The Union’s top 10 news stories for 2012 in western Nevada County |

The Union’s top 10 news stories for 2012 in western Nevada County

Photo for The Union by John Hart
John Hart | The Union

1. Medical marijuana cultivation ordinance approved by supervisors

Order broke down and angry outbursts cascaded moments after the Nevada County Board of Supervisors approved a medical marijuana ordinance in a May meeting that placed limitations on grow operations in the county.

The board approved both an urgency ordinance that took effect immediately and a regular ordinance, which necessitated additional public hearings. On both issues the vote was 4 to 1, with Supervisor Terry Lamphier dissenting.

As soon as the first vote was announced, members of the crowd stood up from their chairs and began yelling at the board.

“This isn’t fair,” one shouted. And “You didn’t listen,” another followed.

One unidentified member of the crowd confronted Sheriff Keith Royal and accused him of taking jobs and money away from residents, before being escorted by officers from the chambers.

Order was restored for a moment, before a crowd of people rushed into the chamber, chanting “Vote them out! … Vote them out!”

“Obviously, not everybody is happy,” said District 2 Supervisor Ed Scofield, who made the motion to approve the urgency ordinance. The majority of ordinance supporters speaking that day were from Scofield’s south county district. “But we had to get something on the ground.”

Lamphier said he supported an marijuana ordinance, but not the one approved by his fellow supervisors, saying it was hastily put together and a few more details needed to be ironed out before it was passed.

“There was a lot of confusion, a lot of misunderstanding,” Lamphier said, adding he expected the county to be sued and to incur a lengthy and expensive legal battle.

Into November, the marijuana season was still far from wrapping up — and that meant the Nevada County Sheriff’s marijuana ordinance enforcement team was “staying busy,” said Lt. Steve Tripp. The sheriff’s office had received 294 citizen complaints concerning marijuana nuisance to date, he said. The team had issued 85 notices to abate, according to statistics provided by the sheriff’s office. As a result of the compliance checks, the marijuana enforcement team had made 16 arrests, served four civil abatement warrants and served two criminal search warrants.

In December, a medical marijuana cultivation measure called the most progressive in California won approval from the Yuba County Supervisors.

“We’ve made history,” Sam McConnell, president of the Yuba County Growers Association, told the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, adding that every other county in the state can now follow Yuba County’s lead.

Local medical marijuana advocates are hoping that Nevada County will be one of those — but Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal, for one, expressed skepticism.

Attorney Jeff Lake had filed a legal challenge in July to the original Yuba County measure for groups including the Old Crow Farm Collective and Deja Vu Collective, along with Yuba Growers. He said the ordinance adopted in April represented a “de facto ban on medical marijuana collectives.”

Lake said the revised ordinance was an “excellent result” for both sides and showed the willingness of Yuba County to sit down and negotiate a “reasonable” ordinance. The new ordinance allows a total of 18 plants to be grown on less than an acre, while up to 99 plants are allowed on more than 20 acres.

“So what does (this) mean for Nevada County?” Lake said. “We would like to do the same thing we did in Yuba County.”

Lake planned to meet with members of the Nevada County chapter of Americans for Safe Access to discuss Yuba County’s ordinance. ASA-NC is the lead plaintiff in a Nevada County lawsuit that challenges the legality of the county’s ordinance; the case is scheduled to be heard in May by Superior Court Judge Sean Dowling.

— Liz Kellar and Matthew Renda, staff writers

2. South Yuba River state park to stay open amid state scandal

Thanks largely to local efforts from school children, government officials and the general public, Nevada County’s beloved South Yuba River State Park was removed in February from a list of California state parks slated for closure.

More than 10,000 signatures were submitted at the state Capitol by a large contingent of county residents, including representatives from the South Yuba River Citizens League and Grass Valley Charter School. SYRCL helped generated much of the support for the county’s state parks, originally assigning a goal of 5,000 signatures during a Dec. 12, 2011 town hall event attended by more than 400 community members.

The Nevada County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a letter to State Parks officials supporting the department’s plan to start charging for parking at Bridgeport — a highlight of the South Yuba River — to generate revenue for the popular park. South Yuba and Malakoff Diggins state parks had been placed on the closure list when the California Department of Parks announced it would close 70 parks throughout the state in May 2011.

In July, California’s State Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned and a deputy was fired after officials learned the department sat on nearly $54 million in surplus money for years, while parks were threatened with closure over budget cuts. Local officials expressed a mixture of outrage and astonishment at the news that the parks department intended to close 70 parks to save $22 million over two years while reportedly sitting on reserves of more than twice that amount.

Earlier this month, it was announced that about 200 employees of the Parks Department were overpaid by a total amount of approximately $500,000 from July 2009 through July 2012, according to a report issued by the California State Controller’s office Dec. 18.

