By Scott Hammers • The Bulletin

From record snow to epic sun, 2017 was a year full of meteorological and cosmological wonders. Here’s a look back at the year’s top stories in Central Oregon.

Record snowfall

Bend residents spent the past 24 years telling tales of the winter of 1992-93 — in the future, they’ll talk of the winter of 2016-17.

The winter started strong but not overwhelmingly so, with more than a foot of snow on the ground in Bend before Christmas. By the second week of January, several locations around the region had broken local records for the deepest snow ever measured.

Then, it got dramatically worse.

On Jan. 12, the roof of the gym at Highland Magnet at Kenwood School caved in, a few hours before students started arriving for the day. That evening, the roof collapsed at the former KorPine particle board plant, the last mill to operate in what’s now known as the Old Mill District.

On Jan. 18 another roof came crashing down, at a shuttered grocery store, the old Ray’s Food Place on Century Drive.

Carports and other structures around the region suffered similar fates, and a small industry dedicated to clearing the snow from roofs or blasting away at ice dams with steam emerged for a few short weeks.

The City of Bend blew through its snow removal budget by mid-February, but the snowfall slowed, and plows were mostly idled for the rest of the season while locals waited for the melt.

Nearly 12 months later, a new gym is under construction at Kenwood, although students’ gym classes will be held under a tent for the rest of the year.

The city of Bend has made some changes to its snow removal policies, designating nine sections of city street where cars will not be allowed to park during a significant storm.

On the eve of 2018, those policy changes have yet to be put to the test.

Total eclipse

Months of preparation leading up to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse apparently paid off, as gridlocked highways, bare grocery store shelves and other worst-case scenarios some feared largely failed to materialize.

Wildfire smoke that threatened to obscure the skies during the big moment was kept at bay, and Oregon’s first total solar eclipse in 38 years filled onlookers with wonder.

Thousands flocked to Madras, the only Central Oregon city where viewers were able to experience the full 2-plus minutes of totality. Tens of thousands more set up camp outside of Prineville at the Symbiosis festival, an art and music event squarely in the path of the celestial happening at Big Summit Prairie.

The 50,000 people some expected to show up in tiny Mitchell ended up being closer to 2,000, and medical clinics were not inundated by patients who scorched their retinas by looking directly at the sun.

A run on gasoline in the days leading up to the event led to shortages and price spikes at some stations in Central Oregon, and shoppers who failed to beat eclipse visitors to the grocery store found bread in short supply, but the effects were short lived. By the afternoon of the 21st, traffic snarls had cleared, and there was little evidence it had been anything but another Monday in August in Central Oregon.

Smoky skies

By late August, wildfires were burning throughout the western states. Due to shifting winds and weather patterns, Central Oregon residents got a taste of it all, at various times breathing smoke that originated in California, on the west slope of the Cascades or in Montana.

Although the fires never seriously threatened life or property in Central Oregon — the Milli Fire outside Sisters came closest — smoke poured into the region and settled, not clearing completely for more than a month.

Local residents woke up to regular dustings of ash that had settled onto their cars in the night, and mountain views disappeared behind a thick, choking haze.

For a short time, Bend and Sisters held the dubious honor of the worst air quality in the world, with one-day measurements of airborne particulate matter exceeding measurements taken in places like Mexico City, New Delhi and Beijing.

The Sisters Folk Festival was canceled, as was Cycle Oregon. A scattering of flights in and out of the Redmond Airport were grounded, and schools canceled athletic events and moved PE classes indoors.

The smoke likely dented tourism, but only slightly.

Visit Bend reported a 3 percent decline in room tax receipts in September, the first time in more than five years during which a month’s room tax collections were lower than the same month a year before.

Day care crimes

Acting on a tip, Bend Police forced their way into a northeast Bend home in March, where they found seven lethargic, unsupervised children, all 4 years old or younger.

Later that day, officers located and arrested the day care operator who was supposed to be looking after the children, January Neatherlin, at a tanning salon.

The investigation that followed suggested Neatherlin, now 32, had repeatedly left children unattended at her unlicensed day care while she left to go tanning or work out. At times, she allegedly gave the children Benadryl and melatonin to make them sleep while she was out.

Neatherlin is now facing 122 criminal charges, and has been held at the Deschutes County Jail since her initial arrest.

Court documents made public last month suggest Neatherlin attempted to persuade other inmates at the jail to confess to the crimes, offering $50,000 to one inmate.

Neatherlin is scheduled to go to trial in April.

Murder fallout

The death of Central Oregon Community College student Kaylee Sawyer and the subsequent arrest of college security guard Edwin Lara on murder charges stunned the region in 2016. In 2017, still- ongoing sparring between the Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office and Lara’s defense attorneys dominated the news, as Lara remains in jail and has yet to go to trial.

District Attorney John Hummel is seeking the death penalty, the first death penalty prosecution pursued by his office since the trial that lead to the 1988 conviction of Randy Lee Guzek.

A civil suit, filed against COCC by Sawyer’s family on the anniversary of her death, provided a fuller public accounting of what happened on the night she died.

According to the suit, Sawyer was walking on the COCC campus at around 1:30 a.m., cooling off after an argument with her boyfriend. The suit alleges Lara offered Sawyer a ride home and propositioned her for sex. The two fought, the suit states, and Lara struck Sawyer in the head with a large rock before raping her.

