Cutting notches just before felling the tree. Photo by Marshall Smith
By Marshall Smith
Staff Reporter and
J.P. Crumrine

Editor’s note: At the end of each year, the Town Crier looks back at the headlines that made the biggest local news during the year. The summaries of five major stories are presented here in the second of a two-week series. Readers are encouraged to comment on these and other 2012 stories.

Goldspotted oak borer comes to Idyllwild
The Hill faces another potential tree mortality crisis similar to that caused by the bark beetle that killed thousands of Ponderosa and Jeffrey pines beginning in 2003, according to U.S. Forest Service entomologist Dr. Tom Coleman. But this crisis is not caused by a prolonged drought (1999-2003) that made pines easy prey for the bark beetle, but by the introduction, either natural or inadvertent, of a non-native pest, the Goldspotted oak borer.

This forewarning was written in October 2009, and three years later Goldspotted oak borer arrived in Idyllwild. Since 2009, the beetle has killed over 90,000 oaks in San Diego County.

On Monday, Nov. 12, CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Julie Hutchinson confirmed oak borer’s arrival in Idyllwild, almost certainly carried in firewood from San Diego County. Then as now, science has no bows in its quiver to attack and destroy this beetle once it is established in an area — no sprays, topical insecticides, or imported natural predator that might keep the beetle in check.

Just two months earlier, in September, CAL FIRE identified a zone of infestation in San Diego County, The purpose of the declaration was to educate the public that firewood from within this area should not be transported to uninfected areas.

Dr. Tom Scott, University of California Riverside natural research specialist and a lead activist in fighting oak borer spread, noted that debarked oak and oak cured for two years posed little risk, but that purchasers of firewood from commercial sellers should ask for a bill of sale that shows where the oak was sourced. Scott urged then that communities such as Idyllwild should seek county support for roadside signs that advise commercial firewood importers that only locally harvested wood is permitted for sale.

In November, CAL FIRE confirmed, from DNA analysis of larvae, the Goldspotted oak borer had arrived in Idyllwild. Within days, CAL FIRE crews cut the oak and removed the infested oak to quarantined areas of San Diego County.

At the final Mountain Area Safety Taskforce meeting, fire and forest officials agreed to hold a town hall meeting from 2 to 4 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 19, at Idyllwild’s Town Hall. At that session, they plan to educate the community on the conditions on the ground and the scope of the threat.

Idyllwild gets its new library
More than 10 years in the making, Idyllwild finally got its new library in 2012.

Third District Supervisor Jeff Stone and the Friends of the Idyllwild Library broke ground on Feb. 27 for the new library in Strawberry Plaza and the opening ceremonies occurred Oct. 23.

Funded by federal Community Block Development Grants, the $2.9 million remodel of the old Coronet building was not what the Friends had anticipated when they began raising money in 2000 for expansion of the former library building on Pine Crest. The result was much more than they had expected, according to Friends volunteers Adele Voell, Erin O’Neill and Bob Ferguson.

“I think it’s amazing,” O’Neill said, “… I love the location and think we’ll get a lot more use from a whole new group of library users.”

Ferguson added, “This is so much more than we expected. Stone made the decision that it would be a reality and put all his influence and experience to work [to make it happen].”

In addition to the new library edifice, Idyllwild also got a new librarian, Shannon Houlihan Ng, who was hired in August as head librarian. The new library includes many technological features with which Ng is familiar including computerized checkout.

The new library’s hours and days of operation have been extended from the originally planned 30 hours and a four-day week to 40 hours and six days. The Friends’ $32,500 contribution made this possible.

IFPD starts over with new chief
Finding a fire chief and watching the budget continued to dominate the time of the Idyllwild Fire Protection District’s commission in 2012.

The year began following the abrupt Dec. 28, 2011, resignation of Chief Norm Walker, who resigned only 17 months after his appointment. Within weeks, the commission appointed Michael Sherman, the former Crest Forest Fire Department chief, as interim Idyllwild chief.

In May, the commission began its search for a new permanent chief and made its selection in July. At its August meeting, Patrick Reitz was sworn in as Idyllwild Fire’s chief.

Reitz is the former fire chief and emergency services director for the City of Sheridan, Wyo. He served as Sheridan Fire chief from August 2005 until February 2012.

Reitz, originally from eastern Ohio, the Akron area, has always wanted to be involved in public safety and protection. He began his service as a volunteer firefighter and then emergency medical technician and paramedic in 1989 as well as a year in law enforcement in Ohio. From there he migrated west, first to Washington, south to Oregon and then east to Wyoming.

Third District Supervisor Jeff Stone administered the oath to Reitz. Afterwards Stone welcomed Reitz to the Hill and in a “spirit of cooperation” offered the county’s assistance to help him and IFPD succeed going forward.

Success will include reversing the district’s continuing financial problem, expenses greater than revenue. In 2011, the district requested a $450,000 advance of its December property tax revenue. 2012 began owing the Riverside County about $200,000 on the advance, which was repaid in the spring.

IFPD is beginning 2013 in the same situation. In August the district made another advance request. This one was for $425,000. The $25,000 difference was a demonstration of the district’s improving financial strength, according to the commission when it approved the request letter on Reitz’s first day as chief.