State Controller John Chiang painted a picture of rampant abuse within the department, saying employees and managers violated numerous state policies and keyed in payroll without proper documentation or authority, creating the risk of abuse, fraud and overpayments.

— Matthew Renda, staff writer

3. Grass Valley native,

U.S. Ambassador killed in terrorist attack

Christopher Stevens, a 52-year-old U.S. Ambassador to Libya who was killed on Sept. 11 during an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was born in Grass Valley in 1960.

He was the son of Jan Stevens, who graduated from Grass Valley High School in 1951, and went on to work in the California Attorney General’s Office, said 78-year-old Grass Valley resident Lois Robinson, who was a classmate of Jan Stevens at the Nevada County high school in the 1950s.

Christopher Stevens’ grandfather Elmer Stevens was a teacher at Grass Valley High School, before it consolidated with Nevada City High School and became Nevada Union, Robinson said.

A memorial service for Stevens took place Oct. 16 under the dome at San Francisco City Hall, where family members and government officials mourned his passing.

“As a young man, Chris joined the Peace Corps, and taught English in Morocco. And he came to love and respect the people of North Africa and the Middle East. He would carry that commitment throughout his life,” said President Obama in the opening remarks of his speech to the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 25, in which he referenced Grass Valley in the first few sentences of his remarks.

“As a diplomat, (Stevens) worked from Egypt to Syria, from Saudi Arabia to Libya. He was known for walking the streets of the cities where he worked — tasting the local food, meeting as many people as he could, speaking Arabic, listening with a broad smile,” Obama said.

In late October, The Union reported Stevens would be laid to rest in Grass Valley. The fallen U.S. emissary was honored at a meeting of the Grass Valley City Council.

“America mourns the tragic death and loss of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who dedicated his life to diplomacy,” said Mayor Jan Arbuckle, reading from the proclamation passed unanimously by the council. “(T)he city of Grass Valley find(s) it necessary to acknowledge the loss not only of an ambassador for America, but the loss of one of our own children born in Grass Valley.”

On a quiet Friday afternoon in late November, bathed in sunshine amid the bright autumn colors of the Sierra Nevada foothills, nearly 30 family members and close friends gathered at a family plot to bid farewell to the slain emissary, said Ellen Gibson, a relative and local resident.

“It was short, it was lovely and very private, and he was surrounded by his loved ones,” Gibson said. “It was absolutely wonderful.”

“A number of Stevens are buried there,” said Jan Stevens, the ambassador’s father. “His grandfather and great-grandfather were buried there. His mother and I agreed it was the appropriate thing to do.”

— Matthew Renda and Christopher Rosacker, staff writers

4. Nevada County Courthouse project stalled

Nevada County’s long fought-for renovation of its courthouse has been recommended for indefinite delay, according to a spokesperson for the Judicial Council, the policy-making body for the state’s judicial branch.

The mid-December decision to suspend the project came out of hasty meetings to divert $550 million from the statewide courthouse construction fund to the Long Beach courthouse, a project nearly complete and originally intended to be paid for out of the state general fund.

However, the state legislature unexpectedly signaled its intent to instead keep those funds, forcing the judicial branch to fund the project from a pot that had been allocated to 23 remaining courthouse projects statewide, including Nevada County’s, according to court officials.

“That is such an enormous blow to the SB 1407 program,” said Sean Metroka, Nevada County Court’s chief executive officer, about the Senate Bill intended to finance courthouse construction bonds,

Supporters of the Nevada County courthouse, located in downtown Nevada City, have been battling the state since the project’s inception in 2009, when the Administrative Office of the Courts determined it is “unsafe, substandard, overcrowded and functionally deficient,” and $108 million was pegged for either a rebuild or a renovation.

“The need is not going to go away. It is only going to get worse and worse,” said Nevada City Councilman Robert Bergman, also an attorney. “The maintenance costs will continue to rise just to keep it together.”

After months of stagnation, in September, the Nevada County Courthouse was among 31 statewide courthouse construction projects statewide recommended to proceed.

That month, the Court Facilities Working Group re-evaluated the more than 30 statewide construction projects in an attempt to save around $500 million, according to a spokesperson for the Judicial Council.

More than $5 billion in funding was originally planned for statewide courthouse construction projects; however, money from that overall fund has since been borrowed, swept to the state’s general fund or redirected to court operations since 2009, according to the AOC.

— Christopher Rosacker, staff writer

5. Changing landscape

of education spurs consolidation talks

To say that nearly a decade of declining enrollment and five consecutive years of budget cuts has been a challenge for Nevada County’s public schools and their administrators is putting it mildly.

