A look at the top stories of 2015
The Post Independent’s biggest story of 2015 will be at the top of the list for the next couple of years: Replacement of the Grand Avenue bridge.
An online survey of readers ranked final approval of the $125.6 million project as the top issue story of the year, and the PI staff concurs. While some prep work has been done, such as utility work and acquisition and razing of the Glenwood Springs Shell station in north Glenwood, the actual construction starts in January.
The project will move inexorably toward a scheduled three months of traffic hell in the fall of 2017, when the current bridge is taken down and drivers will have to cross the Colorado River at West Glenwood and wind their way through town to get upvalley and back.
But enough looking ahead at the good times to come. This is about the year that was.
In our survey, we asked readers to rank a few stories in these categories: Biggest issue, top breaking story, most inspiring story and top sports story.
After the bridge, the top issue coverage was ranked as increasing vagrancy in Glenwood Springs and the midvalley, followed by the scarcity of housing that working people can afford.
A noticeable increase in aggressive panhandling and Glenwood Springs becoming something of a destination for younger drifters rattled the town a bit.
“If people don’t like it, then don’t let your town be so much fun,” said K. Archer, a 26-year-old woman who panhandled downtown for part of the summer.
The situation prompted a community meeting and a City Council decision to hire an additional police officer in hopes of being able to provide summertime foot patrols in tourist-heavy parts of downtown that are important to Glenwood’s economy.
Rising vagrancy, mostly from non-resident transients, gets tangled up with figuring out how to serve the needs of residents who are either chronically or temporarily down on their luck.
“There are an awful lot of folks who we never deal with,” Police Chief Terry Wilson said. “They’re not causing trouble … and they’re a totally different segment of that larger demographic with totally different needs.”
In a somewhat related incident, longtime Glenwood troublemaker Bobby Joe Honeycutt was charged in July with felony criminal mischief after “officers found nearly every pot and planter overturned and damaged in a multiple-block radius” in the downtown outdoor dining and tourist area. It was a mess that was quickly cleaned up but served to highlight concerns about vagrancy downtown.
As the region’s economy improved, the housing market rebounded quickly, with sales and rental prices jumping. That meant “we have a tremendous lack of inventory for sale or lease,” Craig Rathbun, president of Fleisher Land & Homes, told the PI in April. It was the lowest housing inventory in the area since he arrived in the area in 2001, he said.
Little development has occurred since the recession of 2008-09, and local governments are slow to approve new projects.
The ongoing issue is squeezing out middle-class professionals such as teachers, nurses and law officers, prompting such steps as Garfield County offering a $10,000 signing bonus for experienced deputies and the Roaring Fork School District including $15 million for staff housing in its $122 million bond issue approved by voters in November.
Among breaking news stories, our survey respondents ranked the county’s three homicides of 2015 on top.
Ranked first by readers was a frightening incident Feb. 10. Following a car chase along Interstate 70, Brian Fritze pulled over at Canyon Creek and emerged from his car with a gun.
After he ran into the Interstate median, then turned back toward officers, he was shot dead by two deputies. District Attorney Sherry Caloia later ruled the shooting justified in protecting public safety.
Fritze, who an autopsy showed was extremely high on methamphetamine, had violated a protection order by slamming his estranged wife against a wall and brandishing a weapon that later turned out to be a BB gun. He had a real firearm on I-70, where he fled when he was spotted by deputies.
The other homicides:
• Parachute residents Matthew Ogden and Phyllis “Amy” Wyatt were arrested in Minnesota, where they fled after their month-old daughter Sarah was beaten to death in June in the family’s apartment. Wyatt, who told officers she stayed in bed listening to thumping sounds and her baby’s screams, later pleaded guilty to child abuse, while Ogden is slated to face trial for first-degree murder, among other charges.
• A car crash in Carbondale on Feb. 16 led to a homicide investigation after Arturo Navarrete-Portillo told paramedics while he was being transported to a second hospital that he had killed his wife. An autopsy later determined that Maria Portillo Amaya had succumbed to “multiple sharp force trauma,” apparently from a machete. Navarrete-Portillo, who told authorities the crash was a suicide attempt, stands charged with first-degree murder in Carbondale’s first homicide in a dozen years.
