MOUNTAIN AREA — From progress on major new public and commercial projects to prosecution of high-profile criminal cases, 2019 was an eventful year in eastern Madera County. As 2020 dawns, here’s a look back at some of this year’s key stories.
North Fork’s new roundabout: After several years of heated debate, Madera County’s first public roundabout was approved by the board of supervisors and construction of the $1.97 million traffic circle transformed the intersection of Roads 225 and 274 in North Fork, previously an unconventional three-way stop. Work actually began on the controversial project in mid-June but a wet autumn slowed progress, delaying the roundabout’s projected official opening until the end of December.
Oakhurst’s three new hotels: Construction finally neared completion on Oakhurst’s three new hotels along Highway 41, a project that has been underway for nearly a decade. The Holiday Inn Express, Fairfield Inn and Hampton Inn will add more than 300 new guest rooms to Oakhurst’s short-term lodging inventory — and more than a million dollars a year to the County’s transient occupancy tax (TOT) revenues. The developer of the project, Paul Patel, had hoped to open the Holiday Inn in 2019 but unresolved issues involved with connecting the new hotels to Oakhurst’s aging main sewer line beneath Highway 41 continue to delay the project. In recent months, Patel has repeatedly declined to say when he expects to be open for business but current reservation information on the company’s website appears to point to a projected mid-January debut for the Holiday Inn Express.
Gaylen Lee homicide: In early July, prominent Mono Indian tribal elder Gaylen D. Lee was killed in a shooting near his home in North Fork. Hundreds of community members attended memorial services honoring the influential Mono leader. Robert Eugene Moye Jr., 47, has been charged in the shooting and is awaiting trial. Moye, also a North Fork resident, is being held on a $3.75 million bond. Moye’s court-appointed public defender says his client plans to plead self-defense.
In another recent high-profile murder case, Mary O’Keefe entered a guilty plea earlier this year in the 2016 homicide of well-known North Fork resident and former Mono Tribal Council member Bonnie Hale. O’Keefe, 66, also of North Fork, pleaded guilty to killing Hale as well as residential burglary and elder abuse and was sentenced to 13 years in state prison.
North Fork biomass project: A plan to build a 2-megawatt biomass plant at North Fork’s Old Mill Site continued to move haltingly forward. In the works for nearly a decade, the plant plan was delayed by PG&E’s 2019 bankruptcy filing, which put the power purchase agreement signed by the utility in jeopardy and also held up the bond sale needed to finance the $15 million project. Developers brought in a third partner in mid-2019 and now hope to nail down financing and start construction in 2020. The proposed 5,000 square-foot plant would create at least a dozen new local jobs and operate 24 hours a day, using giant gas engines to convert dead trees into electricity.
Tribal affairs: Wet weather muddied up the construction timeline at the Sierra Mono Museum, which has been closed since 2018 while undergoing a major renovation. But tribal leaders still plan to reopen the facility in 2020. The museum has been undergoing a $600,000 renovation and expansion funded by a Indian Community Development Block Grant. It’s collection features one of the largest displays of Indian baskets in the country. And while there was no new major development’s in the Mono’s effort to build a casino off Highway 99 in Madera (the case remains tied up in court), the Tribe did end 2019 with a major accomplishment — landing a $5 million federal grant to build low-income tribal housing.
In October, the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians’ annual pow wow drew almost thousands to Coarsegold’s Historic Village. Also in 2019, the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino underwent a major renovation to its more than 400 hotel rooms and suites.
County manager resigns: Madera County’s chief administrative officer, Eric Fleming, resigned suddenly in mid-December amid escalating accusations he had created a hostile work environment at the County Government Center. Fleming, 50, had been with Madera County since 2005 and served as CAO, the county’s top manager, since 2010. He was credited with leading Madera County out of the Great Recession, eliminating the budget deficit and implementing Madera County’s 311 Customer Services Center and MadCoServices app. Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Darin McCandless temporarily assumed CAO duties while supevisors began a nationwide search for a permanent replacement for Fleming.
