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Top news stories of 2017 in Sonoma County

1. October fires

2. Housing crisis deepens

3. SMART service starts

4. Old Courthouse Square is reunified

5. Homelessness grows more visible

6. Trump resistance

7. Arrest in Jenner beach murders

8. Historic wet winter

9. North Coast prepares for cannabis legalization

10. Change in Sheriff’s Office leadership

The infernos that terrorized the North Bay in October cleaved 2017 in two.

The loss from those historic fires is so extensive, the trauma so deep and the task of rebuilding so daunting, that the year, looking back, is now divided. There were the nine months before powerful inland winds drove flames into rural and urban neighborhoods, leveling more than 8,000 structures in the nation’s costliest-ever wildfires. And there was everything since.

Our lives were upended and our region will never be the same.

Yet Sonoma County and its surroundings also marked brighter milestones this past year, including the start of commuter rail service after decades of planning and years of construction, and the reunification of Old Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa. Both projects survived controversy and their realization required sustained political will and sacrifice by taxpayers.

Sonoma County, along with much of California and other parts of the nation, became a bastion of political resistance to the new administration of President Donald Trump, whose inauguration was followed a day later by the Women’s March series. In Santa Rosa, more than 5,000 people filled downtown streets in one of the largest local political demonstrations in memory.

Cannabis fans had much to cheer in 2017 as the industry moved closer to legal production and sale of marijuana for recreational use, a landmark, voter-approved shift sure to bring profound change to a region with deep roots in the medical and black-market trade.

Local law enforcement officers, meanwhile, announced their own surprising breakthrough: the arrest of a suspect in the notorious double murder that claimed the lives of a young couple sleeping on a Jenner beach in 2004.

There was little resolution, however, to the region’s chronic housing crisis. While several major projects have advanced, the fires dealt Sonoma County’s housing supply a severe blow, ratcheting up both sale prices and rents. Homeownership is growing further out of reach for many middle-class families, and displacement is a daily risk for many more low-income residents.

With hopes for a resilient year ahead, here then are Sonoma County’s top 10 stories of 2017.

1. October fires

Four hours. That’s all it took for gale-force winds to propel fire 12 miles from Calistoga at the north end of the Napa Valley, over rural ranches in the Mayacamas Mountains, through upscale homes of Fountaingrove, and across six lanes of Highway 101 into Coffey Park, a dense Santa Rosa neighborhood where devastation would later be described as “warlike.”

And the Tubbs fire, though now California’s most destructive, was not the only inferno of the night, when big blazes simultaneously erupted late Oct. 8 across the North Bay. Together, they would account for 40 deaths, including 24 people in Sonoma County, nine in Mendocino, and seven in Napa. The average age of the victims: 70.

They also displaced tens of thousands of residents, destroying more than 6,000 homes — 5,130 of them in Sonoma County — and more than 150 businesses. Insured losses top $9 billion.

The disaster, unstoppable in its first hours, was confronted by waves of firefighters, police officers, residents and caregivers who put themselves in danger to alert and evacuate neighborhoods. All told, about 100,000 people in Sonoma County — one in every five residents — were under mandatory or advisory evacuation orders as the siege stretched on.

It took a full 23 days and help from up to 6,700 firefighters in the county, including crews from across the nation, to bring the three largest fires fully under control. The hunt for the cause of the blazes continues, with state investigators closely inspecting utility equipment near suspected ignition sites. The county’s wildfire warning system, including emergency officials’ decision not to use Amber Alert-style wireless messages for more widespread warnings, is also under state review.

So many other uncertainties cloud our future. Those who lost homes face agonizing dilemmas: How to clean up their properties? Will insurance pay enough to rebuild? Where will they live in the interim?

The cleanup is now going full-tilt, but huge questions remain for our economy and the next phase of the recovery. Where will the army of construction workers come from? How quickly can governments process building permits? Should future construction be restricted in areas such as Fountaingrove, which has now burned twice in 55 years?

As the New Year dawns, the top story of 2017 is very likely to evolve into the top story of 2018.

