Local

Tree mortality dominates news in 2016

Mostly ponderosa and sugar pine trees are dying off in large numbers around Bass Lake and throughout the Sierra Nevada due to a bark beetle infestation brought about by four years of extreme drought in California. The latest number statewide is 102 million dead trees.
Mostly ponderosa and sugar pine trees are dying off in large numbers around Bass Lake and throughout the Sierra Nevada due to a bark beetle infestation brought about by four years of extreme drought in California. The latest number statewide is 102 million dead trees. File Photo

The most memorable topics swirling in conversations and on the minds of Mountain Area residents during 2016 included the ongoing mortality of millions of pine trees due to the prolonged drought and bark beetle infestation - the continued battle over the Austin Quarry - the passing of Measure C ($485 million State Center Community College District bond) to provide funds for a permanent community college campus in Oakhurst - and the ongoing struggle of a developer to meet the demands of the county to complete three brand-name hotels in Oakhurst. Concern was also voiced by many in the Mountain Area over four murders that were committed in the last five months of the year.

Below is a 2016 month-by-month review of stories that made the Sierra Star headlines.

January

End of the year Toys for Tots 2015 drive, spearheaded by Marine Corps League Griswold Mountain Detachment 1121, gathered 4,800 toys valued at $50,000 for 1,200 children.

At the Jan. 15 Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce Installation and Awards Dinner, retired banker and former chamber president Doug Dearing received the Lifetime Achievement Award and Bass Lake Realtor Steve Welch and Oakhurst insurance agent Donna Smith were named Man and Woman of the Year. Oakhurst Feed and Pet Supply, owned by Colette Goga, was honored as Business of the Year. During the dinner at The Pines Resort, Yosemite Bank’s Don Eaves was installed as the 2016 chamber president.

The public is incensed over plans to change the iconic names in Yosemite National Park due to a legal dispute with the park’s outgoing concessions company. The changes come during an ongoing, high-profile legal battle over the names between the National Park Service and the company formally known as DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc., a subsidiary of Delaware North based in Buffalo, New York. In a lawsuit filed in Sept. 2015, Delaware North contended its ‘intellectual property’ at the park, including trademarks over the changing names, was worth $51 million. DNC has been running Yosemite’s concession operations, including hotels, restaurants, retail locations and more since 1993, and competed for the contract’s renewal in 2015, but in June, 2016, the park service awarded a deal to Yosemite Hospitality, LLC, a subsidiary of Philadelphia-based Aramark, at an estimated value of $2 billion over the 15-year contract. Names later changed in the ongoing dispute were the Ahwahnee Hotel, which became The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, Badger Pass Ski Area, changed into Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area, Curry Village was changed to Half Dome Village and the Wawona Hotel was renamed Big Trees Lodge.

Following the Department of Water Resources manual snow survey, and despite the higher-than-average water content for the statewide snowpack, officials worry that California may be heading into the fifth year of a historic drought. Even though snowpack readings are higher than the previous year, the major water reservoirs are storing far less water.

A bar brawl in North Fork’s Buckhorn Saloon and Restaurant on Jan. 22 escalates into gunshots and injuries. According to the Madera County Sheriff’s Office, an argument within the bar moved outside into the parking lot before a fight broke out, followed by a man allegedly pulling a gun, and firing up to six shots. No one was shot during the incident but several reportedly suffered minor injuries. The alleged shooter was arrested.

A lawsuit that contends an illegal tax was disguised as a yearly fire prevention fee has made a significant step in the Supreme Court of California, proponents said. In a ruling Jan. 22, plaintiffs of the class action suit filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA) can begin notifying participants about their inclusion in the litigation. Plaintiffs include an estimated 12,000 Californians who have filed written appeals of the state fire fee, which was enacted in a 2011 special session of the Legislature as Assembly Bill 29. The fee was designed for statewide fire prevention activities, such as clearing vegetation and inspecting defensible spaces or homes, along with other programs.

The Lakeshore subdivision at Bass Lake and the North Fork Biomass Disposal Facility were awarded grants of $97,000 and $99,700, respectively, from the State Responsibility Area (SRA) Fire Prevention Fund to assist in tree mortality. These grants are a result of Gov. Jerry Brown’s Emergency Declaration regarding Tree Mortality on Oct. 30, 2015. Many federal, state, and local agencies are identifying and coordinating resources to mitigate tree mortality hazards throughout the state.

