Winter death toll raises concerns about Amador’s roadways

George Williams says he will forever think of Ridge Road and Hamricks Grade as “Dead Man’s Hill,” after three separate vehicles plummeted off its edge in a matter of hours on Dec. 30, resulting in multiple injuries and two fatalities. Among the dead was Williams’ friend, Iris Davy.

Williams is part of growing number of locals who fear Ridge Road and Hamricks Grade form a sort of killing trap during winter months. Meanwhile, a Stockton man whose brother lost his life on Jan. 17 is raising concerns about a different stretch of road in Amador County.

Today, a small memorial to Davy and her boyfriend, Michael Bloom, sits on the grass just feet away from where the two went rolling to their deaths in a Jeep during the dark hours of Dec. 30. The wreckage and bodies were discovered by California Highway Patrol officers around 2:17 a.m. as they responded to an entirely different vehicle accident in roughly the same spot on the road. It is unknown exactly what time Davy and Bloom were killed that morning.

CHP investigators have pieced together that Davy lost control of her Jeep as she hit a patch of black ice. She and Bloom were both thrown from the vehicle when it barreled down the steep pocket of the hill. The other vehicle accident, which had actually drawn emergency responders to the scene, involved a 2000 Nissan that had also been caused by black ice on the road. Black ice was also the cause of the crash of a 2000 Dodge Durango that occurred just before 2 a.m. that morning on Ridge and Hamricks Grade.

In the wake of the chaotic morning of Dec. 30, the Ledger Dispatch was contacted by Robert Jarrell, of Pine Grove, who said he had nearly been killed in his vehicle a month before at Ridge Road and Hamricks Grade. On the morning of Dec. 30, Jarrell was one of dozens of passing cars that witnessed firefighters begin to recover the bodies of Davy and Bloom. The realization that someone had been killed in the same place that his own accident had recently occurred was aggravating to Jarrell, who sent numerous messages to the Ledger Dispatch expressing grave concerns about the overall safety of Ridge Road and Hamricks Grade.

From Williams’ perspective, drainage issues are why the stretch of roadway is so dangerous. He believes that rain water flowing across both lanes of the road consistently freezes into lasting sheets of ice, making for a natural catapult down the hillside. “Someone needs to realize the drainage on this dangerous hill,” Williams wrote in a letter to the editor. “It has to be addressed and fixed so no one else has to write a similar letter about someone they love.”

Workers at the Ione Chevron station, where Davy worked, explained that they were still trying to come to terms with her sudden death. “It was devastating for all us,” said Kelly Rusher, a Chevron employee and close friend of Davy. “A lot of people in town felt like they knew Iris. She was really nice and always had a smile on her face. It’s not a good thing to know there have been so many accidents at that one spot on the road. There’s not even a guard rail up.”

CHP officer Craig Harmon said that assessing the danger of any roadway in Amador is a balancing act between determining how unforgiving the area is and what responsibility drivers have for their own safety.

“Up until Dec. 30, there was not really a big accident picture for that spot on Ridge and Hamricks,” Harmon observed. “We’d seen some wind problems and speeding issues, but there are other roads in Amador we consider far more dangerous. Unfortunately, big accidents cause change to occur. On the other hand, if (Davy and Bloom) were wearing their seat belts, I think they would still be alive. That part is frustrating for us.”

Harmon agreed that a roadside barrier might make the spot where Davy and Bloom died less hazardous.

Another person who is raising questions about a different area of Amador County is Richard Leung, whose brother, Allen Leung, was hit and killed on his motorcycle at the intersection of Shenandoah and Fiddletown roads on Jan. 17.

According to CHP investigators, Allen was driving toward Plymouth from the wine country when 74-year-old Charmion Kendrick came to the end of Fiddletown Road, rolling through a posted yield sign at 30 mph to collide directly with Allen’s BMW motorcycle. CHP officers noted that, while a degree of fog was present, Kendrick could potentially face criminal charges in the case. Regardless of Kendrick’s possible culpability, Richard Leung believes the intersection is all together dangerous.

“My concern is with the yield sign,” Richard told the Ledger Dispatch on Tuesday. “Right now, if someone’s driving westbound on Fiddletown Road, they basically have to skip across an entire lane of on-coming traffic to keep going into Plymouth as they pass through that yield sign. My understanding is that there have been several accidents at that spot. I think they at least need to have a flashing light at the sign, so that in rainy and foggy conditions people who are unfamiliar with the area know there’s a dangerous yield situation there.”

Richard added that his brother Allen, who was from Sacramento, appreciated Amador County and loved driving through the Gold Country on weekends.

