18 local stories that shaped the SCV in 2018
Editor’s note: You can’t say it was an uneventful year: 2018 in the Santa Clarita Valley was shaped by a wide variety of local stories, many of which are unique to Santa Clarita and some of which are reflective of what’s going on elsewhere in the nation and the world.
It was certainly an eventful year for the community newspaper. We’re proud that The Signal is now under local family ownership, with the purchase of the paper in June by Richard and Chris Budman. We’re also proud of the changes we’ve made since taking over management of The Signal, including the addition of a free new Sunday news magazine and the expansion of our news and sports staff to beef up our coverage of the community.
And, we’re proud of the work that the staff has done to bring you the stories of your hometown, in words, pictures and video. Today, we reflect back on some of those stories, the ones that, in our opinion, most shaped the Santa Clarita Valley over the past year.
Presented here are summaries of 18 of them. This list is intended to be representative, not comprehensive. We’ve sought to include a mix of story types, rather than a “ranking” of the “biggest” stories, and the summaries are presented in no particular order.
Some of the stories are drawn from the world of politics, some resulted from breaking news, and others just show that, even in a time of controversy and rampant political acrimony, we still live in a community that laughs, loves and cries together.
2019 happens to be the 100th anniversary of the founding of The Signal. As we embark on our centennial year, we’re looking forward to continuing to tell the stories of the Santa Clarita Valley, a place we are proud to call home, in the year ahead and many more to come.
— Tim Whyte
Editor, The Signal
Proposed streetlight maintenance cost hike raises residents’ ire
It wasn’t junk mail — although some may have preferred that. It was a letter from the city of Santa Clarita to thousands of residents, many of whom were left irked and confused.
The letter, sent out to about 34,000 homes in late November, read that the recipients’ annual streetlight maintenance rate of $12.38, which has remained the same for the past 20 years, would hike to $81.71 in order to continue maintaining streetlights in their neighborhoods.
Residents were asked to vote either “yes” to indicate “support maintaining streetlight services in your neighborhood” or “no” to “indicate you are opposed.”
The letter did not clearly explain why the city asked property owners to consider paying more for street lighting services and what a “no” vote actually meant.
After criticism from residents and the City Council, city staff was asked by council members to provide the public with clarifications.
In December, the city published a frequently asked questions page and outreach in the form of a follow-up letter before the scheduled Jan. 22 ballot deadline and public hearing.
Just before the end of the year, the city announced a tentative intent to terminate the landscape and lighting district assessment proceedings and cancel the public hearing scheduled for Jan. 22, in response to feedback from residents.
— Tammy Murga
Van Hook marks 30-year milestone at COC
College of the Canyons Chancellor Dianne G. Van Hook became one of the longest-serving community college heads in California in July.
The chancellor, who took the helm of COC in 1988, celebrated her 30th anniversary on campus that month.
And then, in September, the COC Board of Trustees announced that the main road of the Canyon Country campus would don Van Hook’s name.
Since she began her run as head of the community college, the school hired 279 additional full-time faculty and staff, added more than 50 certificate training and degree programs, welcomed an additional 15,491 students to its classrooms, established the Canyon Country campus, expanded its budget by $231.1 million and more than quadrupled in size.
With her guidance, the college has grown in size and reputation throughout not just the Santa Clarita Valley but the state of California, as it annually welcomes new students, programs and grants.
Van Hook credits her success, and the success of COC, to the college’s dedicated staff, the community’s support and her personal love of her work.
“I’m a firm believer that if you’re working at doing what you like to do, you’re going to do it better and longer than if you do that which you really don’t enjoy doing or if it’s not a good fit,” she said.
— Crystal Duan
City Council opposes state’s ‘sanctuary’ law
The Santa Clarita City Council decided in May to take a stance on the state’s controversial sanctuary law protecting illegal immigrants. And local residents had something to say about it, gathering at City Hall until 1 a.m. to speak.
More than 150 speakers showed up to the May 8 City Council meeting to voice their feelings about the council’s consideration of joining a federal lawsuit against the state’s sanctuary law.
The original California Senate Bill 54 passed into law in October 2017 limits cooperation between state or local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities. President Trump’s administration then declared this practice unlawful and filed a lawsuit against the state.
At the council’s previous meeting before May 8, Councilman Bob Kellar made a motion calling for the city to file an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit against the state.
Hundreds of Santa Clarita residents showed up to protest or cheer on the day of the meeting in which the council would vote, calling the move “racist” or applauding the council for standing up for its residents’ safety. Even more had emailed their opinions prior to the meeting.
At the end of the night, after local residents and out-of-state SB54 opponents had finished speaking, the council moved to file the brief.