February

Cities nationwide conduct a simultaneous survey to determine the number of homeless in each community. In Eastern Madera County, this survey is coordinated through the Fresno/Madera Continuum of Care, with the purpose of determining the allocation of financial resources for low-income housing through the Housing and Urban Development program. In 2015, 51 were counted as Mountain Area homeless, however, Michael Baird, survey coordinator for Eastern Madera County, estimates the number is closer to 100. This year (2016) he puts the number of homeless at about 44.

Linda Gott-Maddox is named 2015 North Fork Citizen of the Year at the annual North Fork Boosters awards dinner, Feb. 27. Gott-Maddox, a customer care specialist for 10 years with Ponderosa Telephone in O’Neals, is one of the original members of the North Fork Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary, helps raise funds for schools through the Children’s Educational Foundation of the Chawanakee Unified School District and has served as co-chair of the Eastern Madera County Relay for Life event the past two years.

Sierra Star Reporter Morgan Voorhis and Editor Brian Wilkinson are recognized Feb. 25 for their work during the Fresno Bee’s 28th Annual George F. Gruner Awards. Voorhis won in the category of Best News Story for a report on homelessness in Oakhurst, and for a feature story on Eric Smrkovsky, an ex-homeless and ex-meth user, who has turned his life around. Wilkinson won in the Best Sports Story category for his story about a 7-year-old autistic child, Aiden Rubio of North Fork, who was able to participate in the My Tri youth triathlon at Bass Lake.

March

Yosemite High senior Rose Curley and Minarets High senior David Broyles have been named Daughters of the American Revolution Good Citizens, an award that recognizes and rewards individuals who possess the qualities of dependability, service, leadership and patriotism in their homes, schools and communities.

The March 5 “Nite on the Town” concert raises $8,000 for the Yosemite High School Music Department. Funds from the event will be used to purchase new instruments and equipment, maintenance of uniforms, and to help with the music department’s trip to Los Angeles in April.

About 175 people attended the official groundbreaking ceremony for the Eastern Madera County SPCA no-kill shelter March 12 across from Wasuma Elementary School in Ahwahnee. “Over the years, the community has rallied around us, donating everything from coins in dog banks to bequests from wills,” EMCSPCA President Sharon Fitzgerald said, “ ... and every one of these donations has brought us to this event.”

A $485 million bond (Measure C) for the State Center Community College District will be placed on the June ballot. The bond would fund a permanent Oakhurst community college campus. If passed, it is estimated property taxes will increase $18.50 per $100,000 valuation.

In early June, with nearly all precincts reporting, Measure C, the $485 million bond to improve facilities in the State Center Community College District, including construction of a permanent Oakhurst campus on 15 acres.passes with 64.2% support. As part of the bond, $25 million has been ensured to go towards construction of a permanent Oakhurst campus.

North Fork Elementary School’s seventh and eight grade classes are crowned winners of this year’s Madera County Academic Pentathlon, which culminated with the super quiz and awards ceremony March 10. More than 200 county students competed in the areas of fine arts, literature, science, social science and speech. This year’s topic was India.

Octavio (Tavo) Cervantes Mendoza, 33, dies while trying to save his friend, Mini Hernandez, both of Merced, after she fell over the bank’s edge into the frigid waters just below Lewis Creek on March 24. Hernandez, who was rescued after being in the water for more than two hours, was hospitalized with a broken leg, broken toes and a back injury. Hernandez made a full recovery.

April

A drought/bark beetle epidemic projected to kill more than 22 million trees (later estimates reached 102 million in November) across California has also plagued Eastern Madera County. Many government agencies, businesses, and the public are frantically at work to remove as many as possible while fire season nears. In Eastern Madera County, combining public agencies and private companies, more than 200 people have been at work for months toppling and disposing of dead trees. “This is impacting everybody,” said Troy Cheek, Battalion Chief with Cal Fire’s Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit. “It’s not much different than a tsunami, an earthquake, or a tornado. It affects everyone, except this tsunami took several years to happen, and now we’re seeing how serious it truly is.”

About $46,000 is raised April 14 at Tenaya Lodge during the 31st Annual Elegant Auction to benefit Oakhurst Community Park. The event is attended by 160 guests who bid on 220 silent and more than 40 live auction items.

