The Central Oregonian takes a look back at the top local stories and events that helped shape this past year

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - A Symbiosis eclipse festival visitor dressed as the Mad Hatter poses for a photo.

#1 Prineville embraces the solar eclipse

The 2017 solar eclipse was not only a major event in Crook County and the Central Oregon region, it grabbed the attention of people throughout the entire country. A rare cosmic event that last occurred in Oregon more than 40 years ago, advertising for the eclipse began to emerge locally two years prior to the actual Aug. 21 event.

The Central Oregon area became known early on as one of the top eclipse-viewing locations in the United States because it was not only located in the path of totality but provided the greatest likelihood of clear and sunny skies the morning of the event. Madras and Mitchell were situated in the optimal locations for maximum totality viewing time — roughly two minutes — but Prineville made a more than suitable alternative with totality lasting roughly a minute and a half.

Consequently, emergency managers throughout the region expected a population explosion of several hundred thousand people in the area and began to plan accordingly, starting in late 2015.

Law enforcement officials, public health personnel and traffic officials spent hours in multiple meetings anticipating every scenario from gridlock traffic to gas shortages to high food and water demands. Officials held meetings with local business owners to brainstorm strategies for the week of the event and reached out to members of the public to encourage them to plan ahead when it came to grocery and gas purchases as well as hosting visitors who might struggle to get to Prineville due to high traffic volume.

Solar eclipse festivals began to pop up as the calendar turned from 2016 to 2017. The first to go public was the Symbiosis festival, which featured numerous vendors, concerts and more. Event organizers applied with the county to host up to 35,000 people for one week on privately owned land on Big Summit Prairie. Other event applications would follow with organizers planning to host 1,000 or more people, and because of a lodging shortage, people began offering their personal property for RV parking.

Midway through the week prior to Monday, Aug. 21, Prineville experienced its first eclipse-spawned wave of visitors — and it ultimately drew national attention. People headed to the Symbiosis festival clogged Highway 126 as they passed through town in often colorful vehicles on their way to the event roughly 40 miles east of Prineville. What started out as a traffic jam between Prineville and Powell Butte later turned into a line of cars stretching from the festival site to the east edge of town.

A video of cars lined up bumper to bumper going down the grade went viral, and aerial photos of the nearly 40-mile traffic jam east of Prineville got the attention of multiple TV stations throughout the Pacific Northwest and the country.

The number of people who attended the Symbiosis festival is estimated between 70,000 and 100,000 people — no exact head count was ever disclosed.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - A photo of the solar eclipse during totality.Aside of Symbiosis visitors, Prineville experienced little change from the eclipse until the morning of the event. With the big event expected at 10:20 a.m. in Prineville, people began to gather in various locations throughout the community, some of them armed with powerful telescopes and high-end cameras and all of them with safety viewing glasses in hand.

The eclipse seemingly lived up to or even exceeded the hype with visitors and residents alike marveling at the sudden darkness and drop in temperature, followed by a once-in-a-generation glimpse at a total solar eclipse.

#2 New leaders take over in community

From the local courts and city council to the BLM and parks and rec, there were numerous leadership changes in Prineville and Crook County in 2017.

In January, Seth Crawford became Crook County judge, and Jerry Brummer became county commissioner, following their victories in the November 2016 election. The two appointed Brian Barney as county commissioner in February to finish out the two years of Crawford's commissioner term.

Four Prineville City Council members took the oath of office in early January. Incumbent councilors Gail Merritt and Jason Beebe were re-elected to their positions in November 2016 as was Mayor Betty Roppe. Teresa Rodriguez, a newcomer to the council, also took the oath of office.

City Councilor Jack Seley resigned Aug. 31 after 10 years with the council, citing ongoing health issues that he felt would hamper his ability to adequately carry out the duties of the council seat. This left his seat vacant until Dec. 31, 2018.

The council put out a call for applications, and after receiving only one by the Sept. 15 deadline, they extended the deadline by two weeks and received five more applications. During a special council meeting in mid-December, they appointed Dean Noyes to fill Seley's position. Noyes had served on the council from 2006 to 2014.