2. Housing crisis

Sonoma County’s housing crisis deepened in dramatic fashion in 2017. Housing values that had eclipsed pre-recession records and rents both spiked in the wake of the fires, which knocked out 5 percent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock. While new construction increased, with 400 new homes either completed or approved for construction by mid-year in the city, government efforts to spur even greater activity, especially in the lower-income units, were outmatched by demand.

November ended with a record high median price of $656,900 for a single-family home, an increase of 115 percent from the February 2009 low of $305,000.

While skyrocketing values have homeowners in an enviable position, the soaring prices and rents have made housing a bigger stretch — or put it entirely out of reach — for thousands of others.

To bolster supply, the county advanced its sale of the 82-acre site of the former hospital on Chanate Road to local developer Bill Gallaher with plans for up to 800 units. Across town, SMART agreed to sell a 5.4-acre site to a Santa Clara developer with plans for 268 units.

But in a sign of the high stakes and powerful interests in play over housing, the Santa Rosa City Council’s 2016 decision to enact rent control was narrowly overturned at the ballot box in June following an unprecedented infusion of cash from outside real estate interests.

3. SMART service starts

After years of planning and $600 million in development, Sonoma and Marin counties launched a new passenger train system in August, completing the initial phase of the largest public works project in the North Bay in decades.

The green and gray diesel trains of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system began service along the initial 43-mile section of track between northern Santa Rosa and San Rafael. They were a hit with people looking for an alternative to battling the congestion on Highway 101. Ridership has been slightly below the agency’s weekly projection, but demand has been sufficient for SMART to add an extra car to some of its most popular weekday trips.

The next stop for SMART: Expanding its line to Larkspur, so riders can more easily hop a ferry to San Francisco, and finding a way to complete the entire 70-mile line — and accompanying bicycle trail — to Cloverdale as promised to voters in 2008.

4. Square reunified

After 30 years of debate and a year of disruptive downtown construction, Santa Rosa in April unveiled its reunified Old Courthouse Square.

The ambitious $10.5 million project restored the central plaza to its original configuration, and hopes are high that a revitalization of the downtown core will follow. Restaurants are returning to its periphery, and the newly visible Empire Building is slated for a boutique hotel.

Those who predicted the project could never be done in a single construction season turned out to be right. The original, ambitious deadline passed following a series of setbacks, including a worker slicing into a live wire, the discovery of an empty underground fuel tank, and design changes to improve accessibility and beef up the electrical system.

The pedestrian space — now without four lanes of through traffic, but not without its skeptics — hosted two Ironman triathlon events, the summertime Wednesday Night Market, and a bevy of cultural and weekend offerings. On Sunday night, it will anchor the first public New Year’s Eve bash in downtown in a decade.

5. Homelessness, visibility

For homeless residents in Sonoma County, 2017 was a year of lost ground.

While the number of homeless people dropped by 2 percent, the debate over issues associated with the vulnerable population — including vagrancy, illegal camping and health issues — all intensified.

The persistent housing shortage, limited shelter space and cleanup of unsanctioned encampments, including those along the SMART rail tracks, all combined to make homelessness a more visible and seemly intractable problem. Santa Rosa expanded its homeless shelter by 50 beds, but after clearing the largest encampment off Farmers Lane in August and displacement of others in October’s fires, the ranks of homeless under Highway 101 downtown swelled. Neighbors lodged complaints and those areas were cleared out, as well, sending many homeless people to camp behind the Dollar Tree store in Roseland.

County officials who’ve tolerated a self-governed tent village there for two years say everyone will need to leave to make way for the site’s long-planned Roseland Village redevelopment. Elsewhere, an effort to establish a homeless shelter along the Russian River also foundered under public backlash.

6. Trump resistance

Stunned and disheartened by the election of Donald Trump to the White House in 2016, many Sonoma County residents and elected leaders resolved to act in resistance this year.

The show of defiance began Jan. 20, when the streets of downtown Santa Rosa were transformed into a raucous, vibrant political stage for those speaking out against Trump’s rhetoric on immigrants, reported mistreatment of women, and proposals to undo Obama-era policies on health care, climate change and LGBT rights. Local leaders took pains to shows solidarity.