A public meeting on April 13, which includes the AutoZone project planned at the intersection of Highways 41 and 49, is held before the Madera County Development Review Committee. AutoZone proposes a general plan amendment for the property from ‘open space’ to ‘community commercial,’ and a variance to allow the reduction in parking spaces for the business from 28 to 21.

The store was unanimously approved by the Madera County Board of Supervisors June 21, with the former Old Mexico Taqueria building on site to be demolished at an unscheduled date.

Teacher, coach, and mentor Ellen Peterson will retire from Yosemite High School at the end of this school year. She is the last of the original teaching staff hired for the school in 1976, and has been been the Cadet Corps adviser for five years, coached girl’s basketball for 10, softball for seven, track off and on for 25 years, and cross country for 30.

May

The Sierra Star received 10 awards - five second and five third place - in its division in the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association’s 2015 Better Newspapers Contest. The awards were announced at the April 30 CNPA annual meeting in San Francisco. Reporter Morgan Voorhis won second place in the ‘profile feature story’ category for “Hope Reborn,” a feature on Eric Smrkovsky who is turning his life around after being homeless for eight years. Editor Brian Wilkinson won two second place awards - in ‘environmental reporting’ for a story about opposition to the proposed Austin Rock Quarry (Vulcan Materials) and for ‘photo story/essay’ following the Willow Fire. The Star also won second place in ‘best sports page’ division.

Freelance photographer and frequent contributor to the Star, Steve Montalto, received a second place award in the ‘feature photo’ category for a photo of James Mierkey from the Golden Chain Theatre production “Fiddler on the Roof.” Nearly 4,000 entries were submitted to the annual contest.

The 40th Annual Yosemite High School Community Awards, 164 of them totaling $114,050, were presented to 77 graduating seniors May 9 at the school’s Performing Arts Center. The awards program started during the school’s first graduation ceremony in 1977, with six awards totaling $4,500.

Oakhurst dentist Michael C. Horasanian and his staff held a military appreciation tri-tip barbecue on May 21 to raise funds to send his patient Victor Hamburger, 95, of North Fork, on the next Central Valley Honor Flight - a three-day trip that provides World War II veterans with a tour of military monuments and Arlington Commentary in Washington, D.C. Enough funds were raised not only to send Hamburger, but five additional veterans as well. Hamburger served in the U.S. Army as a Sgt. Technician 4th Grade Cook.

Yosemite High sophomores and members of the Badger Band, Emily Anderson and Kelsey Montalto, will play during the 128th Rose Parade on Jan. 1, 2017. The pair will play with the Bands of America Honor Band, Anderson on trombone and Montalto on saxophone. Bands of America represents all 50 states and Anderson and Montalto were selected from hundreds of applications from across the nation.

June

In one of the most emotional ceremonies in recent memory, Yosemite students and staff bid farewell to retiring 40-year teacher and 30-year cross country coach Ellen Peterson during the end of the school year rally June 3. Peterson was honored with a Crystal Apple award and as Teacher of the Year. Peterson, who along with colleague Kellie Solomon created Yosemite High’s 2016 mantra of “living Badgerously,” said she would continue to volunteer at the school. “I am certain of one thing,” Peterson said. “I could never give back what Yosemite High School has given to me, but I will do everything in my power to try.”

In September, Peterson and her firefighter husband, John, served as Grand Marshals of Mountain Heritage Days. Event Coordinator Gwen Dunn said “They do so much for the community. I know the kind of people they are .. they’re wonderful, they’re loved and everyone just adores them.”

Robert ‘Bob’ Brosi, D.D.S., has been named recipient of the Crystal Tower Award, given to Madera County businesses that exhibit exemplary support to education. He will receive this prestigious award at the 13th Annual Business and Education Shareholders’ Crystal Tower Awards Luncheon on Aug. 30. Brosi has served on the Yosemite High School (YHS) Scholarship Foundation board for 35 years. The non-profit foundation gives some $100,000 each year in community awards (scholarships) to YHS graduates.

According to Madera County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Larry Rich with Problem Oriented Policing (POP), there are only about 20 homeless he knows about and deals with currently in the Oakhurst area. That is because some have gone home to live with families, some are receiving assistance from churches, some have pooled resources to rent an apartment, and some are working.