— Crystal Duan
2018 Santa Clarita elections bring new faces to Sacramento, Washington D.C.
The primary and general elections dominated news cycles across the country in 2018, and Santa Clarita was no exception. And, locally, two Democratic challengers unseated Republican incumbents to “flip” legislative seats that had long been held by the GOP.
After all the votes for the midterm election were tallied, with the highest voter turnout in Los Angeles County in over a decade, the voters of the 38th Assembly District chose Democrat Christy Smith to represent them in Sacramento and the voters of the 25th Congressional District elected Katie Hill to the House of Representatives.
Hill, former director and deputy CEO of a homelessness nonprofit, won control of the seat with 54.4 percent of the vote over incumbent Republican and former LAPD officer Steve Knight’s 45.6 percent of the vote.
Smith, a former Newhall School District board member, ended the election with 51.5 percent of the vote over incumbent Republican and former Santa Clarita City Council member Dante Acosta’s 48.5 percent of the total.
Additionally, Assemblyman Tom Lackey, who represents a portion of the Santa Clarita Valley as the 36th Assembly District representative, defeated challenger Steve Fox with 52.1 percent of the total to Fox’s 47.9 percent.
— Caleb Lunetta
Centennial: sign of a building boom
With 2008 being the year home construction died in the SCV, 2018 marked the year of its rebirth a decade later.
Less than six months after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors gave the green light to the construction of 21,000 homes as part of Newhall Ranch, the same board approved the construction of 19,000 more homes at the Kern County line.
On Dec. 11, after hearing from scores of people for and against the housing development, four out of five supervisors endorsed a motion by Supervisor Kathryn Barger to approve the Centennial project.
Over the last 14 years, the Centennial project had gone through extensive public debate and review, including five public hearings and a lengthy and comprehensive environmental impact review process, Barger said after the vote was taken.
“It includes key amendments that address fire safety by requiring peer review, by or in coordination with CAL FIRE, at all points of the implementation, create 20,000 new long-term jobs and establish a partnership for a job training program — all to ensure that we have a comprehensive and resilient community,” she said.
“It is a responsible, forward-thinking project,” Barger said, “that exceeds the goals of the county’s general plan for smart, sustainable growth and sorely needed housing stock, including 18 percent of affordable housing units, which is approximately 3,500 units.”
— Jim Holt
Drug abuse, overdoses increase in the SCV
The national drug crisis’ impact on the Santa Clarita Valley was in the spotlight this year as local officials grappled with a significant increase in the number of overdose fatalities.
The Signal’s coverage culminated in the form of a multimedia project to highlight what was being done locally to combat the increased deaths related to drug abuse.
In 2017, as Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station deputies were armed with opioid overdose reversal medication Narcan, six people died as a result of drug abuse. As fentanyl took a firmer grip in 2018, the numbers more than doubled.
In August, The Signal debuted “Addicted,” an online micro-documentary series tasked with shedding light on two sides of the coin –– the expanding rash of deadly overdoses and proactive efforts made by local law enforcement and medical crews.
By October, federal agents honed in on Santa Clarita after two people overdosed in one day, one fatally. A DEA agent assigned to a special task force spoke to a Signal reporter at the scene, outside a home in Newhall.
“Because there are so many overdoses we want to act fast,” the DEA agent said, noting there has been a significant spike in overdose deaths this year. “We had two overdoses today — this one and another one. The other guy survived.”
— Austin Dave
Community mourns ‘The Cat Doctor’
The September death of a beloved local veterinarian illustrated the impact one person can have on a community, as numerous Santa Claritans paid tribute to “The Cat Doctor.”
Dr. Tracy McFarland, 60, died after a short battle with cancer. She had been the saving grace to many a feline since 1994, when she opened her practice The Cat Doctor Inc. That facility on Bouquet Canyon Road eventually grew to a full-service pet hospital and the source of many comforts for the cat-owning community.
“Dr. Tracy” died of gallbladder and liver cancer and soon after was celebrated by many of her former patients. They held a special memorial service for her, offering messages of love and gratitude for the doctor who had aided so many pets over the years.
Office staff members and clients all came to remember the veterinarian who went above and beyond for their cats all the time.
“The Cat Doctor and Friends will continue my dream of providing compassionate care with integrity,” McFarland said in one of her last interviews. “I’m at a point in my life now that God is calling me home.”
In lieu of flower and gifts, the practice offered a “Slick Fund” to help hundreds of people and cats in the Santa Clarita community, originally started by McFarland herself to help low-income cat owners pay for veterinary care.
— Crystal Duan
Council election followed by heated 2019 mayoral rotation
Election results for the 2018 City Council race were perhaps no big surprise for many, as voters kept incumbents for another term. The shock came toward the end of the year as the council members voted among themselves to choose the 2019 mayor.
