announce nearly $1 million in community grants to 31 organizations throughout the county.

Judge Dale Blea holds both Kenneth Jackson, 40 and Allison Waterman, 46, to answer in connection to a rash of fires started in Yosemite Lakes Park and surrounding areas. Waterman was being held to answer on 12 counts, meanwhile Jackson was being held to answer on all 21 counts that he was originally charged with.

Kenneth (Pete) Peterson, a contracted route carrier for the Oakhurst Post Office, is presented the Eagle Spirit Award in recognition of and appreciation for his outstanding service and dedication to his job. Peterson is the only person in the state of California to receive this special award.

Tracy Kennedy Desmond, Madera County treasurer-tax collector, files a lawsuit for damages against Madera County Board of Supervisors and Eric Fleming, county administrative officer, citing emotional distress, harm to reputation and interferrence.

The claim alleges that beginning on or about February 2013, Fleming and the supervisors have "improperly and unlawfully portrayed in a false light and defamed" her to various entities including the media and public.

Thanks to the generosity of area organizations, businesses and individuals, about 275 families are provided with a turkey or chicken, along with a box of food during Manna House Thanksgiving food give-away.

Because of reduced hours and staff, Dr. Joel Figatner voices his concern over the future of Oakhurst's Urgent Care services at community meetings.

After 26 years of serving the Mountain Area, Miller's Mountain Sports announces it will close at the end of the year.


DECEMBER

Manna House is able to provide about 300 families food to prepare Christmas meals and toys thanks to the generosity of the community and the efforts of Toys for Tots.

Scott Jacob Mason, 20, of Simi Valley and Jacob Patrick Banaga, 18, of Visalia are arrested and charged with felony child cruelty in connection with the death of a 17-year-old Simi Valley teen, Tara Maguire, whose body which was located in a stream near Rock Creek Campground.

Legal procedures involving Sierra Tel president, Harry Baker, Jr., continued through 2013. Baker was accused of committing lewd and lascivious acts with a child under the age of 14 back of 2007 in a Fresno hotel room. Baker's preliminary hearing in May 2012, resulted in Judge M. Bruce Smith ordering Baker to stand trial. Since that time there have been numerous court dates, motions and continued hearings.

Baker's attorneys have filed motions to have the case dismissed, contending that Baker was tricked into touching the girl so her family could extort him. Baker reportedly paid $250,000 to various family members of the alleged victim before going to his attorney.

Baker made news in June, 2013, for firing a gun inside a motel room in Merced, and was the subject of a reported kidnapping in September — a report later debunked by authorities.

The lawyers representing Baker were back in court Nov. 15, for a settlement conference involving both sides. During the preceding, Baker's lawyers requested a motion for discovery, a motion that was upheld by Judge Hamlin of the Fresno County Superior Court. Another proceeding is scheduled for 8:30 a.m., Thursday, April 3.

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