The spotlight was on Yosemite National Park June 17 as President Barack Obama spoke near Sentinel Bridge about the value of the park system and battling climate change during the first visit by a sitting commander in chief since John F. Kennedy in 1962. During his speech, Obama continually stressed the importance of maintaining national parks for future generations. As part of work to keep the parks safe, during the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Obama pressed lawmakers to increase their efforts on climate change.

With the July 4th weekend just a week away, many families are being notified their much-anticipated Bass Lake camping vacation must be canceled due to closed camping and day-use areas at the lake. The closures are due to major clean-up efforts of dead trees killed by the drought and historic bark beetle infestation.

Yosemite High School senior Rose Curley is named Student of the Year during the final school rally. During her four years Curley not only served as sophomore and junior class president, but as student body president. She held offices in several clubs, and was the student representative on the YUSD board of trustees, Rotary Youth Leadership Awards participant, and American Legion Auxiliary Girls State Program nominee. She was captain of the girls swim team, varsity soccer team, ran varsity cross country and played on the varsity water polo team. She was named varsity swim rookie of the year and rookie MVP. She did all this while maintaining a 4.85 GPA.

Sierra Senior Center President Kathryn “Katie” Davis, 54, is arrested June 23 on suspicion of stealing as much as $50,000 from a 90-year-old man who volunteered at the center for 15 years and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The Madera County Sheriff’s Office said Davis was arrested following a lengthy investigation. She was sentenced on Nov. 28 to three years of probation for a misdemeanor charge of financial elder abuse, which was reduced from a felony after she paid restitution of $30,000. Numerous letters of support have been written for Davis by seniors who visit the center on a regular basis, and many have praised her tireless efforts to improve the facility. As part of her probation, Davis was ordered to stay away from all senior centers in Madera County, including the Sierra Senior Center.

A battle has begun in Madera County against what some officials call environmental terrorists, as an eradication operation led to the seizure of more than 73,000 marijuana plants grown to profit Mexican cartels that left extensive environmental damage to the forest, streams and wildlife. It’s the largest seizure in the more than 20-year history of marijuana eradication operations in Madera County. County, state, and federal agencies joined forces to eliminate several illegal grows near North Fork including Corrine Lake, Wyle Ranch, Saginaw Creek, Indian Creek, Cougar Drive, and Source Point. A lead narcotics investigator for the sheriff’s office said the seized plants had a value of $85 million.

July

After being crowned California Queen in early June, Oakhurst resident Diane Naylor is named the runner-up at the TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) International Recognition Days held July 14-16 in Florida. Naylor, 63, shed 225 pounds over four years, 177 of those over the past three years as a member of the Oakhurst TOPS chapter.

In a meeting that stretched past midnight on July 19, the controversial Austin Quarry, on 671 acres on the southwest corner of Highways 41 and 145, was approved by the Madera County Planning Commission in a 3-2 vote. The vote followed hours of public comment marked by both the praise of supporters and pleas of opponents for additional time to review its environmental impact reports. The Madera Oversight Committee (MOC) filed an appeal, forcing the issue to go before the Madera County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 12.

At that September meeting, the quarry was approved by the Madera County Board of Supervisors in a 3-2 vote, with a lawsuit by opponents all but guaranteed. Supervisors David Rogers, Rick Farinelli, and Tom Wheeler, of districts 2, 3, and 5 voted in favor while Brett Frazier and Max Rodriguez of districts 1 and 4 voted against the project.

Robert Oliver Reagan III, a Friant resident and graduate of Yosemite High School, died July 26 while fighting the Soberanes Fire in Big Sur. Reagan, 35, was in his bulldozer when it rolled over, causing fatal injuries as he battled the 25,000-acre fire in Monterey County as an independent contractor and Cal Fire partner. He left behind a wife and two young daughters.

The North Fork Mono Rancheria was notified July 29 that the United States Department of Interior (DOI) has given its blessing to the gaming compact between the tribe and the state, allowing the tribe to proceed with its proposed casino on 305-acres north of Madera. The tribe’s proposed project, first announced 12 years ago, includes a casino with 2,000 slot machines, 40 table games, a hotel, several restaurants and a parking structure.

August

On Aug. 6, a 45-year-old man is stabbed to death during an altercation in the lower parking lot of the Silver Creek Shopping Center off Highway 41 in Oakhurst. No arrests have been made.