Both Ridge Road and the intersection of Shenandoah and Fiddletown roads are maintained and controlled by Amador County.

ACUSD applies for Class Size Reduction Program

Several items were discussed Wednesday at the Amador County Unified School District board of trustees meeting, including the district’s 2009-10 audit report, class size reductions for kindergarten through third grade and a public hearing to reduce the number of board members from seven to five.

Both ACUSD and the Amador County Office of Education underwent a regular audit and bond report performed by Stephen Roatch Accountancy Corp., who said the district’s audit was deemed fair as of June 30, 2010.

Auditor Habbas Nassar presented the findings to the board, and said that he found the district’s reserve fund adequate for 2009-10 school year, as well as for 2010-11.

“Based on the size of the district’s average daily attendance, the state recommends a minimum reserve of at least 3 percent,” Nassar said. “As of June 30, 2010, the district has 8.2 percent reserve, so it has exceeded the requirement.”

On the ACOE audit, Nassar said everything looked accountable. “We had no findings in the county office of education,” he said. “The last two fiscal years, we’ve had no findings in ACOE.”

The board passed the ACUSD and ACOE audit reports 5-0.

The district also announced its operations application for Class Size Reduction Program funds, which will help to lower kindergarten through third-grade class sizes.

“As a condition for applying and receiving Class Size Reduction funds, we have to fill out an estimated application and have board approval in winter of every year,” said Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Elizabeth Chapin-Pinotti.

The board passed the application for the Class Size Reduction Program 5-0.

In other news, four ACUSD board members stepped down late last year, and Lynnette Lipp and Rose Oneto were sworn into the board in a special meeting held Dec. 10 at the Jackson Civic Center. The reduction of the board from seven to five trustees requires a request to the State Board of Education for a waiver to decrease the size of the board.

ACUSD was required to post a Notice of Hearing separate from the meeting agenda, which was completed. A public hearing was held at the meeting, but members of the public declined to comment.

Also discussed at the meeting were the enrollment numbers at Cosumnes River College. Enrollment for CRC classes held in Amador County has increased for the spring semester, according to ACUSD Superintendent Dick Glock.

“Right now, we’re a little ahead – we’re a little over 1 percent,” he said. “It may not seem like that much, but we went up 1 percent last year, and that means about $275,000 to us. That’s a big number, in terms of the budget.”

CRC classes began Jan. 15 at the Amador Learning Center, located at 525 Independence Drive, in Sutter Creek. The last day to enroll is Jan. 30. For more information, call 223-6330.

Supervisors adopt new meeting schedule, approve traffic study to re-authorize radar use

The Amador County Board of Supervisors will no longer meet every week, opting instead to convene every other Tuesday, in a decision made during their regular meeting Tuesday.

Board Clerk Jennifer Burns said the shift was suggested by CAO Chuck Iley, who first presented the idea to administration committee members John Plasse and Louis Boitano as part of continuing efforts to shave expenses off the county’s budget wherever possible.

“That was their basic consideration, the budget,” said Burns, who added that costs to print reports, meeting agendas and minutes are anticipated to be reduced, as well as a considerable amount of staff time.

“It seems to be working for other counties,” Burns said, “although the meetings will probably be longer. We’re going to try it and see, and if it doesn’t work, then we’ll go back to the other way, but we’re going to give it a shot.”

On a motion by Richard Forster, seconded by Ted Novelli, the amended meeting schedule was unanimously approved.

Supervisors will meet again Feb. 8, and again on Feb. 22, continuing the two-week schedule throughout the remainder of 2011.

Motorists in the Upcountry area will soon see minor changes in two speed limits and the “long arm of the law” will continue to utilize radar technology to detect vehicle speeds, after three traffic survey reports were also approved by supervisors on Tuesday.

A report written by Public Works Interim Director Mike Israel said county officials have previously authorized the use of radar on various road sections within the county. For radar to be used, state law requires an engineering and traffic survey to be updated at least once every five, seven or 10 years, depending on the location of the roadway. Three of 11 surveys conducted by Sacramento-based Stantec Consulting Services have been completed, involving sections of Shake Ridge, Climax and Fiddletown roads.

California Highway Patrol Officer John Hardy told the board that any speed limit imposed by local authorities less than the statewide standard of 55 mph “has to be supported by an engineering and traffic survey” in order to be enforced by radar under state laws designed to protect motorists from speed traps.

“Without (a survey), the term unenforceable is applicable in the sense that the California Highway Patrol cannot participate in the speed enforcement program without it,” explained Hardy.

Responding to questions by Plasse and Brian Oneto, Hardy pointed out that, even without the survey, law enforcement agencies, including the CHP, would still be able to issue speeding citations using a peace officer’s estimate of a vehicle’s rate of speed.