During a special City Council meeting on Dec. 11, Marsha McLean was named Santa Clarita’s newest mayor but it was no easy feat as the nomination process resulted in a heated debate among the council members.
Traditionally, the council gives the gavel to the previous year’s mayor pro tem, which was McLean in 2018. With Councilman Bob Kellar first nominating now Mayor Pro Tem Cameron Smyth, the tradition was nearly broken. The nomination received support from Councilwoman Laurene Weste, who seconded Kellar’s motion.
Surprised by how the nominations were unraveling, McLean nominated herself — and Councilman Bill Miranda seconded the motion — leading to a back-and-forth debate among all five council members about operating as united, rather than divided, leaders.
With two nominations for mayor on the floor, the City Council was advised to vote on McLean’s nomination first, as the substitute motion, then vote on the nomination for Smyth.
The result led to McLean’s appointment by a 3-2 margin, with Weste — who had served as mayor in 2018 — casting the deciding “yes” vote.
— Tammy Murga
Historic change in SCV water distribution
Santa Clarita Valley history was made this past year when the longstanding vision held by water officials of one valley, one vision, one water agency came to fruition with the creation of the SCV Water Agency.
The agency officially began three months after Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 634, which dissolved the existing structure of water delivery in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Under the pre-existing structure, SCV’s water wholesaler – the Castaic Lake Water Agency – sold water to three main water retailers: Newhall County Water District, the Santa Clarita Water Division and Valencia Water Co.
On Jan. 1, 2018, SCV Water went into effect. From that point on, water would be delivered to the customers of those three retailers by the new agency. Water consumers — as expected — noticed no difference in the water they received.
The first order of business for the new agency was to elect a president and a vice president.
William Cooper, long-standing member of the Castaic Lake Water Agency board, was voted president of the Santa Clarita Valley’s brand new all-encompassing water agency.
Maria Gutzeit, president of the Newhall County Water District, was voted vice president the SCV Water Agency.
Within the first month, SCV Water officials submitted a plan to annexation officials outlining the “conditions and plan for services” the agency would be extending to its ratepayers. And before the year was out, they adopted a rate-setting process that would include, for the first time locally, an independent ratepayer advocate.
— Jim Holt
Accrediting agency puts TMU on probation
The Master’s University and Seminary was put on probation by the accrediting organization, The Western Association of Schools and Colleges, for a “climate of fear, intimidation and bullying” in August.
A report from WASC detailed allegations of conflicts of interest regarding student financial aid and institutional leaders being hired who lack qualifications for the positions they hold.
The committee found a 2017 financial audit that contains the appearance of a conflict of interest, and reported that some individuals have been hired without job descriptions being provided or searches being conducted. Other institutional leaders appear to lack higher education experience, preparation and knowledge of key higher education regulatory expectations and professional standards, according to the WASC letter.
The university has less than two years to correct the problems, according to the WASC letter.
In a speech during a private campus meeting, a speaker identified by anonymous faculty as TMU President John MacArthur repeatedly said the claims are an attack not on the school, but on him, according to a recording that was posted on a blog called The Wartburg Watch.
In October, the school announced that MacArthur would transition to the position of chancellor of the university and president of the seminary after the school finished conducting a search for his replacement. The search is expected to occur over the next year and a half.
— Crystal Duan
‘Borderline’ shooting hits home for local residents
A November mass shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks hit especially close to home for many Santa Clarita residents, including Signal Staff Writer Michele Lutes.
Lutes and her friends were devastated to hear the news of the 13 killed, because it was there that everyone was considered family.
Borderline is about a 45-minute drive from Santa Clarita, but almost every week dozens of Santa Clarita Valley residents made the trip to dance, drink and create memories.
For Lutes’ friend Katelyn Dolder, she had not missed a college night at Borderline in over four months when the gunman came in and prompted her to run for her life. She made it out alive with a hurt ankle, and remained deeply affected in the aftermath of the shooting.
Even those who weren’t literally there on that Wednesday night felt shattered afterward. SCV resident Will Davison recalled the line dances to country music, sitting and chatting on bar stools and memories made with all the strangers who loved that place.
Lutes herself had been going to Borderline for three years and felt shaken at how scary the whole ordeal was.
But nevertheless, survivors and friends alike were sticking together.
“It’s gonna be a long road for all of us,” Lutes wrote. “We have to stick together and be Country Strong.”
— Crystal Duan
Baby Elliot: 2-year-old arrives home from hospital for first time, dies soon after
At 2 and a half years old, Elliot Newcomb stole the hearts of many with his smile, but his life was cut short just weeks after arriving home from the hospital for the first time.