After serving Mountain Area residents and world travelers for 18 years, Crab Cakes Family Restaurant, Roman’s Bar and Yosemite Catering, owned by Roman and Laura Zabicki, is being sold to Ray and Jennifer Newman, of Mariposa, owners of Charles Street Dinner House. The new owners took over the restaurant Oct. 1. The Zabickis will continue to own and operate Sweet Dreams Cakes & Flowers in Oakhurst.

After just 14 months of operation, YARTS, the bus transportation system from Fresno to Yosemite, with five daily stops in Coarsegold and Oakhurst, is tentatively scheduled to shut-down Sept. 30, with service planned to resume next May. This was due to it not being financially possible to operate a year-round service. “The good news is that we believe we have a strategy to continue the service,” said Tony Boren, executive director of the Fresno Council of Governments. “Instead of being a year-round service, it will operate from mid-May to mid-September in 2017.”

After an 18-month delay, work got underway in November 2015 on the three-hotel project on Highway 41, but in late March, 2016, the project, by owner-contractor Paul Patel, was again stopped by county building officials because building inspections were not being performed by county standards. After being cleared, the project received yet another “stop work” order from the county in August for multiple construction issues. As of the end of December, 2016, the stop work order was lifted and work had begun on water lines and fire hydrants.

It was in late 2013 that building permits for the three hotels were submitted to the county. Construction crews broke ground in early 2014 for a Holiday Inn Express & Suites, Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott and a Hampton Inn & suites - each four stories high with 108 rooms.

On the first day of school Aug. 11, Hannah Lockwood, 6, of Coarsegold was able to physically smile at her friends and teachers for the very first time as she began first grade at Coarsegold Elementary School. Hannah was born with Mobius Syndrome, a rare condition that resulted in her inability to smile, blink, move her eyes laterally or make any facial expressions. Her former preschool teacher, Karin Sayre, launched a fundraising campaign that would eventually raise $45,450 over the course of four months, which covered the 10-hour surgery, recovery, medication, and travel expenses for Hannah and her parents, Sarah and Kevin Lockwood.

In a regular board meeting Aug. 23, the Madera County Board of Supervisors announce they will consider increasing their pay checks 25%. Currently, supervisors Tom Wheeler, Max Rodriguez, and David Rogers are paid $79,397 annually, while Rick Farinelli and Brett Frazier are paid $75,616. The salaries for Wheeler, Rodriguez and Rogers are based on 42% of what Madera County Superior Court judges make while Farinelli and Frazier’s pay is based on 40% of the judges salary. The proposed pay increase would have been based on a new formula raising the 40% to 50% for supervisors with 0-5 years of service, and from 42% to 52.5% for those with more than six years of service. If approved, the wage increases would take effect Dec. 1, but in September, the board voted unanimously to drop the proposed pay hike. John Pero, coordinator of the Oakhurst/Coarsegold/Mariposa Tea Party said that while glad the plan had been dropped, “The sad part is that it took a lot of public pressure to hold them accountable and convince them this was a bad idea in the first place and another example of misguided priorities instead of making fire protection the first priority for the county.”

September

Oakhurst resident Marc Sobel, 58, announces he’ll file papers to run for the District 5 supervisor seat currently held by Tom Wheeler in the Nov. 2018 election. Sobel said he is determined to make public safety his number one priority. Sobel also feels the board over the years has not been listening to its constituents, and he wants to open an office in the district if elected.

Oakhurst celebrates the 20th Annual Mountain Heritage Days at Fresno Flats, Sept. 16-17. The museum and park came alive with many family-friendly activities to celebrate the heritage of Oakhurst dating back to the 1800s.

A Dollar General store at the northeast corner of Highway 41 and Road 417 was approved 4-0 by the Madera County Planning Commission Sept. 6. Letters sent to the commission denounced the location of the 9,100 square-foot store for the potential of added traffic congestion at the entrance to the nearby Indian Lakes subdivision, and the area’s fire station. That caused the commission to direct staff to further review any traffic issues before it could return for discussion. Along with those studies, 33 Conditions of Approval are required of the store, including a left-hand turning lane on Road 417 to enter its proposed 30-space parking lot.