In May, voters decided two contested Crook County Parks and Recreation District Board positions. Ruthie McKenzie defeated 12-year incumbent Forest Carbaugh to take position 1 on the board. Darlene Henderson won position 3, which Barb Pennington vacated. Also winning Parks and Recreation board positions were incumbents Jeremy Logan and Casey Kaiser, both of whom faced no opposition.

In June, Dennis Teitzel became the new Prineville Bureau of Land Management District manager, replacing Carol Benkosky, who retired.

Also in June, Gov. Kate Brown announced she would appoint current Crook County District Attorney Daina Vitolins to succeed Gary Williams as Circuit Court Judge of Oregon's 22nd Judicial District. The 22nd District encompasses Crook and Jefferson counties, and Vitolins filled the vacancy the day after the retirement of Williams on June 30.

Vitolins' move to Circuit Court Judge left the district attorney position open. In October, Gov. Brown appointed Wade L. Whiting as Crook County district attorney. Whiting had served as a senior deputy district attorney in neighboring Jefferson County for the past four years.

In August, Crook County School District Superintendent Duane Yecha announced his plans to retire at the end of the 2017-18 school year, prompting the school board to hire a search consultant to find his replacement. Yecha became superintendent in July 2011. The board plans to hire a new superintendent by this spring.

CENTRAL OREGONIAN FILE PHOTO - City public works staff members remove snow from the streets of downtown Prineville after multiple snow storms hit the community in December and January.

#3 Snowpocalypse buries Crook County

The winter of 2016-17 was one for the record books as the new year started out with Crook County buried in snow.

One storm in mid-December 2016 dumped 8 inches in Prineville and another storm that hit the first week of January delivered another 8 inches. In between those storms, less severe snowfall occurred, then another storm dropped 6 more inches in town with freezing rain and sleet and temperatures as cold as -10 degrees, leaving Prineville residents with 2 feet of snow on the ground. At higher elevations, people reported 3 to 4 feet of snow depth. A fourth storm in early February added several more inches of snow.

The barrage of snowstorms wreaked havoc on the Crook County community, causing local schools and government offices to close for a few days. Crook County Search and Rescue had to access a Juniper Canyon area residence via snowmobile during a medical call. The Juniper Acres subdivision west of Prineville and two Prineville Lake Acres subdivisions in Juniper Canyon received enough snow that residents struggled to leave their homes for basic supplies or medical emergencies.

A large portion of the vacated Woodgrain Millwork facility collapsed under the weight of the mounting snow, and the roof of a restaurant also collapsed.

As a result of the four major snowstorms, Crook County resources were stretched so thin that local officials turned to the State of Oregon, declaring an emergency in hopes it would receive additional personnel and equipment to help stranded residents.

The state declined the request and would not provide assistance from the Oregon National Guard or ODOT without compensation, a requirement the county could not afford. The county instead did its best to handle the issue with its own manpower and equipment.

Snowfall data reveals that Crook County saw more snow last winter than all other winters on record. Four consecutive storms had dumped a total of about 26 inches of snow, exceeding the 1950 winter, when 22.7 inches had fallen by Jan. 17.

Lessons learned from the extremely snowy past winter prompted local leaders to start preparing for this winter early. Crook County officials held a public meeting on winter weather awareness and preparedness in late November, covering topics such as how the county plans to support residents in the event of a harsh winter, snow removal, road maintenance, and having emergency supplies.

#4 Fire season sets national records

The 2017 fire season proved to be a record-setting year both locally and nationally.

In the Central Oregon region, the fire season started in late June, and activity exceeded averages for the area and shrouded the region in unhealthy levels of smoke throughout the summer.

According to data compiled by Patrick Lair, spokesman for Ochoco National Forest, wildfires burned a total of 93,442 acres regionally. The data includes all Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Department of Forestry, and the local rangeland fire protection associations.

