YEAR IN REVIEW, Part 2: Cautious optimism on the river – Sonoma West

Lower Russian River residents greeted 2018 hoping for a better year but maybe a little skeptical that much of anything would change.

At best they seemed ready to welcome a balance of extremes, such as plans launched in January for a new state-of-the-art Guerneville health center with a free walk-in homeless clinic — just as another homeless resident died sleeping on the streets.

Here’s a month-by-month take on this year’s news along the river.


When the Metropolitan Community Church of the Redwood Empire hosted a January memorial service for recently departed Guerneville homeless at the Odd Fellows Hall, no one seemed to know how many homeless people had died along the lower Russian River in the past two years owing to homeless-related causes. Estimates ranged from one to two dozen. But whatever the total, “It’s too many,” said Community Church member Carol Degenhardt.

A lower Russian River Homeless Task Force also reconvened in January to spend another $300,000 in county grant money for homeless-related projects.


west county homelessness

HOMELESS IN WEST COUNTY – According to statistics from the 2018 Sonoma County Point-In-Time Count, the homeless population in west county slightly decreased over the last year.

“There are lots of ideas percolating” about how to use the money, said Sonoma County Community Development Commission (CDC) Executive Director Margaret Van Vliet.

Homelessness of a different dimension arrived after Sonoma County’s disastrous wildfire in October 2017. In January local fire and emergency first responders met with nearly 100 lower Russian River residents to talk about evacuation options if a wildfire threatened the wooded west county.

“The message we have today is empower yourself,” said Sonoma County Sheriff Community Engagement Liaison Misti Harris.

Veteran Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman agreed that advance planning and self-reliance should be key priorities for lower River residents. In the event of a wildfire with the magnitude of October’s Santa Rosa Complex fires, “We can make all the plans in the world,” said Baxman, “but it will be every man woman and child for themselves.”

In January the Russian River Chamber of Commerce announced the hiring of a new executive director, Elizabeth “Elyse” VanDyne, who took over the vacant job on Jan. 2.

VanDyne brought a background in non-profit community promotions and fundraising in Denver, Colorado, where she was executive director for the Colorado Maker Hub.

VanDyne brought a background in non-profit community promotions and fundraising in Denver, Colorado, where she was executive director for the Colorado Maker Hub.


In February a deepening mystery lurking in Guerneville was who’s supposed to empty the downtown trashcans?

“It’s not the chamber,” said a Russian River Chamber of Commerce staff member.

Clean River Alliance volunteers were emptying overflowing trashcans in February as part of the Alliance’s ongoing volunteer downtown cleanup efforts.

“I don’t think anybody really knows,” said Clean River Alliance founder Chris Brokate. “They’ve passed the buck. I don’t think anybody knows whose responsibly it is.”

A deadline was extended in February to recruit volunteers for a wastewater advisory group looking at sewage disposal options for Monte Rio and Villa Grande.

The Monte Rio group was the first of several county septic system advisory groups expected to take shape last year in anticipation of stricter state water quality rules targeting OWTS (“onsite wastewater treatment systems” in bureaucratic terms; also known to humans as septic systems).

A report in February said the Russian River area has the lowest life expectancy rate of anywhere in Sonoma County. The river’s overall life expectancy rate of 78.3 years is “significantly” below the average Sonoma County life expectancy of 81.9 years, said a “Measures of Health” report released by the Sonoma County Health Department.


In March about three dozen river residents met to learn more about possible lower Russian River governance options such as forming a Citizens Advisory Council or Municipal Advisory Council (MAC).


Russian River MAC August 2018

WORKING IT OUT — About 60 people gathered at Guerneville School to work on the structure of a proposed lower Russian River Municipal Advisory Council (MAC).

A report in March said the Russian River’s endangered native salmon population faces near extinction this century if current environmental hazards go unchecked, according to a report to the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Entitled “Fish in Hot Water,” the report by University of California at Davis fisheries biologists “finds that if present population trends continue, 45 percent of California’s native salmonids are likely to be extinct in the next 50 years,” said NCRWQCB Executive Officer Matt St. John. The report said fish die-off could reach 75 percent within 100 years, owing mainly to climate change and global warming.