Incidentally, if we were to pick a busiest news day of the year, it would be Feb. 10. Just as reporter Will Grandbois got first word of the Fritze shooting, he was wrapping up a story on nine students and an adult involved in selling or using marijuana edibles at Coal Ridge High School. Those stories ranked No. 2 and No. 11, respectively, in digital readership in 2015.
Most news — by definition, news is what is new and out of the ordinary — is bad news. Not wanting to focus entirely on the negative, we asked readers what story was most inspiring.
The easy winner there also was our No. 1 digital story of the year, the tale of pizza delivery guy Anson Lemmer, who in June used the CPR training he got years earlier in a baby-sitting class, when he came upon a man turning blue.
“This was my very last order of the night,” Lemmer told the PI. “When I pulled up there, I knew something was wrong, and I had to act. They asked me right away if I knew CPR. I jumped in right away to do those chest compressions.”
It was a nice, uplifting story, but it gained international attention because, well, some people just know how to offer a great quote, and Lemmer is one of them.
“I called my parents and said this has been the craziest pizza delivery ever,” he told the PI. “I left a pizza boy and came back a pizza man.”
The story shot to the top of the reader-curated website Reddit.com, drawing nearly 200,000 page views, a PI record, over the next few days.
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Next for inspiration, our readers said, was Emily Bruell, who came out as gay in her valedictorian speech at Roaring Fork High School graduation, just weeks after another Colorado student was barred from making a similar announcement.
Her story spread nationally, including on the New York Times website, the Huffington Post and Denver TV. “I hope it got to someone who needed that message,” she told the PI a week later.
Readers rated Brock Osweiler’s ascendance as Denver Broncos’ quarterback the top sports story of the year, with Rifle High’s short-term restriction in football ranked second. We were worried Monday night that another Bronco loss would cast this ranking into doubt, but it turned out OK — just as Rifle’s run-in with the Colorado High School Activities Association over the conduct of a cameraman in a 2014 playoff game had no lasting impact.
In other sports highlights:
• Taking over a Roaring Fork Rams program that had one just two games the year before, Jeff Kelley immediately stepped in an laid the foundation of a strong program in 2015 as Roaring Fork won four games, including two league game wins over Aspen and Coal Ridge.
• Capping off a strong career as a member of the Rifle Bears football program, senior running back and strong safety Ty Leyba was named to the CHSAA 3A first team All-State team after rushing for 588 yards and 11 touchdowns, to go with 48 tackles and five interceptions defensively.
• Behind senior middle hitter Kaitlyn Detlefsen, junior outside hitter Nicole Mooney and junior setter Dana Kotz, the Coal Ridge Titans volleyball team won an impressive 16 straight games — 11 of which came in straight sets — to win the 3A Western Slope League title.
• After making it into the 3A state playoffs as the No. 18 seed, the Coal Ridge Titans boys soccer team made an impressive Final Four run by upsetting No. 15 Denver Christian, No. 2 Liberty Common and No. 10 Salida before falling to No. 6 Fountain Valley in the Final Four.
• The Glenwood Springs High School boys and girls basketball teams made it to the state tournament. The boys team lost its coach, Cory Hitchcock, who took a college job in Missouri but changed his mind about the opportunity and returned to Glenwood.
Here are recaps of a few other memorable stories from the year:
The April 7 city election in Glenwood Springs saw two new City Council members, Kathryn Trauger and Steve Davis, ushered into office.
Trauger, a longtime volunteer member of the city’s Planning and Zoning and Transportation commissions, won the at-large council seat in a three-way race over former prosecutor and one-time Aspen city councilman Tony Hershey and local resident Kathy Williams.
Dave Sturges stepped down from council, having served his limit of two four-year terms in the at-large seat.
Political newcomer and construction contractor Steve Davis won the Ward 1 seat over former one-term Councilman Russ Arensman. Early in the campaign, ward incumbent Ted Edmonds opted out and endorsed Davis.
