Petaluma's top stories of 2013
Published: Monday, December 30, 2013 at 7:37 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 30, 2013 at 7:37 a.m.
As we say goodbye to 2013, we look back on a year of highs and lows.
It started out on a sad note, with the death of 19-year-old Alyssa Byrne, whose passing continues to serve as a warning to young people to take precautions while partying.
But history was also made by Petaluma sports teams, as both the Leghorns and the Casa Grande football team reached levels they’d never before achieved.
Development heated up with two new shopping centers in town and a mega-casino opening in Rohnert Park. While road repairs across town aimed to improve safety, the projects drove drivers crazy. And the Petaluma Police Department saw a slew of personnel issues become public.
Here are the stories that captured the most attention from the Petaluma Argus-Courier readers in 2013.
Casinos draw concern
It was quite the year for Indian gaming casinos in Sonoma County. Petalumans felt the effects of the Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park, which — as the North Bay’s first Las Vegas-style, mega-casino — caused long traffic delays on Highway 101 and drew Petaluma police officers to help with law enforcement after the casino first opened in November. The City of Petaluma will eventually get $100,000 from the casino to offset the cost of law enforcement and traffic mitigation, but there’s no word yet on when that money will be deposited.
Meanwhile, anti-casino groups spent much of 2013 eyeing the actions of the Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians. The Dry Creek tribe, which owns a 277-acre parcel of land along Highway 101 at Kastania Road, said this year that it applied to have the land taken into federal trust to build ball fields, tribal housing and restaurants. But both local and outside anti-casino coalitions suspected that the tribe was angling for another mega-casino — this one closer to San Francisco than Graton’s Rohnert Park gaming facility.
Graton’s Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris even went so far as to challenge Dry Creek’s Tribal Chairman Harvey Hopkins to sign a legally binding agreement stating the Dry Creek Tribe would never build a casino on the Kastania Road property. Hopkins did not respond to Sarris, and instead told the public about the elaborate plans he had for the site, sans casino.
The City of Petaluma watched the gaming action unfold, and worked to acquire water rights to the Kastania Road property. The city continues to work with the North Marin Water District, which currently supplies water to the site, in hopes of brokering a deal to offer the Dry Creek tribe water service in exchange for a promise to never pursue a casino on the land — an arrangement Hopkins previously had suggested.
Homeless take to the river
While Petaluma remained known as a vibrant “river town,” drawing tourism and commerce around the Petaluma River, another, darker side to the city’s beloved waterway emerged: the increasing number of homeless encampments perched on its banks.
After finding the bodies of three dead transients near the Petaluma River during the last four months of 2013, police stepped up efforts to monitor the mostly unseen areas by the riverbed where homeless people often set up camp.
Efforts to clean up these encampments along the Petaluma River occurred on and off for several decades, with little effect. Today, rusted bicycles, rotting furniture, decomposing bed mattresses and discarded clothing litter the riverbanks. Garbage can be seen every few feet, often protruding from the surface of the water. Gallon jugs of urine and toilet paper covered in fecal matter can be spotted from the bike path that curves its way through the tall grass in the area.
Police have no idea how much money it would take to restore the area to its natural state. And while some homeless people staying along the river are peaceful and simply looking for a safe place to ride out tough times, others are there for illegal purposes — taking advantage of the relative seclusion.
Meanwhile, at COTS, CEO Mike Johnson continues efforts to find more permanent housing for residents. He said doing so would free up space at the Mary Isaak Center’s temporary and transitional housing units, allowing COTS to take more people off the streets. Specifically, the nonprofit is trying to expand its permanent housing program — called Integrity Homes — in which unrelated adults share a rental home in order to better afford general living expenses. Johnson hopes to increase the number of Integrity Homes in Petaluma from the current nine to 50 over the next five years.
Losing Alyssa Byrne
The year started on a tragic note when 19-year-old Alyssa Byrne, a Petaluma resident, disappeared after she failed to return to her South Lake Tahoe hotel room after she attended the SnowGlobe Music Festival at Lake Tahoe Community College.
While authorities in Lake Tahoe mounted a large-scale search, Byrne’s family and friends in Petaluma waited and hoped.
Three days after her disappearance, a maintenance worker found Byrne’s body behind a snow berm.
An autopsy showed that Byrne, a standout lacrosse player who was attending Santa Rosa Junior College to become a paramedic, died of hypothermia after ingesting large amounts of methamphetamine and psychoactive drugs.
In the wake of the tragedy, Byrne’s family launched a public awareness campaign, encouraging teens to “buddy up” when they are out with friends or in dangerous situations and urging friends and parents to communicate with their children.