Cities and the county declared themselves sanctuaries for immigrants and others without using the word.

The Sonoma County Jail began limiting its cooperation with federal immigration officials. State Sen. Mike McGuire co-sponsored a bill to require presidential candidates to release the last five years of their tax returns, blasting Trump’s refusal to do so as “dangerous to our democracy.”

And Reps. Mike Thompson of St. Helena and Jared Huffman of San Rafael have pushed back against Trump’s policies and actions on guns, civil rights, immigration, national monuments and the environment.

7. Arrest in Jenner murders

The arrest in May of a Forestville man for a notorious unsolved double murder in Jenner in 2004 brought relief to a community still haunted by the horrific crime.

In a high-profile news conference led by then-Sheriff Steve Freitas, Shaun Michael Gallon, 38, was named as the lone suspect in the shootings of Lindsay Cutshall, 22, and her fiancé, Jason Allen, 26, as the couple lay in sleeping bags on the remote beach 13 years ago.

Gallon had been in custody on suspicion of killing his younger brother and gave detectives information about the killing of Gallon and Cutshall they said no one else could have known.

Cutshall and Allen, who had spent the summer as counselors at a Christian camp in the Sierra Nevada foothills, were shot in the head at close range with a .45-caliber rifle as they slept on what is known locally as Driftwood Beach.

Gallon, a Forestville native with multiple contacts with law enforcement, was interviewed about the crime at the time but never detained. In 2009, the self-taught survivalist was arrested and later convicted of shooting a homemade arrow at two men in a vehicle in Guerneville.

He has yet to be charged with the Jenner killings and remains in custody in Sonoma County Jail.

8. Historic wet winter

Though now a distant memory, early 2017 continued to unleash powerful storms on the region, marking a wet season that would shatter rainfall records and officially abolish the state’s historic drought.

The steady series of deluges through the winter caused significant flooding at times, but also swelled reservoirs to their brims and allowed the region to move beyond the five-year drought.

Santa Rosa saw its largest rainfall total since record-keeping began in 1902, receiving more than 60 inches from October 2016 to September 2017. Gov. Jerry Brown on April 7 declared the drought over.

9. Legalizing cannabis

The prospect of legal recreational marijuana sales in California in 2018 set off a scramble by the region’s medical and black market players to go legit and get permitted under the new marketplace.

Cannabis growers and manufacturers snapped up commercial properties, especially in Santa Rosa, which is positioning itself to be a key distribution hub for an industry on the verge of explosive growth.

The coming change forced leaders of local cities to decide whether or not to allow recreational cannabis trade. Rohnert Park and Sonoma continued to snub the industry, while others embraced it. Cotati and Sebastopol allowed existing dispensaries to sell cannabis to adults on Jan. 1, while Santa Rosa approved similar rules that will allow sales to begin Jan. 19.

Reflecting some of the trepidation that remains about the change, however, Santa Rosa enacted strict zoning rules meant to keep such pot businesses out of the downtown, away from schools, and within 600 feet of each other.

10. Sheriff’s Office leadership

Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas’ surprise announcement in July that he would not serve out his second term due to undisclosed health reasons threw the leadership of the county’s largest law enforcement agency into question.

Freitas, a 32-year law enforcement veteran, had previously announced that he would not run for a third term, setting the stage in 2018 for the first contested election for the post in an quarter century.

His Board of Supervisors-appointed successor, Rob Giordano, formerly an assistant sheriff, pledged not to seek the post in 2018, steering clear of a field of candidates that at one point swelled to a half-dozen.

But the October fires made Giordano a national face of Sonoma County, and he has garnered widespread praise for his straight talk and transparency during the emergency. Giordano continues to say he will not seek the seat as three men ramp up their campaigns for the June election. The declared field includes Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Essick, Santa Rosa City Councilman and retired Santa Rosa Police Lt. Ernesto Olivares, and retired Los Angeles Police Capt. John Mutz.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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