The 10-year fire average in Central Oregon is 50,571 acres per year, meaning in 2017, fires burned nearly twice the acreage as average. Agencies responded to 358 fires across Central Oregon this year, half of which were human-caused.

The high number of fires and roughly 678,000 acres that burned cost state, federal, local, tribal and private entities more than $340 million, according to state authorities. More than 8,000 personnel from different agencies were deployed to fight 1,903 separate wildland fires across the state.

In Crook County, the Desolation Fire began by lightning in early September in the Mill Creek Wilderness area of the Ochoco National Forest, quickly becoming a 4,512-acre blaze. Soon after, Ochoco National Forest personnel hosted a public meeting with a group of government and emergency officials and firefighter personnel to explain how and when the fire started as well as the strategy firefighters were employing to extinguish it.

The heavy winter in addition to a great deal of precipitation in the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2017 created an abundance of grasses and shrubs. Then in early summer, the rain stopped, causing the grasses to dry out.

The region received several rounds of heavy lightning activity throughout the summer, especially in August, each time resulting in wildfires. When those lightning starts occurred during periods of hot, dry, windy weather, they grew rapidly and some of them became the large fires, such as the Milli, Nash and Desolation fires.

Nationally, the 2017 season was the most expensive on record for the U.S. Forest Service. More than 27,000 people supported firefighting activities during peak Western fire season, costing more than $2 billion. In the Pacific Northwest, as of Sept. 15, more than 8,800 people, 413 engines, and 68 helicopters were actively engaged on 23 large uncontained fires with an estimated cost of $448,457,752.

#5 Natural Resources Plan approved

For opponents of Ochoco Wild's National Recreation Area proposal and supporters of the Crook County Natural Resources Plan, the beginning of 2017 offered an opportunity to make some forward strides in local control of public lands.

Introduced to the Crook County Court in May 2016, the 63-page Natural Resources Plan dictated how public lands should be managed locally and covered a variety of topics, including wildfire suppression, grazing, logging, wild horse policy and more.

Members of a political action committee that developed the document and Natural Resources Plan proponents have asserted that the plan is critical to invoke coordination, a process in which federal agencies are mandated to work with local government officials on public lands decisions.

Creators of the plan had decided to table any attempt to pass the document until newly elected county leaders took office. Meanwhile, the committee revised the document to make it clearer and to better address local natural resource concerns.

Finally in early July, the PAC reintroduced the document to the Crook County Court. Commissioners did not pass the document right away, but indicated an interest in approving it following some research and due diligence. This included asking a Wyoming-area attorney and public lands coordination expert to review the plan and suggest revisions as necessary.

Finally in late November and early December, the County Court held two public hearings on the Natural Resources Plan. People packed the meeting room and expressed their support or disapproval of the document.

"While this does not give us the ability to change federal law, it does give us the opportunity for a seat at the table to discuss policies and procedures," said Crook County Judge Seth Crawford, a proponent of the plan since its creation in 2016.

However, Powell Butte resident Barbara Fontaine said that the process of creating the plan was not inclusive enough and failed to represent viewpoints of all Crook County residents. She said the plan did not include enough input from fish and wildlife scientists or forestry experts.

Fontaine also said the document omits any discussion about climate change, a concern she feels the county should not ignore.

"Crook County needs to become more proactive in reducing the effects … of climate change," she said.

In response to the plan's critics, PAC member Teresa Rodriguez stressed that the document will likely undergo changes as the county learns what works and what doesn't.

"People need to remember that this is a living, breathing document," she said. "The policy is not an end-all be-all, but rather a guide."

The County Court voted unanimously in favor of the Natural Resources Plan on Dec. 6.

#6 Construction begins on new jail

For years, people in Prineville pined for a new jail that would provide enough space to keep inmates locked up and off of local streets. Their wish became reality during the November 2016 election when voters passed a jail construction bond. The eventual emergence of that jail became even more real as construction of the new 76-bed facility finally began late this past summer.

Like other projects, the path to construction wasn't perfect. One major adjustment became necessary after soil tests were taken on the new jail property, which is located just east of the Sheriff's Office between Court and Dunham streets and Northeast Second and East First streets.