Charlene Klinger, daughter Brenda Negley, and Klinger’s brother, Rick Hawksworth have been named the 20th Annual Mountain Heritage Days volunteers of the year. For this family, the love of the Mountain Area and its history is generational, passed down by Klinger’s parents, John and Marge Hawksworth, who were the first Nelder Grove volunteer hosts from 1975 to 1995.

Yosemite Unified School District Superintendent Jim Sargent has resigned from his position for a job with the Madera County Office of Education. Sargent, with a 32-year career in education, served as superintendent for the Caruthers Unified School District for four years prior to coming to Oakhurst to assume his new leadership position on July 1, 2012.

A federal judge dismisses legal challenges against the North Fork Rancheria’s proposed casino, leaving the tribe ready to begin development on its 200-room hotel and gaming resort just north of the City of Madera. In U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell’s Sept. 6 decision, the former federal prosecutor shut down several arguments made by opponents of the proposed casino, noting “the law is not on their side.” Stand Up California, the Chukchansi tribe, and Madera-area church groups were the primary plaintiffs in the lawsuit tossed out by Howell.

Longtime Mountain Area businessman and community leader Rusty Murphy died Sept. 15 at the age of 70, from Atypical Parkinsonism. He and his wife, Sara, owned and operated The Met in Oakhurst for 22 years before selling the business and retiring in late May, 2008. He reviewed more than 10,000 movies during his ownership of the theater, where he and his wife knew many moviegoers by their first names.

Kelly Ravel and Dalin Haas are crowned Homecoming Queen and King at halftime of Yosemite High School’s overtime win over Bishop.

Yosemite National Park Superintendent Don Neubacher announces his retirement, effective Nov. 1, amid an ongoing investigation into his management practices. He said that National Park Service regional officials had concluded “new leadership was needed” at Yosemite. He further revealed he opted to retire rather than accept a transfer to a position in Denver.

October

Craig Hinch takes over as commander of the Oakhurst CHP office Oct. 3, replacing Jason Daughrity. Hinch began his law enforcement career as an officer in central Los Angeles when he was 32 years-old, and as commander, will oversee 19 uniformed officers, four non-uniformed staff, and 22 volunteers.

The nine-member Measure C Bond Oversight Committee, formed to make sure funds are spent as intended, has been named by the State Center Community College District. Measure C is the $485 million bond that nearly 65% of voters approved in June to improve facilities in the district, including $25 million for construction of a permanent Oakhurst campus (on minimum of 15 acres) that will replace the temporary classrooms and offices on 2.7 acres at the corner of Crane Valley Road (426) and Civic Circle Loop. Members of the committee, all Valley residents, are Juan Arambula, Debbie Darden, Janet DeWoody, Donald Larson, Mike D. McNally, David Mendoza, Juan Navarro, Rene Nunez, and Donald Slade.

Madera County’s Board of Supervisors unanimously approved continuing studies on a proposed 956-acre off-highway vehicle park in O’Neals. The potential park, stretching from the northern boundary of Minarets High School to east of Highway 41 across from Black Hawk Lodge, has drawn some public criticism for potential effects on traffic and noise for nearby landowners. Another issue is effects to the environment and Native American artifacts on the site. An ecological survey, expected to take about four months, will be done for species such as birds, bats and plants.

The Madera Oversight Coalition (MOC) files a lawsuit Oct. 12, contending that Madera County and Vulcan Materials Company, owner of the controversial Austin Quarry at the corner of highways 41 and 145, failed to properly address “significant material and legal issues” when the site was approved. In the suit, MOC claims numerous comments from the public, as well as “expert reports, testimony and documents” from hydrologists and others it hired, “show unequivocally that many of the premises, assumptions, and data” within the Austin Quarry’s Final Environmental Report (FEIR) are incorrect.

Ahwahnee residents Craig Anthony Fetty, 28, and Tiffany Dambrino, 20, were arrested Oct. 22 in connection with the alleged murder of 68-year-old Ahwahnee resident Dennis Dolan at his home on Road 600. Fetty was charged with murder and is held without bail in Madera County Jail, while Dambrino was charged with burglary, battery and inflicting corporal injury. She remains behind bars on $105,000 bail.

November

Mixed opinions have formed over a proposed project to turn the stop-sign controlled intersection at Road 274 and Road 225 in North Fork into a roundabout, at an estimated eventual cost of more than $1 million. For many in the area, the intersection has proven at least partially hazardous due to a steep grade on Road 225 coming from Bass Lake that leads to a stop sign, which can prove challenging for logging trucks or less aware drivers.