In October, Judge A. Michael Adler ruled that statements Lara made to investigators shortly after his arrest in California will not be permitted in court, due to failures to properly communicate to Lara his rights to a lawyer. During the course of a six-hour interview without a lawyer present, Lara reportedly provided investigators with directions to the spot along the side of the highway between Redmond and Sisters where Sawyer’s body was found.

Lara is currently scheduled to go to trial in October, a trial that could stretch as long as nine weeks.

Housing crisis

No story has been a more routine part of the fabric of Central Oregon over the past several years than ever-climbing home prices and the resulting pinch put on renters and residents of modest income.

As calculated by the Central Oregon Association of Realtors, home prices in the Bend area reached a median price of $399,000 by the third quarter of 2017, up 11 percent over the same period the year before. Prices in Redmond were up 15 percent in a year, reaching a median price of $314,204.

Builders of apartments were busy in 2017, adding more units to the local inventory than has been seen in years.

From the first of the year through early October, 695 newly built apartments came into the Bend rental market, with another 404 under construction.

The influx of new units hasn’t lowered rents, but has provided greater choice for renters, with shorter waitlists and some landlords offering discounts to fill vacant units. Local government efforts to manage the housing crunch had mixed results in 2017.

The Bend City Council agreed to waive up to $1 million in systems development charges that would otherwise be paid by the developers of affordable housing, but has not convinced the board of the Bend Park & Recreation District to do the same.

A dedicated low-income project of 50 apartments broke ground in NorthWest Crossing last month, and the City Council continues to examine capping rental application fees.

School bond

The $268.3 million bond measure Bend-La Pine Schools put before voters in the spring was enormous — bigger than the district’s last three bonds combined.

Voters in the May election said yes, resoundingly, with more than 59 percent of voters supporting the bond to build a new high school, a new elementary school, and complete more than 150 projects to improve existing school facilities.

The election is only the opening act in what will be a multi-year process of designing, building and opening the new schools.

Already, the district has chosen and is in the process of acquiring the land for both new schools. If all goes according to plan, the elementary school will be built along O.B. Riley Road on the city’s north side, and the high school will be placed along SE 15th Street, just north of Knott Road.

Both schools have yet to be named. District officials determined earlier this year that the new high school will be a comprehensive facility in the model of Summit, Mountain View and Bend high schools, scrapping a proposal to designate the new high school “Bend High School” and transform the existing BHS campus into a home for multiple small schools.

The new elementary school is expected to open in the fall of 2019, with the new high school expected to open in the fall of 2021.

OSU-CASCADES FUNDING

It was a year of both milestones and setbacks for OSU-Cascades, the first new public university to open in Oregon in more than 50 years.

The university opened its dining hall and residence hall in January, and in February, a bill to provide $69.5 million to continue building out the campus was introduced in the Legislature.

By mid-summer, that bill was dead, and OSU-Cascades’ expansion funding was shaved to just $9.5 million. University officials began planning for a slower pace of growth, putting off plans for additional buildings and focusing on preparing the adjoining former pumice mine for future development.

In November, the university purchased a former landfill adjoining the current campus and the pumice mine, bringing the university’s total landholdings along Century Drive to 128 acres.

In early December, Gov. Kate Brown announced her support for a measure that would provide $39 million for the expansion of OSU-Cascades. Legislators will dig into the details of the measure when they reconvene in February.

La Pine Bridge fails

It took thousands, if not millions, of years to create the conditions that doomed a long-anticipated overpass project in La Pine this year.

In late 2016, the Oregon Department of Transportation was close to 80 percent finished with an overpass project along U.S. Highway 97 in the Wickiup Junction area of La Pine. The overpass was intended to carry the highway above the BNSF Railway tracks, eliminating the last at-grade crossing on U.S. Highway 97 in Oregon.

When construction crews returned to the site this spring, they discovered it seemed to be sinking into the earth. Subsequent investigation uncovered significant diatom deposits beneath the surface, and an explanation: the weight of the earthen approaches and the concrete and steel bridge components were crushing the diatoms below, causing the entire structure to sag.

Construction was suspended in May, and in October, ODOT officially canceled the project, after spending roughly $12 million of the project’s $17 million budget.

It remains uncertain if ODOT will devise a new plan for an overpass, or an alternative solution for separating trains and highway traffic. The agency is planning to repave U.S. Highway 97 from Sunriver to state Highway 31 south of La Pine next summer, and ODOT officials have indicated they may propose some minor changes to traffic control in the Wickiup Junction area.

A child dead

The December 2016 death of a Redmond child turned criminal in April, when a Deschutes County Grand Jury indicted the girl’s parents, alleging they intentionally deprived her of food and medical attention.

Maliyha Hope Garcia was 5 years old when she died. She was described as emaciated in police reports and weighed just 24 pounds, the same weight recorded when she was 20 months old.

Estevan Garcia and Sacora Horn-Garcia, Maliyha’s adoptive father and mother, now face charges of murder by abuse, manslaughter and criminal mistreatment.

Text messages exchanged between Garcia and Horn-Garcia suggest they were debating whether or not to take Maliyha to a doctor on the day she died. Neighbors told investigators and The Bulletin that Maliyha seemed to be treated differently than the couple’s other children, and she was rarely seen outside the home.

Garcia and Horn-Garcia pleaded not guilty to the charges against them in October, and are scheduled to go to trial in June 2018.

— Reporter: 541-383-0387, shammers@bendbulletin.com

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