A public memorial service held in the Casa Grande High School gymnasium attracted hundreds of her friends and community members.
Petaluma grows with new developments
It was a year of growth as Petaluma saw the opening of the long-anticipated East Washington Place shopping center, along with the beginnings of the Deer Creek Village shopping center on North McDowell Boulevard.
In July, the 378,000-square-foot East Washington Place center, which includes Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Sprouts Farmers Market, marked its grand opening in a celebration. The variety of businesses in the center was expected to create 720 permanent jobs in Petaluma.
The site, which formerly housed Kenilworth Junior High School, was first purchased by the Regency Centers developers for $22 million in 2004. The project faced a slew of delays, largely because the plan to bring big-box stores to town was not popular with some residents and civic leaders. However, when it finally opened, shoppers lined up outside to be the first ones to patronize the new Target store.
Over on McDowell, the new Deer Creek Village has been rising like a Phoenix since the shopping center broke ground in May. The 346,000-square-foot shopping center will bring Friedman’s Home Improvement back to Petaluma, where the business launched 66 years ago. Developed by Merlone Geier Partners, this center also raised the ire of neighbors, who claimed that the environmental impact of the center was not properly considered. Nonetheless, the Petaluma City Council approved the development, which will open in 2014, with a vote of 4-3.
Casa football makes history
In its first game of the season, the Casa Grande High School football team beat Eureka, 51-13, and just kept winning.
The second game against Heritage in Brentwood proved to be one of the Gauchos’ toughest of the season, but they prevailed, 12-7, and followed up with a 31-19 victory over Napa, another quality non-league opponent. The hits kept on coming. The Gauchos opened the North Bay League season with a 30-12 triumph over Montgomery, considered to be one of he league’s top teams. One by one every NBL team — Santa Rosa (35-0), Maria Carrillo (37-18), Rancho Cotate (42-13), Ukiah (45-14), Windsor (42-28) and finally Cardinal Newman (40-28) — went down.
As the victories grew, so did the excitement, spreading from the Casa Grande football family, to the student body, to the entire community.
Included in their accomplishments was the first NBL football championship in the school’s history, the longest football winning streak in school history (13 games) and the first perfect regular season in the school’s history (10 games).
After sweeping through the regular season, the Gauchos went into the North Coast Section playoffs with high expectations and continued to roll, beating Alameda (45-14), Windsor (42-7) and Montgomery (42-13).
The dream finally ended in the North Coast Section championship game when they lost a heart-breaking game to Miramonte of Orinda, 41-28.
They finished their season with a 13-1 record, out scoring their opponents 522-227.
Coached by Trent Herzog, the Gauchos were led by quarterback JaJuan Lawson and running back John Porchivina on offense and linebackers Miles Gardea and Casey Longaker along with back Brad Freitas on defense. But, it was the entire team that contributed to the greatest football season in Casa Grande High School history.
Roadwork consumes Petaluma
It was a hectic year on Petaluma’s pot-holed roadways. The myriad construction created plenty of congestion for drivers.
East Washington Street saw the biggest renaissance in 2013. The long-awaited highway interchange was finally completed with the addition of a northbound on-ramp that opened in December. The $23 million project was designed to improve the flow of traffic from one side of the town to the other, and prepared Petaluma’s main thoroughfare to seamlessly integrate into the county’s plans to widen Highway 101. However work on East Washington will continue in 2014 as the city finishes its project to replace the 85-year-old water main that runs under the road.
All four of Petaluma’s highway interchanges were under construction in 2013. Construction crews worked to rebuild the Petaluma Boulevard South interchange into a more conventional diamond shape, and at the Old Redwood Highway interchange in preparation for the widening of Highway 101, which was delayed this year when funding for the project dried up. The highway widening efforts are expected to continue for the next seven years. While many are hopeful the project will ultimately ease traffic flows through Petaluma, some are worried that the trees that were removed to make way for the new lanes of traffic won’t be adequately replaced.
Work that began in 2013 will continue in 2014 to update the Petaluma River Bridge and widen the overpass above Lakeville Highway. Much of the funding for these multi-million projects comes from Measure M, the county’s quarter-center sales tax for transportation that voters passed in 2004.
After first being proposed in 1965, the cross-town connector on Rainier finally took a step forward when the environmental study on the project was submitted to the city in September.
Then there was the “road diet” to slim Petaluma Boulevard North from four lanes to two, in an effort to widen the lanes of traffic to improve safety for cars, bicyclists and pedestrians.
Leghorns second in the nation
For 14 years, manager Casey Gilroy tried to get a Petaluma American Legion baseball team into the State Tournament, but it was never the No. 1 goal. “I’ve always wanted to get to the State Tournament, but the main objective has always been to get better from the start of the season to the end,” he explained.