North Fork Community Power (NFCP) and Yosemite/Sequoia RC&D Council hosts a groundbreaking ceremony for the NFCP Bioenergy Facility, Nov. 3, at the Old Mill Site (34000 Koso Nobe Road). The event kicks off with statements from government leaders and key project partners followed by a brief tour of the project location. This small-scale forest bioenergy facility at the retired sawmill site in North Fork will provide uses for forest biomass. Grading will commence later in the month, followed by the construction of the facility, which is expected to be up and running by April 2017, generating enough electricity to power about 1,000 homes a year.

On Nov. 15, the Madera County Board of Supervisors unanimously approve a special March 7 election for a proposed 1% sales tax increase, which if supported by voters will increase funding for county firefighters and law enforcement. If approved, it would increase the sales tax in Madera County from 8% to 9% - an extra cent every dollar - and generate around $8 million a year during its 20-year lifespan from October, 2017, to September of 2037.

After all precincts were counted, Julie Greenwood ousted 12-year incumbent Ron Bucheger for a seat on the board of the Bass Lake Joint Union School District, with 619 votes to Bucheger’s 297. A substitute teacher in the district and a former PTA president at Wasuma Elementary School, Greenwood said her focus is on providing a fresh set of eyes on the board while returning teacher aides to classrooms after they were cut in previous years of financial instability.

The Minarets High School Future Farmers of America (FFA) parliamentary procedure team is crowned national champions during the FFA’s national convention in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was the third national title in four years for Minarets - its second in parliamentary procedure. Minarets also had a state championship forestry team that competed and placed 11th in the nation.

On Nov. 15, George Taylor-Windsor, 26, is arrested and later charged with first degree murder and attempted murder after he allegedly killed Jessica Nelson, 23, of Foresthill, and attempted to kill Reid Kallenberg. Kallenberg said he attempted to control his truck, but it crashed into a rocky hillside on Highway 41 near River Falls Road just north of Oakhurst, prompting response by emergency personnel and law enforcement before Taylor-Windsor’s eventual arrest.

At a Nov. 29 preliminary hearing in Bass Lake, Craig Collins, Taylor-Windsor’s attorney, countered outside the courtroom that Taylor-Windsor was likely assaulted by Kallenberg, possibly with the intention for Kallenberg and Nelson - Kallenberg’s girlfriend - to kill him. After hearing from the prosecution’s witnesses and cross examination by Collins, Judge Charles Wieland ruled that Taylor-Windsor would be held on both charges. If convicted, Taylor-Windsor faces 37 years to life in prison. His trial is scheduled to begin 9 a.m. Feb. 6, 2017, at the Bass Lake courthouse.

Leonard Kahn, Assistant Superintendent of the Yosemite Unified School District, will serve as Interim Superintendent for the remainder of the school year following Jim Sargent’s resignation in September. Dave Long & Associates, a pre-eminent consulting firm, will conduct a comprehensive search for the district’s new superintendent.

December

John Reed, Oakhurst realtor, contractor and current member of the Madera County Planning Commission representing District 5, has announced he will run for District 5 supervisor in 2018. Reed, 68, has worked closely with Wheeler for many years and has been on his advisory team since he took office.

Archie Macaulay, 88, one of the founders of the Oakhurst Boys & Girls Club and the recipient of the prestigious Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award, dies Nov. 22 after a brief illness. A longtime chamber member, Macaulay was named the chamber’s 2003 Man of the Year for his work in the community.

After a delay of nearly three years due to internal tribal conflicts, leaders of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians announced 33 recipients of community grants (18 in the Mountain Area) totaling $1.4 million - a nice Christmas gift for clubs, organizations and schools throughout the county, including $312,495 to Oakhurst’s Manna House. This year’s grants fulfilled the tribe’s agreement with Madera County from a tax dispute settlement that required $1 million in grants be distributed annually for 10 years. The foothill and Mountain Area of the county (District 5) was the largest beneficiary of the program with 34 District 5 non-profits being awarded a total of $3.4 million over the past 10 years. After the Dec. 6 awards luncheon at the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino, Tribal Chairperson Claudia Gonzales said in the county’s small communities the funds are critical to the programs that make a difference every day to the men, women and children of Madera County.

