The year 2018 is just around the corner. Before we see what the new year has to offer, let us look back at the big stories that affected Benicia in 2017.
In February, interim City Manager Steve Salomon left to become the interim city manager of Orinda. Fire Chief Jim Lydon initially filled in, but by the end of the month, Pacifica City Manager Lorie Tinfow was appointed to the position.
Speaking of Lydon, he also left his position as fire chief in October after four years to become the new chief of the Coronado Fire Department. Josh Chadwick, who had previously served as the acting deputy fire chief, was appointed as Lydon’s interim successor.
Community Development Director Christina Ratcliffe left after two years for a position as the community and economic development director for the city of Martinez. She was succeeded by Shawna Brekke-Read, a longtime planning director and consultant for various communities, in July. Brekke-Read became the permanent director in November.
Finally, Public Works Director Graham Wadsworth left in October to become an engineering supervisor for Napa County. Randy Murphy, who had worked in various positions for local governments, was appointed as interim director not long after.
Public Works employee killed
In May, Michael Ferrara, a 59-year-old maintenance employee with the Public Works Department, was driving along Lake Herman Road when his asphalt concrete truck crashed and rolled over. He was taken to a hospital where he later died. Ferrara had been employed with the city for two years and back during the January rainstorms drove a dump truck to rescue a driver who had been trapped in their vehicle by surrounding floods.
Business Improvement District approved for 10-year term
In September, the Benicia Business Improvement District— which was approved by the City Council in 2012 to designate areas of town to pay taxes to help fund projects within the district’s boundaries for a five-year term— was up for review by the council, this time for a 10-year term. One of the main projects funded through the BID has been the twinkle lights wrapped around trees along First Street, whose goal is to create a safer, more welcoming downtown.
The Downtown Business Alliance (DBA), which was created along with the DBA in 2012, heavily advocated for the renewal. However, they received opposition by a group of downtown business owners who were unhappy with the high assessment fees, automatically being included in the DBA without having a say, and paying too much for the lights.
This group circulated a petition which had received 86 signatures from local businesses— although some had rescinded their signatures prior to the council vote—, but it did not stop the council from voting 3-0— Councilmembers Tom Campbell and Alan Schwartzman had to recuse themselves because they operated businesses in or near the BID— to renew the BID. The new term is scheduled to go into effect on New Year’s Day.
The water and sewer rates that were approved by the council in 2012 reached a boiling point in the latter months of 2017 with residents expressing outrage over doubled water rates and meters they said were not working correctly. These issues were aired on sites like Nextdoor and Facebook’s “Benicia Happenings” group in addition to council meetings. Tinfow attempted to clarify the increases in a post on the city’s website, saying the rates went up due to increased water usage, the accuracy of meters and the removal of the tiered pricing charge model. In an August E-alert, Mayor Elizabeth Patterson said she had requested for a trend analysis of revenues for both water and sewer rates and make adjustments accordingly. The council voted in October to push back the discussion of water rates to a later meeting.
Battle over buildings
One of the most hotly contested issues in Benicia this past year has been the debate over whether or not to demolish the Foundry and Office buildings on East H Street. The two buildings were constructed in the 1850s as the shipping and office buildings for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and were once owned by Yuba Industries. The property, currently owned by Amports, has fallen on hard times in recent decades, as the buildings have been subject to vandalism, structural damage and even a fire. In 2015, the buildings were red-tagged, and Amports filed for an emergency demolition permit in 2016. The permit was appealed by members of the Historic Preservation Review Commission and brought to the Building Code Board of Appeals, which resulted in a split 1-1 decision. It was later brought to the City Council, which voted 3-2 to uphold the appeal and have Amports secure the property and start the process of identifying stabilization approaches.
Following the decision, Amports attorney Dana Dean requested a rehearing which has been rescheduled multiple times as the city attempts to gather additional information. Like the buildings in question, the debate remains.
Following the passage of the Adult Use of Marijuana Act in 2016, Benicia was one of many communities throughout California figuring out how to deal with it. In January, the council voted to extend a temporary moratorium on marijuana-related activities to give itself time to answer questions regarding the allowance of delivering medical and recreational cannabis, personal cultivation of the crop, the permission to allow dispensaries in town and, if so, where they can be located.
This debate drove out both sides in full force. Advocates of regulated cannabis cited the economic benefits, the fact that marijuana has become mainstream and the potential convenience of having a medical marijuana dispensary in town as reasons to allow dispensaries. Opponents cited safety concerns, potential youth access and zones being too close to schools or parks. Both sides made their voices heard at several council meetings throughout the year.
When the time came to vote on dispensaries on First Street, Schwartzman had to recuse himself because he owned a property on First Street. The rest of the council voted against allowing dispensaries downtown. However, when the time came to vote on other cannabis-related issues— and with Schwartzman back in the mix— things went a little differently. The council voted to allow up to two dispensaries and one microbusiness within the city limits. However, they also restricted dispensaries from within 600 feet of schools, disqualifying it from the Southampton Shopping Center, although the proposed buffer around parks and day care centers were eliminated. Potential locations include Solano Square, Columbus Parkway and the Arsenal. The first reading of the ordinance will be done at the Feb. 6 meeting, and the second reading and adoption will be done at the Feb. 20 meeting.
By far, the biggest Benicia news story of 2017 was an incident that occurred at the Valero Benicia Refinery. On the morning of May 5, the refinery underwent an emergency shutdown as Pacific Gas & Electric was doing maintenance on power lines. A power outage resulted in a large plume of black smoke being released for several hours, resulting in an evacuation of the Industrial Park and nearby Robert Semple and Matthew Turner elementary schools establishing shelters-in-place. Two press conferences were held at the Benicia Public Library over the course of the day, and the lockdown was lifted around 5 p.m. that afternoon.
Over the course of the next week, the refinery saw a coker unit release on May 8 and a coker relief valve release on May 15. The Solano County Environmental Health Division attributed the former release to unburned hydrocarbons still in the coker unit from the May 5 shutdown and the latter release to trapped condensate water in the piping system as a result of the previous incident. The same agency quietly released a report in August, which found the refinery did not violate any regulations.
Valero has continually placed blame on PG&E for the incident and filed a $75 million lawsuit in June. The suit alleged that the flaring was due to PG&E shutting off the power which led to impairments to critical equipment, loss of revenue and additional damages. The case is ongoing.
Shortly after the May 5 incident, Patterson requested the city adopt an Industrial Safety Ordinance (ISO) in the vein of Contra Costa County’s ISO to require Valero to submit safety plans, experience safety audits and develop risk management plans while utilizing community input. Opponents of the proposal, including Valero, have argued that a local ISO would be superfluous in the wake new state regulations adopted on Oct. 1 that aimed to strengthen workplace and environmental safety at all of California’s refineries. The council voted 4-1 in May to approve Patterson’s request for future agendization of an ISO, but it has not been on any council agendas since, although proponents have continued to make their case through letters to local newspapers and a panel at the library in November.
Other news of note
* Estey Real Estate and Adobe Second Chance Thrift Shop relocated from the Mason building in January after it was red-tagged for foundational damage.
* Plans for a private ferry service for Genentech employees from the Alvarez Ninth Street Park were terminated in April.
* The Art & Culture Commission unveiled its new public art initiative.
* After two years, the Carquinez Village was officially launched in April to create a network of seniors within the community.