Combined with the re-election of unopposed council members Todd Leahy and Mike Gamba, the election outcome served to forge a new political alliance that resulted in a few shake-ups at City Hall.
Gamba was appointed to be Glenwood Springs’ 52nd mayor in a 4-3 council vote over second-term Councilman Stephen Bershenyi. Former mayor and continuing council member Leo McKinney had also been nominated to continue as mayor, but threw his support to Bershenyi along with fellow council member Matt Steckler.
The sometimes-awkward process to select a new mayor every two years prompted McKinney to reiterate his desire for a charter amendment to make the mayor’s seat a separately elected seat every four years.
In early December, Bershenyi accused the new majority of making decisions secretly in advance of meetings, prompting others to call for his resignation. A Post Independent open records request turned up lots of side talk about the departure of City Manager Jeff Hecksel, but no overtly improper meetings, in person or electronically.
CITY, COUNTY ADMINISTRATORS OUSTED
Soon after the city election, council followed through on a campaign pledge voiced by Trauger to immediately review the contracts of two top city administrators in particular, Hecksel and City Attorney Jan Shute.
Council ultimately eliminated the in-house attorney’s position altogether, ending Shute’s nine-year stint with the city. Former city attorney Karl Hanlon was appointed chief legal counsel for the city on a contract basis.
No immediate action was taken with regards to Hecksel, who had a favorable contract renewal and severance clause tied to his employment. In August, though, council voted 4-3 to give Hecksel the required one-year’s notice of nonrenewal, which would allow him to stay on until August 2016.
Over the ensuing months, council and Hecksel hammered out a separation agreement that would end his 11-year tenure with the city in February, plus severance pay for up to seven months or until he found a new job.
Concerns that the Grand Avenue Bridge project was about to begin and not wanting to have a lame-duck city manager at the helm, council moved in early December to sever ties with Hecksel and appoint former Garfield County Manager Andrew Gorgey as interim city manager.
Administrative changes also made the news on the Garfield County government front.
County commissioners in May accepted the forced retirement of former county attorney Frank Hutfless, and in July agreed to sever ties with Gorgey who had been county manager since 2012.
Longtime Garfield County Commissioner John Martin chalked it all up to “personality conflicts” within county government.
Commissioners later appointed Tari Williams to be the new county attorney, and elevated deputy county manager Kevin Batchelder to the lead manager’s position following a national search.
The ongoing debate over oil and gas drilling on federal public lands dotted the news throughout 2015 much as well pads continue to dot the northwestern Colorado landscape.
The year began with the Bureau of Land Management formally canceling 17 of the 19 natural gas leases on top of the Roan Plateau west of Rifle as part of a landmark settlement reached among environmental groups, energy companies, local governments and the BLM.
It ended with continued uncertainty around the fate of about two dozen such leases within the area referred to as the Thompson Divide southwest of Glenwood Springs.
In between it all, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams came out with a new, 20-year oil and gas leasing plan for the nearly 2 million-acre forest that surrounds much of Glenwood Springs.
In it, he removed about 61,000 of the Thompson Divide from consideration for new leases.
The decision pleased groups like the Wilderness Workshop and the Thompson Divide Coalition, which have been working for years to convince the BLM to cancel existing leases and make the area off limits to future leasing.
Meanwhile, a proposed action by the BLM called for canceling 18 leases in the Thompson Divide altogether and modifying seven others to limit surface activity. Similar modifications are also proposed for another 40 existing leases stretching across the southwestern portion of the White River Forest.
Meanwhile, energy companies and industry groups that have proposed to exchange their Thompson Divide leases for new leases elsewhere on other forest lands cried foul over the BLM proposal. They were all but ready to file legal action against the federal government over any canceled and altered leases.
In a related move, Houston-based SG Interests was in the middle of seeking permission from the Forest Service to develop longstanding leases in the Wolf Creek Storage Area that sits within the Thompson Divide. The company was proposing to use Four Mile Road as a primary haul route to the location, a plan the city of Glenwood Springs and Garfield County have vehemently opposed.
The Wolf Creek leases, which date back to the 1960s, were not among those proposed to be canceled.
