Top Ten Stories of 2021
By Tracy Salcedo
A changing of the guard at the Kenwood Press was, arguably, the first biggest news story of 2021. Ann and Alec Peters, after a long tenure at the newspaper’s helm, departed for the halcyon world of retirement, and Glen Ellen’s Melissa Dowling and Paul Goguen willingly and ably stepped into the deadline-ridden void.
But more news unfolded over the next twelve months, as it does, and the fledgling publishers steered a course through the good, the bad, and the interesting, covering everything from controversies surrounding a proposed cannabis dispensary and redevelopment of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) to the slow move toward normalcy after 2020’s pandemic shutdowns and the success of a homegrown Olympian.
Here are the top 10 stories of 2021.
1. The saga of the SDC
News was slow to roll out on the SDC front as the new year began, but in spring the Eldridge Cemetery Memorial Committee unveiled its design for an ADA-accessible memorial at the historic graveyard. Permit Sonoma was expected to unveil its three alternative development plans for the 180-acre campus in early summer, but didn’t, and then again in September, but didn’t. When the report finally was released in November, the three alternatives generated an abundance of mostly negative commentary in public meetings and letters to the editor. The saga will continue in 2022, when the specific planning process is set to wrap up and the state of California proceeds with final disposition of the former state hospital.
2. Filling the Valley’s groundwater bucket
Sonoma Valley is one of three groundwater basins in Sonoma County identified by the state of California as threatened, with the resource in danger of depletion. Since 2018, the independent Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency, which includes local citizens, has worked diligently to develop a plan to reverse ongoing groundwater losses. Following public hearings and much study and deliberation, on Dec. 6 the agency adopted the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Plan, which will be forwarded to the state’s Department of Water Resources.
3. Bringing home the bronze
The pride of Glen Ellen, Nikita Ducarroz, won a bronze medal in BMX freestyle cycling in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics in July. The local native represented Switzerland in the historic competition, and her quest for a medal was closely followed by friends and family both abroad and locally, albeit via video because of pandemic concerns. Ducarroz followed her Olympic triumph by winning the UEC European BMX Park Championships in Moscow, Russia, in November, and intends to compete in upcoming Olympic competitions.
4. Kenwood fire tax success
The Kenwood Fire Protection District faced significant budget shortfalls due to ongoing and increasing costs of equipment and training, the huge costs of wildfire containment, and keeping the fire station staffed to deploy two engines at any time — financial obligations that couldn’t be met via the 25-year-old annual tax levy of $40 per household. To increase revenues the district successfully floated a ballot measure in November. The new tax assessment, based on square footage for homeowners and businesses, and acreage for agricultural properties, was supported by 84% of voters and is expected to generate $300,000 per year.
5. Pandemic school goes back to class
Both Dunbar and Kenwood Elementary Schools opted to reopen campuses at the start of the 2021-2022 school year, a move celebrated by students, staff, and parents after enduring the strangest educational experiment in modern history — pandemic-induced distance learning. In November and December, after approval of vaccines for adminstration to children aged 5 and up, Dunbar hosted a pair of well-attended vaccination clinics. Before the clinics, statistics for vaccination rates in north valley communities at the start of the school year showed Glen Ellen lagging, with 62.2% of residents in the ZIP code fully or partially vaccinated, compared with residents in Kenwood’s 95452 ZIP code, at 98.2%, and in Oakmont’s 95409 ZIP code, at 87.5%. The clinics undoubtedly helped bolster those numbers.
6. The highs and lows of the Loe Firehouse cannabis dispensary
A proposed cannabis dispensary on Arnold Drive at Madrone Road in Glen Ellen ran into the buzzsaw of community opposition yet again in 2021, as its owners continued their pursuit of necessary permits for the business. Following a contentious hearing in September, after which the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved the project, a group called Protect Our Sonoma Valley Family Neighborhoods filed suit, demanding the approval be rescinded pending an environmental impact report to address traffic concerns and alleged zoning violations.
7. Old business; new business
Despite pandemic-spawned commercial uncertainties, new businesses opened and other businesses were re-energized in 2021. The new businesses include Kacy Blaisdell’s Dog Grooming, where the Kenwood Press’s canine correspondent, Buckley, gets his nails done, Wine Snob*, a tasting room in downtown Glen Ellen, and Songbird Parlour, an event space recently opened in Jack London Village. Garden Court Cafe, a long-time local favorite serving breakfast and lunch, reopened in revamped digs in the Sorkin building, as did McCormick’s Mercantile, and the Fig Café began serving deliciousness again after a brief pandemic-induced hiatus.
8. We’ve seen drought and we’ve seen rain
As this story is being written, rain is pounding the rooftops — a welcome sound after a long, dry summer. California’s drought deepened over the course of 2021 and Sonoma County was a poster child for the crisis, with water levels in Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino both dropping to historic lows. A paltry 14 inches of rain fell locally in the 2020-2021 rain year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, well below the average 39 inches seen in Sonoma County in a typical year. Local water agencies encouraged residents to cut water usage back, and buckets appeared in bathtubs throughout the north valley to catch every drip. On the upside, an atmospheric river in mid-October dumped nearly 12 inches at one location in Glen Ellen, and after a dry November, December’s rains will add to what will hopefully be a drought-busting rain year.
9. Developments on developments in Kenwood and Oakmont
Excavation and grading were underway in September on the Kenwood Ranch, with stretches along the Mayacamas mountain front between Kenwood village and Oakmont. Development of the land (formerly the Graywood Ranch) has long been controversial, and the grading prompted the Valley of the Moon Alliance to request review of whether the work complies with the property’s environmental impact report (EIR) given impacts of the 2020 Glass Fire. Meanwhile, up the road near Oakmont, the draft EIR released in May for the Elnoka senior housing project prompted Oakmont residents to voice concerns over the density of development, wildfire evacuation, and traffic impacts. Developer Bill Gallaher seeks to build nearly 700 residential units, plus amenities, on 69 acres stretching from Oakmont to Spring Lake Village.
10. Two new school leaders
Both Kenwood and Dunbar Elementary Schools saw new principals stepping in to replace leaders moving on. Nate Myers, a Santa Rosa resident who served as superintendent/ principal in Monte Rio, was tapped for the same position at Kenwood School upon the retirement of Bob Bales, who’d served the district for 23 years. When Jillian Beall accepted a new position with the Sonoma Valley School District office after four years as Dunbar’s principal, Katie Hahn, who worked as a classroom teacher and academic specialist at the school, was named interim principal.