"Based on those drillings, they found that the soil was too soft," Sheriff John Gautney recalls. "A couple or three years ago, new seismic regulations went into effect for this area because we are in a 'seismic active area.'"

Consequently, the county was required to include an enhanced foundation featuring several Geopiers that will stabilize the ground. The foundation will then go on top. This change required some other adjustments to the jail to stay within the $17 million budget.

Such change included foregoing plans for a two-story facility in favor of a single-story jail with a second-level control room where staff can view inmate cells from above. Gautney said that the original plan was to build the jail as a two-story facility and leave the second level empty for future use.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held on Sept. 7, offering local leaders an opportunity to thank people who helped make the project possible. The groundbreaking came at a time when some utility work and other site preparation has already begun for the jail.

Demolition had been done on the former men's homeless shelter and Rebel's Roost. Lots were already consolidated, and surveying was complete. In addition, Second Street was already closed to allow installation of a sewer line and a water line.

Going into the new year, walls will start going up at the new facility. Barring unforeseen delays, the jail is scheduled to be completed and operational by December 2018.

#7 New wetland opens to public

After several years of planning and fundraising and another year and a half of construction, the Crooked River Wetlands Complex opened April 21, 2017, near O'Neil Highway.

The project broke ground on Earth Day, April 22, 2016, and during the grand opening ceremony a year later, visitors were able to check out the wetlands, have lunch and tour the new site.

The wetlands idea originated when the City of Prineville was faced with a mandate to expand and improve its wastewater treatment capability. The typical solution, a new mechanical wastewater treatment plant, would have cost the city more than $62 million. In addition, the city would not be able to expand the facility, and it would not be as environmentally sustainable as city staff desired.

The wetland, which cost just $7.7 million, features 120 acres of ponds and lagoons along the Crooked River, utilizing the natural environment to treat wastewater. The project, under the leadership City Engineer Eric Klann, also includes riparian improvements along the Crooked River, as well as more than five miles of hiking trails — three of which are paved — to promote educational awareness, fitness, and environmental sustainability.

Local school children helped design the 13 educational kiosks at the complex, which enhance school field trips and learning experiences.

Numerous organizations helped with the project, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, the Infrastructure Finance Authority, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and Portland General Electric, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Oregon State Parks, East Cascades Audubon Society and Prineville Kiwanis.

By treating wastewater with use of a wetland, the city can now satisfy city wastewater needs through 2040, and as the City expands and grows, the wetlands can be expanded to accommodate that growth.

#8 Work begins to add a new pool

Work to replace the more than 60-year-old Prineville swimming pool picked up steam in 2017 as public outreach escalated and a new advisory committee formed.

In February, Crook County Parks and Recreation District Director Duane Garner posted an informal request on the district's Facebook page, inviting people to give their opinion about a new pool, either in written form or in person at the district office.

The district had also kicked off a feasibility study at that time to look at a variety of factors and ultimately include some more official surveys of what the community wants. The Parks and Recreation District hired BLRB Architects, a Bend firm, to conduct the feasibility study. The same firm was called upon during development and construction of Barnes Butte Elementary School.

Then in May, a newly formed Pool Advisory Committee convened. The opening meeting was attended by six of the seven committee members, all of which were appointed by the Crook County Parks and Recreation District Board. In addition, three members of the Parks District staff attended the session as did two parks board members, and the chair of the citizen-led pool committee.

Consultant Bob Keefer was hired by the district to facilitate the committee meetings. He explained that the committee would be "the sounding board for the consultants that have been hired on the feasibility analysis."

"They are going to look to you for advice and recommendations as they are developing their concepts," he said.

Advisory committee meetings continued through the year, and finally, the group went public with the findings of the feasibility study. BLRB Architects recommended plans for a pool facility that supports a variety of public needs, including recreation, swimming competitions, health and wellness and water aerobics for senior citizens and other residents in search of exercise options.