In March the Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence celebrated 17 years of exuberant community fundraising with an anniversary bash at Guerneville’s Timberline Restaurant. And at the end of the year, they hosted their annual free Christmas dinner for hundreds of diners at the Vets Hall. 

Long-time Guerneville businessman and activist Herman J. Hernandez was honored with a Citizen of the Year award from the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce on March 29 at Sonoma State University.

“I feel humbled and fortunate,” said Hernandez. “I think its great” that Latino community engagement efforts are making a difference and getting recognition.


In May Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies arrested a Guerneville man, Vincent O’Sullivan, age 55, on a felony terrorism charge after he allegedly stole two gay pride flags and threatened to set off pipe bombs targeting gays in Guerneville.


Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville celebrated 100 years as the Russian River’s go-to summer fun destination in June with two days of live music on the beach.


In July the Russian River Senior Center unveiled a new state-of-the-art commercial kitchen where at-risk youth will learn cooking and culinary skills and serve lunch to seniors.

As summer arrived, no-camping signs were posted along Guerneville’s Vacation Beach summer road, warning potential homeless residents to keep off the riverfront property where in recent years homeless camping had been condoned.


no camping

NO VACANCY — Sonoma County has posted no-camping signs on the Russian River summer crossing road at Vacation Beach. In recent years the site had become a homeless camp with services provided by Guerneville homeless advocates.

After recent health and safety problems with concentrations of homeless campers elsewhere in her district, “You can really see what can happen when these camps get out of control,” said 5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.

In July Guernewood Park hotel developers professed a lifelong love for the Russian River’s rustic tranquility at a meeting with neighbors of a lavish riverfront resort planned west of Guerneville.


The Lodge on Russian River

DELUXE — Rendering of The Lodge on Russian River, a new upscale resort planned for Dubrava beach.

Hotel property owner Kirk Lok, architect Doug Demers and former 5th district county supervisors Efren Carrillo and Mike Reilly fielded questions from Guerneville residents, who generally expressed support for the hotel but wanted to know more about its design and potential impacts, such as increased traffic on Highway 116.


An effort got under way in August to preserve low-rent housing at Guerneville’s Fairie Ring campground on Armstrong Woods Road where residents awaited word of their fate under new ownership.


Fairie Ring campground

IT TAKES A VILLAGE — The future of Guerneville’s Fairie Ring Campground was uncertain this week after a foreclosure sale of the property on Armstrong Woods Road.

“We want to save Fairie Ring,” said Mario Torrigino of Friends and Residents of Guerneville (FROG), a neighborhood group hoping to join forces with local non-profit social services and 5th District County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, hoping to keep Fairie Ring’s residents from having to move out.

Fairie Ring is currently home to more than 50 year-round tenants living in a range of dwellings including tents, trailers and permanent structures on the 13-acre site. With Fairie Ring’s future plans up in the air, “We’re trying to keep these people from being thrown out on the street,” said Torrigino. (As of December the property remained on the market.)



Leslie “Jo” Booker Crane

Leslie “Jo” Booker Crane

In November it was announced that Guerneville resident and Friends of Stumptown non-profit founder Leslie “Jo” Booker Crane had won a Spirit of Sonoma County Award bestowed by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board (EDB). The awards go “to those who contribute to the economic development of the communities in which they live and work,” said the EDB’s announcement. Winners are selected for donating “their time and expertise in support of local business and in helping others.”

Crane was nominated for helping to save Guerneville’s two annual parades, the summer Stumptown parade and the winter holiday Parade of Lights that were in danger of cancellation owing to organizational challenges. The Russian River Chamber of Commerce nominated Crane for her contribution.


In December lower Russian River voters welcomed nine representatives to sit on the new Lower Russian River Municipal Advisory Council (MAC) to advise the county Board of Supervisors on river political issues. The nine were picked from a field of 28 candidates to represent Forestville, Hacienda, Pocket Canyon, Rio Nido, Guerneville, Monte Rio and Cazadero.

“I’m super excited to be working will all of the candidates,” said Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. “Running for any kind of office is stressful, scary and sometimes insane,“ said Hopkins, “but our candidates were incredibly impressive, passionate and fun.”

Just like the territory they will represent.