Garfield County commissioners Dec. 17 unanimously approved applications from Ursa Resources to drill within the Battlement Mesa residential development — clearing a significant hurdle for the operator and touching off disappointment among residents opposed to gas operations in their neighborhood.
Approval of the applications for phase one of Ursa’s plans within the Planned Unit Development comes with more than 70 conditions intended to mitigate the impacts of operations, particularly in the drilling and completion phases.
Phase one plans, which include a total of 52 natural gas wells and 2.5 miles of pipeline, still must go through the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
BIG BOND ISSUE PASSES
A $170 million Roaring Fork School District facilities master plan was pared down to a $122 million bond issue proposal over the summer that was approved by district voters in November.
Nearly 60 percent of voters approved the ambitious plan to build two new schools in Glenwood Springs, upgrade schools and other district facilities in Glenwood, Carbondale and Basalt, and try to address the housing needs of teachers and staff.
The largest of those projects will be a brand new, $34 million kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school to be built on district-owned property south of Glenwood Springs, in the area referred to as Eastbank.
The district also learned in June that it would receive a $9 million Colorado Building Excellent Schools Today grant to go toward a $29 million overhaul of the existing Glenwood Springs Elementary School and surrounding campus. The remainder of the money to pay for that facility will come from the bond proceeds.
That plan is expected to take shape heading into 2016, while planning and design for the various school facilities begins in earnest.
The Roaring Fork School District found a way to keep two respected administrators, at least for the foreseeable future, after parents and staff questioned a requested three-year contract extension for Superintendent Diana Sirko.
The main fear had to do with the possibility that an extended contract for Sirko could spell the loss of highly regarded Assistant Superintendent Rob Stein.
Stein had been selected to become superintendent in 2012 before a family emergency called him away. That led to the appointment of longtime former Aspen schools chief Sirko as interim superintendent of schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.
Sirko was ultimately given a two-year contract the next year and Stein returned as assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum and assessments.
An outside mediator helped the school board finalize a deal in March that gave Sirko a two-year contract as superintendent, and resulted in two contracts for Stein. A two-year agreement keeps him on as chief academic officer for the remainder of Sirko’s tenure, after which he is to succeed Sirko for a three-year term as superintendent.
RE-2, BIRDSEY SPLIT
Garfield Re-2 is searching for a superintendent after parting ways with Susan Birdsey in early August under controversial circumstances.
Emails exchanged among board members — obtained through a Colorado Open Records Act request — made multiple mentions of a split decision, as well as a desire to avoid a divided vote of no confidence.
The board voted unanimously and without discussion July 28 to enter into a separation agreement with Birdsey. One week later, the board announced the agreement was finalized, and unanimously named Dave Lindenberg as interim superintendent.
Birdsey would later say that she was “surprised and saddened” to leave Re-2.
The email discussion among board members sparked concern over potential violation of the state’s open meeting law.
Former President Chris Pearson said there was no malicious intent behind the conversation and said it was rare for board members to be communicating in a group via email.
The district is currently in the process of hiring a replacement for Birdsey and hopes to make a final decision in mid February.
In other schools-related news, Glenwood Springs’ newest school, the state-charter Two Rivers Community School, got a pair of school buses thanks to grants from the Rotary Club of the Roaring Fork, or Club Rotario, and the Garfield Federal Mineral Lease District. Another state charter school in Carbondale, Ross Montessori, also began construction on a brand new school building located on Highway 133. That effort was made possible by a $6.4 million U.S. Department of Agriculture loan. The new school was on track to be ready for students to occupy after the holiday break in January.
Refer madness struck during 2015 over requests to expand the legal marijuana trade in Glenwood Springs and begin it in Parachute.
Five applications for new retail marijuana licenses and related operations landed on the Glenwood city clerk’s desk in the spring, setting up a drawn-out review process amid a City Council-imposed moratorium on new applications while the city worked to amend its marijuana ordinances.
In particular, downtown business owners and residents objected to proposals for four new retail shops and one marijuana products bakery in the downtown core.
Notably, the owner of the Glenwood Vaudeville Revue, John Goss, said he didn’t want the existing Green Dragon operation to open a second marijuana shop and bakery next door to his theater in the 900 block of Grand Avenue.