The plans provided feature a colder water competition pool alongside another warmer pool with a wellness area, a zero-depth entry recreational swim portion and a "lazy river" feature. An enclosed water slide is also included. A building adjacent to the pool area would feature a lobby area, two multi-purpose rooms, and a men's and women's locker room.

The facility would be located on the existing pool footprint, but make use of the surrounding Parks and Recreation-owned land to the east and west of the current pool. A parking lot near the facility would provide 78 spaces.

The feasibility study determined that it would cost about $9 million for a basic outdoor pool and bath house similar to the existing pool with expenses approaching $23 million, depending on what options the facility would feature.

Going into 2018, the advisory committee soon plans to engage the public with a scientifically valid survey to determine what type of bond measure and pool facility residents are likely to support. In addition, once the survey is complete, the committee will begin hosting public meetings. If the public feedback is favorable, a pool construction bond could appear on the November 2018 ballot.

#9 City unveils new IronHorse property

The City of Prineville made a strong push in 2017 to encourage public use of its newly purchased IronHorse property near Barnes Butte. The property was purchased in late 2016 for about $1.2 million and is attractive to the city because of the 305 acres of water rights it includes as well as its potential for recreation, residential development and more.

The 460 acres is comprised of one large chunk of land north of the existing IronHorse residential development that borders 160 acres of BLM land to the east. The remainder of the city land includes two small blocks of land on the east side of the BLM property.

In late March, City Engineer Eric Klann began urging city leaders to consider improving access to the property so that citizens will start to visit the land, explore it, and develop ideas on how they would like to see it used in the future.

Improvements included removal of a house and barn on the property and a gravel extension of Combs Flat Road toward the site of the house. Those efforts moved forward in September, and the former house site was later turned into a gravel parking lot.

To officially kick off public use of the property, city officials hosted a grand opening. Scheduled for Oct. 13, city staff and planning commission members braved the rain and sleet-soaked event, which featured guest speakers, refreshments and wagon rides along a portion of the property.

Staff and students from Barnes Butte Elementary, located a quarter-mile from the property, were scheduled to attend the grand opening, but instead participated in a ribbon-cutting event a couple weeks later. Students walked from their school to the parking lot on a warm, sunny afternoon and went on guided hikes of the property.

Future plans for the property in 2018 and beyond include further discussion on what types of recreational activities will be permitted on the site as well as trail construction to enhance hiking and biking options.

#10 Housing Works breaks ground

Housing Works finalized the purchase of Ochoco Elementary School property for $600,000 in April and held an official groundbreaking ceremony for the Ochoco School Crossing Complex on Aug. 15.

The housing authority for Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties will turn the campus into an affordable apartment community with 29 apartment configurations, including studios, one, two and three bedrooms for low-income families, veterans, disabled people and survivors of domestic violence.

NeighborImpact leases the free-standing commercial kitchen and cafeteria building and opened a Head Start preschool facility with two classrooms in September. Plans call for NeighborImpact to also lease a small parcel of land and turn it into an orchard to supply food for its food bank.

Crook County Parks and Recreation District will lease the gymnasium and performing stage and turn it into a community recreation center. Additionally, a half acre will be donated to Parks and Rec for a public park.

The estimated budget for the remodel is $8.3 million. Funding for the development comes from federal tax credits through Oregon Housing and Community Services and HOME funds through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The general contractor for the development is R&H Construction, who has built several of Housing Works' affordable communities throughout Central Oregon. Pinnacle Architecture, experienced in this type of repurposing, is the architect for the new apartment community.

Ochoco Elementary School opened in 1945 at the junction of Highways 26 and 126 in Prineville, becoming a community icon over the next 70 years. The school closed in June 2015, and students and staff were divided between the brand new Barnes Butte and the older Crooked River elementary schools.

School board members declared the 6-acre Ochoco property a surplus in January 2015 and put it on the market. The school district had some other interest in the property, but they accepted an offer from Housing Works in early February 2016.

Housing Works and the Crook County School District shared the closing costs, and the net proceeds went into the Capital Reserve Fund.

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