In 2000-01, there were 12,997 students enrolled in 50 schools in western Nevada County, according to the county Superintendent of Schools Office.

But today, in the 2011-12 school year, just 11,050 students are enrolled countywide in 45 schools, representing a 15 percent reduction in enrollment in that span.

And it appears the trend isn’t changing anytime soon, school officials say.

“We haven’t been presented any evidence that the declining enrollment will turn around,” said Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Holly Hermansen told The Union in March. “I think schools will continue to struggle with that.”

Since 2007, $6.2 billion in education allocations has been slashed from California’s general fund.

That decline in revenue equates to a $1,197 reduction in per pupil spending – or about 15 teachers per school of 1,000 students – according to, which tracks education in California.

The Grass Valley School District Board of Trustees in January unanimously approved a reconfiguration plan that moved Grass Valley Charter School to the Hennessy School campus, resulting in the consolidation of Hennessy and Scotten K-4 students who now attend the Scotten campus.

That approved plan is predicted to save $49,000 in utility costs for Grass Valley Schools.

In June, the county’s Civil Grand Jury recommended that school districts more actively pursue cost-saving measures, including exploration of consolidations with other districts.

“The Jury believes that this is one of the most important issues facing the residents of western Nevada County,” jurors said in their report. Later in June, the Grass Valley and Nevada City school districts met to talk consolidation for the first time.

Presented with some of the first hard numbers on the cost of consolidating Grass Valley and Nevada City schools, the members of those districts’ respective boards voted unanimously in October to continue to explore the possibility of a merger.

“I haven’t seen anything that has made me not want to continue exploration,” said Frank Bennallack, a member of Grass Valley’s school board.

— Christopher Rosacker, staff writer

6. Attorney general files charges in Gold Country Lenders case

Four suspects connected to a real estate company in Grass Valley have been arrested and charged with securities fraud, conspiracy and elder abuse for allegedly operating a Ponzi scheme that bilked dozens of investors of more than $2.3 million, according to California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris.

Phillip Lester, 65, and Ellen Lester, 65, who are married, Susan Laferte, 58, and Jon Blinder, 58, were arrested Sept. 20 in Nevada County and booked into Nevada County Jail.

The arrest declaration alleges that Gold Country Lenders, a real estate company in Grass Valley, engaged in a pattern of theft and fraud-related crimes for more than eight years, Harris said in a news release. Investor funds were used to make interest payments to earlier investors or for projects in which the company’s owner had a financial interest.

“These defendants exploited their personal relationships with these victims and emptied their bank accounts,” Harris said. “Schemes that target the elderly are especially heinous, which is why prosecuting fraud and elder abuse needs to remain priorities for law enforcement.”

On Sept. 26, the Nevada County Economic Resource Council’s executive council accepted the resignation of interim executive director Jon Blinder.

In November, California Deputy Attorney General Maggy Krell has dismissed all charges against Ellen Lester, the wife of Gold Country Lenders CEO Philip Lester, with plans to refile.

County officials expressed concern that the cost of defending Phillip Lester, CEO of Gold Country Lenders, Laferte, the firm’s chief financial officer, and Ellen Lester could exceed $600,000 annually. Blinder has retained his own attorney.

“These costs will be substantial and will potentially draw down heavily on the general fund,” Deputy County Executive Officer Joe Christoffel said.

— Liz Kellar and Matthew Renda, staff writers

7. Consolidated fire district draws scrutiny

Nevada County Consolidated Fire District grabbed its share of headlines in 2012, including a special tax approved by voters, an incident that resulted in its retiring chief being suspended and criticism over how revenue from the newly approved tax was being used.

In March, Nevada County Consolidated Fire District’s put forth a special election to implement a fire tax that amounted to $52 for most property owners. Fire Chief Tim Fike said the special tax was needed because the district was operating at a $500,000 deficit, and faced an approximately $870,000 deficit for the 2011-12 fiscal year. He warned that a failure to pass the tax would mean a 20 percent reduction in personnel and the permanent closure of two fire stations. Board President Warren Knox said district personnel had worked diligently with the board to “reduce costs everywhere possible to maintain emergency services.” Voters approved the tax, which garnered 68.5 percent of the total 9,826 validated votes cast. The special tax received 6,735 votes to the 3,091 votes against.

On March 18, the board announced Fike’s retirement, but did not disclose until nearly three months later that Fike had been suspended with pay following a March 15 incident that reportedly involved the chief grabbing the throat of an employee following a verbal altercation. Fike had been on paid administrative leave since April 19, Knox told The Union in early June. Opposition was voiced over the chief’s $75,000 severance package later that month.

In September, Fike was honored by the Nevada County Board of Supervisors. Fike was not in attendance for the ceremony, as he was away as part of an incident command team fighting a wildland fire, said Supervisor Hank Weston. A smattering of regional firefighting dignitaries accepted the award on Fike’s behalf.

