By Rita Robinson
The 13th year of the 21st Century brought good luck as well as bad, victories and resignations, beginnings and abrupt endings. Here’s the Indy’s list of the top 10 events for the year.
#1: San Onofre’s Shutdown
Shutting down the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station made international news. San Clemente’s Gary Headrick initiated grassroots protests in 2010 after being contacted by whistleblowers from the Southern California Edison nuclear power plant. The movement attracted environmental activists across the country as well as in south Orange County, including locals Marion Pack, Marni Magda, Charles Michael Murray and Chris Prelitz along with council member Toni Iseman and former council member Verna Rollinger.
Still unresolved is disposal of 1,600 tons of plutonium waste, now sitting mostly in covered pools a few feet from the Pacific Ocean and a multitude of earthquake fault lines. “The pools are covered but it’s more like a warehouse; it’s not seismically reinforced like the domes,” said Headrick. “The water has to keep circulating around them or the spent fuel will overheat and turn into a fire and once it turns into a fire, you can’t put it out.”
#2: Village Entrance Parking Structure Ditched
The City Council reversed itself in November, removing a parking structure from plans for the long-debated village entrance project, a proposed welcoming center with pedestrian pathways and a park on city property across from the Festival of Arts’ grounds.
The 20-year debate regained momentum in June when the council approved a proposed $42 million, four-story parking structure that required $29 million in debt financing. Opponents argued that the price would balloon to $65 million due to debt interest. Rita Conn, organizer of Let Laguna Vote, and its 200-plus members consistently questioned the expenditure and whether it would actually decrease traffic congestion.
The tipping point was the $5.3-million purchase of undeveloped land used as a Christmas tree lot adjacent to the planned village entrance site. That land, rather than a parking structure, could supply new parking spaces, replacing current ones that are envisioned for a park.
Conn hopes people will now think about reducing infrastructure that supports driving and replacing it with public transit and more people-powered modes like walking and biking.
#3: Police Officer Killed
Motorcycle Officer Jon Coutchie, 42, was killed in an accidental, on-duty collision with a truck around midnight on Saturday, Sept. 21. The incident instigated a drive for a memorial honoring Laguna Beach police who have died in the line of duty, which is expected to reach its goal of $40,000 by Jan. 27. A temporary memorial located adjacent to the police station at City Hall was recently installed. Coutchie’s name would join that of Officer Gordon French, who was killed making an arrest in 1953.
#4: Doctor Charged in Double-Fatality Car Crash
Laguna Beach resident and physician Robert McFarland Pettis, 48, was charged with three felonies in November related to a collision on Laguna Canyon Road that claimed the lives of two men seven months earlier. If convicted, Pettis faces a maximum sentence of nearly 10 years in prison.
Accused of speeding and crossing into oncoming traffic, investigators allege Pettis crashed his Tesla Model S head on into a vehicle driven by Alberto Casique-Salinas, 47, of Anaheim and his passenger, Armando Gonzalez, 38, of Santa Ana. The men worked for Stewart’s Landscaping in Laguna Beach. The driver of another vehicle also at the scene was not charged.
Dr. Pettis specialized in hearing and balance disorders after a tumor was removed from the base of his skull, which resulted in partial paralysis of his face and a hearing loss. The nerve controls hearing and balance.
#5: Council member Kelly Boyd Undergoes Cancer Treatment
Native Lagunan and two-term council member Kelly Boyd said he received stem cell therapy last week after a year-long battle with multiple myeloma, a cancer that suppresses the immune system.
While there is no current cure for the disease, “the latest treatments can help control the disease, relieve pain, limit complications and slow the progress of multiple myeloma in most people,” according to the Mayo Clinic’s website. “This tremendous progress in treatment means that most people with multiple myeloma live longer than ever before.”
Boyd said Monday he’s resting and is scheduled for frequent follow-up appointments. “It’s going to take time,” he said. “They take you down where your immune system goes down to almost nothing, which really weakens you. So it’s going to be a few months getting my strength back and getting my weight back.”
Boyd sold the Marine Room Tavern on Ocean Avenue last year and retired as a barkeep, but continues to serve on the City Council.
#6: Conviction in Damon Nicholson Murder
Matthew Thomas Dragna was found guilty last month of the 2009 bludgeoning murder of Damon Nicholson, 40, the well-known Hotel Laguna catering manager.
A jury convicted Dragna, 23, of Lake Forest, of one felony count of special circumstances murder committed during a robbery and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. His co-defendant, Jacob Anthony Quintanilla, 25, also of Lake Forest, faces trial separately on the same charges.
#7: Sea Lion Pups Starve
About 920 malnourished sea lion pups, most no more than nine months old, were rescued along the Southern California coastline, with at least 200 taken in for care by Laguna Beach’s Pacific Marine Mammal Center.
Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association called the epidemic an “unusual mortality event” but have yet to identify a reason for the malaise that resulted in the death of at least 20% of the rescued pups. Scientists say there are several possible causes, including overpopulation, inadequate supplies of fish, and changing weather and ocean patterns that keep fish that sea lions feed on from surfacing.
#8: Property Sale Uproots Garden
After four years as a community garden on donated property, the 11,000-square-foot-lot that was home to the South Laguna Community Garden and 53 raised vegetable beds was sold last month for $1.2 million.
Property owner Paul Tran of Baton Rouge, La., said the lot was sold to Ahmed Al Tuwaijri, a medical doctor whose plans might include a clinic there.
Gardeners hope to continue to raise crops as plans are finalized for the property, which may take a while, said Ann Christoph, garden organizer.
#9: F’s for Starting School Earlier
In April, the school board unanimously retracted its decision to start school on Aug. 29 instead of after Labor Day because parents vigorously protested the change.
School administrators claimed a survey showed support for the earlier start date, but results were divided, with parents opposed to the change. The survey showed that most teachers favored the earlier start date because it would allow a full week off at Thanksgiving, a week where student absenteeism is already high, according to the teacher’s union.
#10: Five-Year Tunnel Project Moves Forward
Two miles of a nearly 60-year-old sewer pipeline tunnel will be widened and a new pipeline installed, as approved by the city’s planning commission in December.
The tunnel in the ocean bluffs parallels South Coast Highway and is part of the South Coast Water District’s sewer system. Its pipeline carries one million gallons of sewage daily through downhill gravitational flow from north Dana Point to Aliso State Beach. The improvements will cost nearly $100 million and take five years to complete.