“I am personally very thankful for the opportunity to be able to provide these funds to the numerous county organizations to assist in improving all they do for the people in the county,” Gonzales said.

At a Yosemite Unified School District board meeting Dec. 12, teachers and other staff in the district state they are unhappy with administrators, and after months of salary negotiations, some have hinted at a strike to draw attention to their concerns. The Yosemite Unified Teachers Association and the California School Employees Association, which represents classified staff such as janitorial services and bus drivers, say a 1% raise offered by YUSD is a symbolic slap in the face and have counter-offered with a 4% raise this year, and a 5% raise next year.

With the upcoming departure of its three doctors, Oakhurst Medical Group announces a Dec. 31 closure of the office. Two of the doctors - Kelly Tracey and Jeffrey Barigian - are relocating and Dianne Sachau is leaving the practice for personal reasons. Shortly after the announcement, Sachau died Dec. 25. Family Nurse Practitioner Philip Morin has been out of the office since mid-September following a dislocated pelvis sustained during a high country mule-packing trip. A letter about the closure was sent out this week to about 3,000 patients advising them of the situation.

The 16th annual Christmas Tree Auction on Dec. 4 raised $22,000 to benefit the Boys & Girls Club of Oakhurst and other community non-profits at the Pines Resort.

Trash collection customers in unincorporated areas of Madera County will likely see a higher monthly bill after the Board of Supervisors unanimously approve increased fees at county landfills, including for contracted haulers Emadco Disposal Service, Inc. and Redrock Environmental Group. The increases are expected to generate some $887,000 in additional revenue a year. The fee increase will raise residential costs about 12% - almost $3 a month. Fees for contracted haulers at the Fairmead Landfill will increase from $22.28 to $40 per ton, and self-hauling fees at the North Fork Transfer Station from $45.58 to $67.12 per ton.

Christmas came a little early to more than 200 members of the Boys & Girls Club of Oakhurst Dec. 16, as club members received individual bags with about 15 assorted toys, socks and gloves thanks to Dollar Tree.

Bonnie Hale,76, a former North Fork Rancheria Mono Tribal Council member is found dead at her North Fork home after allegedly being killed by her neighbor, Mary O’Keefe, 64. O’Keefe was booked into the Madera County Department of Corrections on suspicion of murder. A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 12, 2017, in the Sierra Division of Madera County Superior Court to determine O’Keefe’s mental capacities and whether she has the ability to aid in her defense.

Hale’s death marked the fourth murder in Eastern Madera County for 2016, all between August to December.

On Dec. 19, Manna House handed out bags of food and toys during the annual Christmas giveaway. This year, nearly 300 Mountain Area residents signed up for meals and toys. The Marine Corps League Griswold Mountain Detachment delivered about 1,100 toys from the area’s Toys for Tots drive, with the bulk of food purchased at discount from Raley’s and Grocery Outlet.

The Oakhurst branch of Golden 1 Credit Union showed its support for Mountain Area libraries by presenting two community grants Dec. 20 totaling $14,638. The Oakhurst Library was awarded $6,196 and the North Fork Library received $8,442. This is the third year the credit union has provided funds for the Oakhurst Library and the first year for the North Fork Library.

Twenty Mountain Area schools received a total of nearly $10,000 Dec. 20 after the Sierra-Oakhurst Kiwanis Club donated proceeds from the Run for the Gold Car Show to help supplement school programs in the form of mini-grants.

The North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians’ plan for a casino on a site north of Madera hit another major snag when the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Fresno invalidated Gov. Jerry Brown’s authorization to use the land for gaming. The 113-page decision by a three-judge panel sent the case back to Madera County Superior Court, effectively overruling Judge Michael Jurkovich, who had ruled that Brown properly approved the project. Lawyers for the North Fork tribe could ask for a review by all judges in the Fifth District Court of Appeal or go to the state Supreme Court in an attempt to overrule the appellate court.

The Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce has announced its 2016 Man of the Year (Victor Weitzel), Woman of the Year (Laura Norman), Business of the Year (Grocery Outlet) and the recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award (Ron Colgate). The group will be recognized during the chamber’s Jan. 20, 2017, Installation Dinner and Awards Ceremony at the Tenaya Lodge. Sierra Star Publisher Betty Linn will be installed as the chamber’s 2017 board president, along with other officers and 10 board members.

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