His 2013 team not only improved from start to finish enough to get to the State Tournament, but to win that tournament and go on to win the Western Regional Tournament and reach the American Legion World Series, where they finished second in the nation, playing in the championship game before being eliminated by three-time World Series champion Brooklawn, N.J.
Over the course of the season, including a four-tournament playoff run, the Leghorns compiled a 37-15 record, playing 52 games in 74 summer days.
It was an amazing run for the team composed of Petaluma, Casa Grande, Rancho Cotate and Sonoma Valley high school players along with a few players from Santa Rosa Junior College.
In the American Legion World Series, the Leghorns lost their first game to Gonnzalez from Louisiana, but refused to quit, battling back to defeat Branford, Ct., Brunsville, Minn. and Brooklawn, N.J.
They were finally stopped in the World Series championship game by Brooklawn.
Playing for the Leghorns were outfielder Vinnie Albano, shortstop Anthony Bender, first baseman Weston Bryan, third baseman RJ Busse, pitcher Dom Deville, pitcher Jimmy Flatt, pitcher Dominic Garihan, pitcher Devon Graff, pitcher Brandon Hagerla, catcher Ryan Haug, pitcher Scott Hilbert, pitcher Connor Littleton, pitcher Nicholas Marks, outfielder Sam Morgan, outfielder Charles Parnow, outfielder Blake Patrick, second baseman Chase Stafford and outfielder Ryan Walsh. The Leghorns were managed by Gilroy with help from coaches Spencer Finkbohner and Paul Sequeira.
Cop charged with DUI
The Petaluma Police Department were in the news in 2013. In the first instance, patrol officer Ryan McGreevy was charged with a DUI in January, for allegedly driving a fellow officer’s motorized scooter while intoxicated onto the fairway of the Rooster Run Golf Course. The incident took place during a hostage negotiation team fundraiser that occurred in October, 2012.
McGreevy crashed the scooter and sustained a head wound that required medical aid from emergency personnel, Petaluma Valley and Santa Rosa Memorial hospitals.
After an external investigation by the California Highway Patrol, District Attorney Jill Ravitch filed two misdemeanor DUI charges against McGreevy. But because the incident had not been reported to a law enforcement agency at the time it occurred, no blood alcohol or sobriety tests were taken and no arrests were made, hampering the District Attorney’s case, Ravitch said.
McGreevy eventually pleaded down to a single misdemeanor reckless driving infraction. His license was never suspended, since he was never arrested for a DUI. The department refused to disclose any disciplinary action it may have taken against McGreevy, citing personnel and privacy concerns.
Top-ranking lieutenant fired
The second Petaluma Police Department story to top this year’s chatter was the suspension and eventual firing of longtime Petaluma Lt. Dave Sears.
Sears, a former police captain who was once on track to potentially become the chief of police, was quietly suspended in June by City Manager John Brown, at the recommendation of current Police Chief Patrick Williams.
At the time, Brown said a complaint had been filed against Sears and that the city was conducting an internal investigation using an outside source. Brown would not say who the source was, or who had lodged the complaint. He also would not confirm how many complaints had been filed against Sears.
Two months later, the day before Brown departed on a six-week paid sabbatical to Spain, he called Sears to his office and fired him. No one from the city commented on the firing.
Sears, however, claimed that he had been wrongfully terminated for actions the city deemed “dishonest,” but were actually not. Shortly after the dismissal, Sears took steps to file a wrongful termination suit. Currently, Sears is battling the city for interview records from the internal investigation.
Veterans plaque stolen
Nothing is quite so despicable as the theft of a war memorial, but that’s just what was reported in January of 2013.
The Walnut Park plaque, which carried the name of 15 Petaluma residents who perished in the Vietnam War, was ripped from its pedestal by an unknown thief.
Police suspect whoever took it scrapped it for its weight in bronze.
However, this bad deed sparked plenty of good deeds in its wake. Petaluma’s various veterans group worked with the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum, the firefighters union and many businesses to raise $12,000 to replace the memorial.
Famed local artist Rosa Estebanez designed the first plaque, and her student Maureen Frances stepped in to replicate the memorial, which was placed in granite so it couldn’t be stolen again. Red, white and blue landscaping was added to the patriotic display.
Hundreds came to the unveiling ceremony, where many noticed the dilapidated state of Walnut Park. The Petaluma Service Alliance, made up of a variety of local service clubs, launched fundraising effort to rebuild parts of the park, including painting all of the benches. In 2014, the group hopes to raise the funds necessary to replace the uneven asphalt walkways.
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