EMC SPCA shelter preps to open: Construction of a new $3.1 million Eastern Madera County SPCA animal shelter in Ahwahnee also neared completion in 2019. The eagerly anticipated no-kill shelter off Highway 49 should be open in 2020, according to Sharon Fitzgerald, board president of EMC SPCA, who announced in August the organization had secured a $700,000 loan to finish construction of the shelter, which will be able to house 40 cats and 35 dogs.
Satellite government center coming to Oakhurst: In September, the board of supervisors closed escrow on the purchase a 13,383-square-foot building in Oakhurst off Highway 49 that will become a new satellite government center. After shuttering the old Bass Lake Courthouse, county officials had originally planned to build a new government facility in Oakhurst but changed their minds and purchased the former St. Agnes Medical Center building for $1.8 million. The new satellite government center is currently undergoing renovations and is expected to open in early to mid-2020. “Oakhurst is the heart of eastern Madera County and this new facility is going to be a big benefit for our public,” said Supervisor Tom Wheeler, who will have a second office in the new government center, which will allow eastern Madera County residents to pull permits, pay bills and traffic tickets and drop off ballots without having to drive into Madera. Wheeler noted that it would have cost the county more than $7 million to purchase and build a similar-sized facility.
Briceburg Fire: An early October 30-acre brush fire that sparked along Highway 140 in Mariposa County near the Briceburg Bridge ended up burning more than 5,500 acres before it was fully contained on Oct. 23. CAL FIRE said thick vegetation, drought and steep terrain contributed to the rapid spread of the fire, which destroyed one structure but did not cause any injuries or deaths. Nearly 1,600 firefighters battled the blaze which forced the closure of Highway 140 and also required the temporary evacuation of residents living in the area.
Progress on new Oakhurst Community College Center: Plans for the new $25 million Oakhurst Community College Center continued to take shape in 2019. In March, college officials released an updated project timeline, projecting students in classrooms as early as the fall of 2022. In the spring of 2020, final design plans are expected to be unveiled and preliminary site work could also begin later in the year. Meanwhile, a new Tractor Supply Co. store will be built in 2020 near the new college center site off Highway 49 and several prominent area developers are also formulating plans to create student housing and additional commercial development around the new college campus site.
Leadership changes at YUSD: In January, Glen Billington was hired as the new superintendent of Yosemite Unified School District. Billington, who replaced former YUSD superintendent Cecelia Greenberg, came to the district after serving as an assistant superintendent for Woodlake Unified in Tulare County. And in May, Billington announced that Dr. Stephanie Osowski had been hired as the new principal at Yosemite High. The former SoCal educator — and one-time journalist — moved to the mountain area from Fallbrook, replacing Regina Carr.
Yosemite trademark settlement: In mid-July, former Yosemite concessionaire Delaware North and current concessionaire Aramark settled a contentious trademark lawsuit regarding branding of some of Yosemite’s best-known properties. As part of the $12 million settlement, the historic Ahwahnee Hotel got its name back. The settlement also restored other prominent properties’ names, including The Wawona Hotel (which had been renamed Big Trees Lodge), Curry Village (which had become Half Dome Village) and the Badger Pass Ski Area (which had been renamed Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area).
And in a surprising announcement in late 2019, Yosemite superintendent Mike Reynolds was reassigned to another National Parks Service job in Colorado. Reynolds, a 34-year park service veteran and native of the Yosemite area, will be replaced by Cicely Muldoon, who has been superintendent at Point Reyes National Seashore since 2010. Muldoon is expected to assume her new position at YNP in January.
Hodges wins again at Loggers Jamboree: North Fork’s Nate Hodges claimed his 11th top-logger title at this year’s Super Bowl of local timber sport events — the Mid-Sierra Loggers Jamboree. Hodges then went on to finish second overall at the 2019 Stihl Timbersports U.S. Championships — and then represented the U.S. at the World Timbersports Championships in Prague. And in late December, Nate capped off an eventful year by opening a new club in Oakhurst — Yosemite Axe Throwing, located off Highway 41 next to Smokehouse 41 BBQ.