“However, it’s not your best evidence,” he said. “Radar is your best evidence.”

During a lively discussion regarding traffic enforcement scenarios, Hardy said road and weather conditions are also factored in by officers when determining whether speeding may have contributed to an accident.

“If you’re traveling at 50 miles per hour in a hailstorm and your vehicle slides off of the roadway, one would articulate that you’re traveling faster than conditions allowed you to do so,” he said.

Hardy said, although he had conducted more than 15,000 speed “estimations” on vehicles during his career, most traffic court judges prefer to see radar evidence to back up those estimates.

In response to a question from Oneto, who asked if more enforcement activity could be expected on Shake Ridge and Fiddletown roads if supervisors adopted the survey results, Hardy said his agency’s efforts are concentrated where they are needed the most.

“We get out to those outlying areas when possible and we enforce the laws where we’re able to,” he said. “Ridge Road would be an example of that, where we can’t necessarily go out and shoot radar on Ridge Road through that segment through Hamricks Grade. Upper Ridge Road receives quite a bit of attention in regards to speed, and Hamricks Grade receives attention in regards to right of way violations.”

On a motion by Boitano, seconded by Novelli, supervisors voted unanimously to accept the survey results, adopt the speed limit changes and, in another move designed to save money, wait until all 11 surveys are complete before officially enacting the ordinances.

After those ordinances are duly noticed and adopted, a 1.1-mile section of Climax Road west of Highway 88 will have the speed limit raised to 40 mph from the existing 35 mph.

The 7.5-mile section of Shake Ridge Road, from Rams Horn Grade to Wandering Hills Drive, will remain at the posted 40 mph, while the upper 1.3-mile section from Wandering Hills Drive to Highway 88, currently posted at 30 mph, will see an increase in the posted limit to 35 mph.

Fiddletown Road, from milepost markers 4.8 to 5.9 and encompassing the downtown area, will remain at the currently posted 25 mph. The Fiddletown Road section has historically seen speeders avoiding the main highways by passing through on their way to the ski slopes.

Five more surveys were expected to be completed this week, with three more due in about a month.

In another action, supervisors approved a job description change for assistant county administrative officer Kristen Bengyel to allow her to begin her new position as health services director. Iley said the basis for the change was to allow Bengyel to focus on increased needs within the Health Department brought on by ongoing personnel reductions. Iley said Bengyel possesses all of the skills and legal requirements to take over the position as set forth by California law.

Stalled Jackson development finds new buyer, homes will be finished

For more than a year, houses all along Thomas Drive and Emerald Lane in Jackson have stood half-built, with rough exteriors, absent electrical work, plumbing, driveways and landscaping – a neatly lined tribute to the mortgage crisis that recently gripped America.

However, in December, a capital investment group purchased the upside-down Jackson View development and has set about completing the neighborhood along the lines of its original vision.

Jackson View began as the brainchild of Sacramento-based group Eland Construction Inc., which hoped to build Jackson’s first gated community of homes for residents 55 years and older on a picturesque hilltop overlooking South Jackson and the hills rolling out to the Mokelumne River. The firm recruited Coldwell Banker to handle sales for the community. The project got under way at roughly the same time as the Great Recession hit.

“We had sold nine homes, but sales were going really slow and the owner got behind on everything,” recalled real estate broker Tom Blackman, who was a point man for sales with Coldwell Banker. “The bank ended up foreclosing. What happened to the owner wasn’t uncommon, and I wouldn’t say he did anything wrong. It was just that the market turned suddenly and the loan was too big for him to make the payments on.”

The nine homebuyers who were locked into Jackson View found themselves surrounded by more than a dozen empty home shells. Coldwell Banker says it helped to keep the properties maintained and looked out for the interest of the new homeowners living in the defunct development.

Some Jackson police officers worried that transients might start squatting inside the open structures, bringing drug issues and burglaries with them, as has happened in some foreclosed homes in the central part of the city. Ultimately, the development’s considerable walking distance from South Jackson appears to have helped prevent that.

As of December, the handful of residents living in its ghost town streets will no longer have to worry, as Coldwell Banker has confirmed the entire project has been purchased by Jackson View Partners LLC.

Blackman describes Jackson View Partners LLC as a group of experienced capital investors, some of whom live in New York. “They are taking a pretty hands-off approach,” he said of the group. “They’re allowing Coldwell Banker to handle the sales again and help get the project finished. That means all of the different local contractors and subcontractors who were working on it before are now employed again. I think it’s a really positive thing for Amador County.”