Career staff accepted a seven percent pay reduction, which the commission offset nearly half with a cost-of-living raise. And overtime costs grew during the summer and early fall months.

Fire Fee payments assessed, litigation begins
Although the much-opposed State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention fee was enacted in 2011 when Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled his 2012-13 budget, he announced plans for spending $50 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year and another $84 million in the next fiscal year.

Nevertheless, the fee’s popularity didn’t improve in 2012. Legislators attempted to repeal it, modify it and ignore it. By late summer, the state’s Board of Equalization began sending bills to property owners throughout the state.

The arrival of these notices was the trigger for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association to file a class action suit in Superior Court in Sacramento alleging the fee is really a tax and as a tax, the state legislature did not legally approve it.

The objective of the litigation is to invalidate the fee because it is really a tax, which required a two-thirds vote of both the California Senate and Assembly. If successful, nearly 825,000 homeowners, including many on the Hill, could be eligible for refunds.

HJTA recommends that property owners first pay the bill, then challenge it and claim a refund. “If you are late, steep penalties and interest are compounded monthly. Moreover, the fee is a lien on your property, and failure to pay can result in foreclosure,” the HJTA website stresses.

To qualify for a refund you must have paid your bill and filed a “Petition for Redetermination” with the responsible agencies. When you pay your fee, HJTA recommends that you write “under protest” on the notation line of your check.

In March 2012, Republican lawmakers submitted a bill to repeal the fee. That was never approved. In May, Democratic Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro (AD 1, D – North Coast) submitted an amendment to the original legislation for a credit for fees paid to a local agency that provides fire protection services.

“Many property owners in SRAs have already agreed to assess themselves for fire protection and prevention services,” Chesbro said in a press release. “Imposing a $150 state fee on top of this means they pay double or triple for fire protection and prevention services without any additional benefit.”

Chesbro’s legislation won approval from the Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee, but never was enacted.

Later that month, the California State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection (Board) held two special meetings to receive public comment on its draft permanent regulation for the SRA fire fee.

Many made the point that local fire districts already impose taxes or fees for fire fighting and prevention. And many of these local districts have created aggressive fire prevention programs,

Others argued that the proposed $35 exemption is much lower than the local fire district collections. One person argued for a minimum exemption of $75, while another said they pay the local district $400 annually. Idyllwild has a special fee of $65, plus a portion of the county property taxes.

In June, the board approved its regulations and in August, property owners began receiving the fee notification.

Although the Idyllwild Fire Protection District previously took no position against the fee at its public meetings, in November, the commission approved a resolution opposing the 17-month-old state fire prevention fee.

Apparently, the commission was reacting to numerous local residents and property owners who confused the state with the local fire jurisdiction.

Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz and commission members have encountered angry residents who wanted to know how IFPD planed to use these funds.

“Every day people complain,” he told the commission. And, “No one is seeing any benefit and, in the last three months, they’re complaining about ‘our’ fee,” Commissioner Jerry Buchanan said.

Local property owners have received the fee notifications and have paid it under protest. The Board of Equalization granted the $35 exemption to properties in Pine Cove and Garner Valley because the county fire department serves as their local district.

Tough year for the Idyllwild Chamber of Commerce
The year 2012 did not begin well for the Idyllwild Chamber of Commerce. It continued in fits and starts with some highs and lows, and then ended inconclusively.

The Chamber met in February for the first time since December 2011 and was unable to muster a quorum. Consequently, no business could be conducted.

In March, it was reported that business membership had declined about one-third, from 125 in July 2011 to 82 in March. Not only did the number of active directors nearly fall by half, but checking account balances were one-quarter of what they had been six months earlier, nearly $800 compared to $3,200 in October 2011. Then President Richmond Blake and Director JoAnn Slater announced they would leave the board in June at the end of their terms.

Even as the membership choose 10 directors in the May election, only eight accepted their directorship when their terms began in July.

In June, the Chamber agreed to take over full responsibility for managing the annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, only to abdicate that role in October, one month before the festival. Directors would cite the threat of a lawsuit from Harmony carver David Roy as the reason for the change.

The July dedication of “Harmony,” created disharmony over questions of money allegedly due Roy for cosmetic work performed on his tree carving and Chamber’s management of the monument maintenance fund account. Previous Chamber president and attorney Ken Carlson wrote the Chamber requesting that Roy be paid for work he completed prior to the monument’s dedication, although no contract between Roy or the Chamber for the work existed.

Carlson also questioned whether the Chamber had been appropriately managing monument maintenance funds. Chamber records showed the reduction in the monument account occurred because of checks written to Roy. These disputes eventually grew into a lawsuit ostensibly filed by Roy in August.

When questioned by the Town Crier, Roy had said that Carlson was preparing all suit documents and it was really Carlson’s lawsuit, not Roy’s. The matter continues. And since the Chamber under Carlson’s previous presidency had let its directors’ insurance lapse, the suit was filed against directors as individuals.

In October, facing the dual realities that Town Hall, to which the Chamber has long held the deed, needed major rehabilitation, and that the Chamber had no money to make improvements, the Chamber agreed to return ownership of the building to the Johnson family, who have long held a reversionary interest, and who plan to deed the facility to the county.

In December, another officer, Vice President Lanny Hardy, resigned when he closed his on-Hill business, The Creek House Restaurant.