That and two other proposed new downtown shops ended up being denied on appeal to City Council. That, after the city’s hearing officer had denied applications for two shops but approved another in a bit of a head-scratcher.
An existing medical marijuana dispensary, Martin’s Naturals at Sixth and Grand, was also allowed to convert to retail recreational sales.
And, in the spirit of leniency, Osiris LLC was allowed to start a new marijuana cultivation facility and retail outlet on Devereux Road.
Along the way, though, City Council changed the rules for new marijuana businesses, doing away with the hearing officer review for new licenses and requiring all new requests to come through the Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council.
Setback requirements between establishments were also increased from 325 feet to 900 feet in an effort to limit the number of retail shops, especially in the downtown core.
By year’s end, one of the denied shops, the Kind Castle proposed to open at 818 Grand Ave., had appealed its case to District Court.
In Parachute, trustees repealed the town’s ban on recreational marijuana businesses in June, sparking controversy among some residents and leading to the resignation of one trustee, a lawsuit and a recall effort.
Additionally, opponents successfully gathered enough signatures to put a ban on marijuana businesses on the November 2016 ballot.
Despite the opposition, the town is moving forward with the marijuana industry. The town has approved four retail licenses and one manufacturing license.
In November, voters approved a 5 percent excise tax on unprocessed marijuana sold or transferred from a cultivation facility to a retail establishment, and in December, trustees unanimously approved a revision to the town’s code allowing cultivation facilities in sections of town zoned service commercial.
CENTER OF EXCELLENCE
In March, Rifle Garfield County Airport was named the home of Colorado’s new Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting.
The center aspires to lead the country, and possibly the world, in wildfire fighting research — a fact that drew excitement from local and county officials. Gov. John Hickenlooper visited the airport in May for a bill signing ceremony and to celebrate the establishment of the center.
Melissa Lineberger was formally appointed director of the center at the ceremony, and has since overseen the hiring of additional staff members. With most of the positions filled, the center is planning a summit in January on nighttime firefighting, which has not been conducted in Colorado in decades.
Rifle voters elected five members to the seven-member council in September, in addition to approving a ballot question allowing the city to borrow up to $5 million for road repairs and the street maintenance program.
Elected to the council were Annick Pruett, Joe Elliott, Ed Green, Theresa Hamilton and Dana Wood.
With Barbara Clifton already on council, the election was the first time in the city’s history during which four women were elected to the board.
The lone question on the ballot passed by a slim margin, with 448 casting a vote of approval and 435 voting no on the question. While the initiative will not increase taxes, it will allow the city to leverage existing revenue to borrow up to $5 million for street repairs, with a roughly $3 million cap on interest payments.
After the election, the new council directed staff to come forward with plans that could spare the city from having to borrow the full $5 million. The city is expected to discuss the issue early in 2016.
• Following an extensive community feedback process, voters in Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District approved a two-year mill levy override. The vote returns the district to close to its pre-2010 funding level while elements of the new master plan are implemented.
• The Carbondale Board of Trustees contemplated a significant cat control ordinance, but ultimately settled on a declawed version that broadened the definition of a nuisance cat and encouraged but did not require registration.
Among those who passed on: Julian “the snowboarder” Vogt, 103, who took up snowboarding in his late 70s; beloved Carbondale ranch matron Ruth “Ditty” Perry; former Glenwood Fire Chief Buzz Zancanella; Carbondale teacher Pat Fender; and Carbondale arts maven Ro Mead.
VIDEO OF THE YEAR
In September, the PI produced a documentary with our “Price of Paradise” series on the area’s high housing and other costs, featuring music from local songwriter Jim Hawkins and the Ute City Rangers. Enjoy it here.
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There was more, of course. Enjoy looking back, and best wishes for 2016, which offers us an extra day to enjoy.
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The Garfield County Coroner identified Silt resident Justin Yenter, 37, as the victim in a drowning at Harvey Gap Reservoir. According to investigators, Yenter was on a boat in the reservoir when a gust of wind knocked him overboard into the water.