Jackson City Manager Mike Daly agreed. “It’s great to see work resume on the unfinished homes in Jackson View,” Daly observed on the same day the plumbers, painters and electricians were busy working on the homes. “In addition to putting some people back to work, I’m sure that the residents in this neighborhood will be glad to see the homes completed and ready for occupancy.”

According to Coldwell Banker, homes in the project will be ready for sale by March at “market-adjusted prices.”

State orders city of Ione to suspend sewer connections

State officials have issued an order barring the city of Ione from allowing any new connections to its wastewater treatment system effective Jan. 21.

The California Regional Water Quality Control Board will hold a hearing on the “Cease and Desist Order and Connection Restriction for the City of Ione” at its April 6 through 8 meeting in Rancho Cordova.

“Effective immediately, no new structures may connect to the city of Ione’s wastewater collection system, except those authorized by a building permit … issued prior to the 21 January 2011 Hearing Notice,” wrote Wendy Wyels, a supervisor in the compliance and enforcement section of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board .

City Manager Kim Kerr said she had anticipated the board’s action as the city continues to generate plans and reports to address a “seepage” problem at the city’s treatment facility.

“We’ve been expecting this,” Kerr said. “When we met with the regional board back in September and they did a tour, we talked with Wendy Wyels and she indicated to me … the former cease and desist order was aged … and we needed to address the seepage issue.

“They were looking at our schedule, we had already submitted our report … with the timelines,” explained Kerr. “She told me she was going to adopt our time frames. This means basically we’re getting there.”

Kerr said the letter was sent to update CRWQCB’s previous cease and desist order – issued in 2003 – although the update contains new language prohibiting the city from allowing any new hookups to the wastewater system for the foreseeable future.

“So if somebody … wants to start construction, we can’t issue them a building permit if it’s a facility that’s never been connected to the wastewater system,” said Kerr, who added she was not aware of any projects affected by the order.

A history of the city’s wastewater issues was compiled by Kerr in December. According to Kerr, the original order was issued in 2003 to compel the city to address perceived impacts to groundwater from the treatment plant at 1600 W. Marlette. Effluent seeping from at least one treatment pond in close proximity to the Sutter Creek streambed is at the heart of problem.

In 2005, Ione leaders granted permissions to developers for sewer connections for 1,200 new properties, before discovering in 2006 that it had only enough capacity in the facility for 700 connections.

A lawsuit filed after that discovery led to a settlement in 2007 requiring the city to conduct environmental impact studies before performing any other work at the facility.

In 2009, Ione completed a wastewater master plan and environmental impact report, and sought qualified contractors to construct a new facility, with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the Amador Regional Sanitation Authority anticipated as possible partners.

The city currently treats secondary effluent from Mule Creek State Prison and ARSA to allow it to be used on the Castle Oaks Golf Course. The city has also approached a local manufacturing business, as a potential partner, to receive the city’s treated tertiary effluent to reduce or eliminate the need to store it in ponds. The city’s plan calls for the development of a new facility to clean 0.8 million gallons of wastewater per day to “tertiary” levels. The plan also calls for the decommission of existing storage ponds 1, 2, 3, and 4, fill in portions of 5 and 6 so effluent within them is at least 200 feet from the streambed, and the construction of a new pond. The master plan and all of the attached reports, including information on the issues driving the need for a new facility, are available for review on Ione’s website, www.ione-ca.com.

In March 2010, Ione officials submitted a report to the CRWQCB for a new wastewater treatment permit for plant improvements. Also in 2010, the city sought bids from three qualified contractors who had responded to the city’s call in 2009. Only one contractor responded with a bid, PERC Water, who currently oversees technical operations at the city’s existing plant. Kerr said she is currently working with PERC officials to refine the project to meet a seemingly ever-changing list of concerns from the CRWQCB. To date, the city council has not received a final project description nor an estimate of the cost of construction.

In November 2010, the CRWQCB sent a letter to the city concerning new construction at pond 8, and continued seepage. City officials responded by commissioning an “isotope” study to determine whether or not seepage to Sutter Creek is occurring, and whether or not the wastewater treatment facility, with its associated ponds, is, or is not, a source. Previous testing has been inconclusive in answering these questions to the satisfaction of the CRWQCB. On Wednesday, Kerr said the isotope study has been completed and placed in the hands of a qualified water engineer for evaluation. Results of that evaluation are expected to be presented at the next meeting of the Ione City Council Feb. 1.

If a satisfactory solution to the problem is not reached, the city may be forced to obtain a costly federal permit for the seepage, thinning city coffers even further.

Public meetings on the complicated issues are anticipated to be held beginning in February, according to Kerr, who added that a breakdown of the final design and costs to construct a new plant are also anticipated to be presented for discussion during those public hearings.