In November, eight months after the approval of its special tax, the fire district’s board restored salary step increases and other benefits to its firefighters, drawing criticism from the public and one of its board members, John Leonard: “There is barely any money for gasoline and no money for new equipment, and if we keep awarding salary increases, this district is going to go broke.”

— Matthew Renda, staff writer

8. Community rallies to side of Penn Valley wounded soldier

Amid a robust contingent of supporters who gathered at the Sacramento International Airport to give an enthusiastic welcome to a wounded warrior, one young girl held a sign that read: “Penn Valley Loves Its Soldiers.”

Far from being an overstated advertisement about the Nevada County community, it was a declaration bolstered by the outpouring of support for U.S. Army Spc. Brandon Walden, a 20-year-old Penn Valley native who suffered life-threatening gunshot wounds after being attacked July 3 by a man wearing an Afghan National Security Forces uniform.

The support crescendoed in November as Walden stepped foot back in his native state for the first time in more than a year.

For many months, it was a matter of conjecture whether Walden would ever take a step anywhere again.

He received multiple gunshot wounds during the July attack, but the worst was to his right hip, as a bullet entered his body, bounced from his femur bone and ricocheted throughout his abdomen area, doing severe damage to his intestines and other vital organs.

A subsequent infection created a life-threatening scenario that stretched for about a week. Even after Walden was stabilized, he was in danger of losing his leg as the dangerous bacterial invasion persisted.

Lately, Walden has made steady progress and he told The Union that doctors expect him to recover range of motion sufficient enough to not only walk fluidly, but eventually even to run. Hours of grueling rehab await, but Walden was granted leave by the U.S. Army to return to his hometown for an eight-day stint.

While Walden was busy recovering from his wounds, western Nevada County residents were rallying to raise funds, write letters of support and otherwise show their appreciation for his sacrifice to his country.

“I don’t know what to say,” he said as his fellow Penn Valley denizens lined up to shake his hand.

“I just want to thank everyone for showing up here today to show their support,” he said later at a Western Gateway Park gathering. “I don’t regret a single day I spent over there fighting for our country.”

— Matthew Renda, staff writer

9. Fire consumes Humpty Dumpty diner in Grass Valley

Loyal patrons who for decades enjoyed a cozy breakfast or lunch at family-owned Humpty Dumpty Kitchen have had to look elsewhere after the popular diner sustained significant fire damage.

No one was injured in the Jan. 8 blaze as the restaurant closes at 3 p.m. on Saturdays and the building, located at 1711 East Main St., was vacant.

“There were flames coming up the side,” said Steven Cragle, a Grass Valley resident who noticed the smoke while driving by and reported the fire to emergency services. The fire appeared to have started in a storage room at the back of the building, not the kitchen, said owner Randy Hodges.

“Locals all know this place,” said Sandy Nettelhorst, Cragle’s girlfriend. “They are busy Monday through Sunday. This is sad.”

As many as six engines and 25 firefighters from Grass Valley, Ophir Hill, Nevada City, Rough and Ready’s volunteer fire department and Nevada County Consolidated Fire District responded to the blaze, battling flames for more than two hours, said Grass Valley Fire Chief Tony Clarabut.

Hodges’ grandfather, L.C. Hodges, started Humpty Dumpty as a hamburger and ice cream stand in downtown Grass Valley 50 years ago, according to The Union archives. Burney and Geanine Hodges, Randy’s parents, bought the downtown shop from L.C. in 1970. It was moved to the current location in 1976 when Randy and now-deceased brother Allyn took over until their brother, Robert, graduated from high school and joined them.

In early December, Randy Hodges said he aims to have the restaurant open by February 2013.

“We’re just so thankful for our customers,” Hodges said. “We appreciate their continued support.”

— Christopher Rosacker, staff writer

10. Nevada City camping law to curb vagrancy issues

Anyone who intends to sleep on public property in Nevada City, notably homeless folks, will have to obtain a permit to exempt them from a camping ordinance passed by the town’s council Dec. 12.

“I think this a creative way to try to solve a problem we’ve had here in the community for a long time,” said Councilwoman Jennifer Ray.

Until the action, the city had no ordinance to prohibit anyone who put up a tent or shelter or slept on public land without a permit, including those in cars. Nevada City has approximately 60 homeless residents, and a “high percentage” of them have known criminal histories involving drugs and alcohol, according to Police Chief Jim Wickham, the ordinance’s architect.

The ordinance involves the establishment of a committee to help determine whether the public space a person is sleeping on provides for adequate health and safety standards, Wickham noted.

— Christopher Rosacker, staff writer

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