The young boy was welcomed into his Saugus home after an 895-day journey in intensive care for a developed chronic lung disease known as bronchopulmonary dysplasia, or BPD, which leads to requiring respiratory support to breathe.
Newcomb’s sudden death occurred on Oct. 9 while en route to Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles from Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital.
After losing their youngest child, mother Sara and Bryan held a celebration of life in November at Crossroads Community Church in Valencia. More than 200 family members, friends and members of the community gathered by their side, where doves and balloons were released in his memory.
Elliot’s journey has helped other children return home as his treatment is now being used to care for more children with his condition in Kaiser Los Angeles. In his memory, the family has also started a charity, titled “#LoveFromElliot.”
Todd Smith, pastor at Crossroads, said: “Who would have thought that this little man could pack so much love and so much life into such a short period of time.”
— Tammy Murga
Emotions ran deep over fatal crash
In the last couple of years, SCV residents saw a number of fatal crashes but few fired up emotions more than the crash that claimed the life of a local mother of six.
Although she didn’t speak in court when sentenced to 10 years in prison, 21-year-old Alexia Alilah Cina — described as an excellent student and outstanding athlete with no criminal record — “accepted full responsibility for her actions” that killed Katie Evans, a Saugus mother of six.
Cina was sentenced in July to 10 years of her life behind bars. She pleaded no contest in June to gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated in a fatal crash that took place Oct. 6, 2017.
The crash killed Katie Evans, a Saugus mother of six.
Cina’s attorney James E. Blatt said shortly after her sentencing: “She has accepted full responsibility for her actions, and is deeply remorseful for the loss of life, the future damage caused to the husband, the family and the children of Mrs. Evans.”
Cina was driving southbound on Golden Valley Road at a high rate of speed Oct. 6, 2017, when she hit the center median and crashed into Evans’ vehicle on the northbound side of the road, prosecutors maintained since her arrest.
The Evans family, led by Katie’s husband Jacob, and their religious supporters expected a fair sentence — and a fair sentence, according to Blatt, was found in 10 years’ prison time.
— Jim Holt
Local school leaders take up security issues
In response to concerns over a nationwide rash of school shootings, sheriff’s deputies discussed school security while school districts in the Santa Clarita Valley considered implementing additional security measures this year.
The Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station hosted a Q&A with The Signal at Saugus High School about procedures, information dissemination during a lockdown and tools to help school districts alert parents, such as the William S. Hart Union High School District’s ConnectEd system that sent out emails during incidents.
The Sulphur Springs Union School District, Newhall School District, Saugus Union School District and Hart District also considered resolutions throughout the year to install visitor management systems from various companies such as Raptor Technologies and LobbyGuard.
The systems would process visitors’ driver’s license information and compare the information to a sex offender database.
Visitors would then get badges to enter the school.
Residents had griped that the limited number of available badges could pose a problem to schools who check in multiple guests each day.
Other school officials said that districts could be liable for lawsuits once they install the new systems.
In March, Rep. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, introduced a congressional bill to use federal funds to allocate money to school security systems. The bill failed in the House.
— Crystal Duan
Charlie Fire burns nearly 4,000 acres
2018 will go down in history as having one of the deadliest wildfire seasons across the state.
The Camp Fire, in Butte County, killed 83 people, injuring a dozen others. It destroyed more than 18,800 structures across 153,336 acres.
Closer to home, the Woolsey Fire killed three people across Los Angeles and Ventura counties, gutting 1,643 structures and displacing more than 295,000 people.
In the SCV, 2018 will be remembered for two local wildfires including the Charlie Fire, which burned 3,380 acres near Castaic Lake over the course of five days, and the Railroad Fire in Newhall.
The Charlie Fire began Sept. 22, at 2:42 p.m., off Charlie Canyon Road near Castaic.
Dry Gulch, Tapia and Valley View roads were promptly closed. Lake Hughes Road was also closed just above the main upper lake boat launch to Dry Gulch Road.
Two people were injured and taken to the hospital as a result of the Charlie Fire, which had burned close to 4,000 acres along San Francisquito Canyon Road within 48 hours.
During that initial period, between 20 and 30 fire-threatened homes were evacuated, officials with the Los Angeles County Fire Department said at the time.
— Jim Holt
‘Sarah smiles,” and inspires, in battle against cancer
A special young Santa Clarita resident received a very happy birthday in October from dozens of community members.
Sarah Donegan, 12, was speechless when she received the gift of people showing up to celebrate her day, and to support her in her ongoing battle against cancer.
Through 2018, Sarah had battled an aggressive form of brain cancer after having a series of seizures that led to her being airlifted to a hospital.
Hospitalized for a week for testing and undergoing over seven hours of surgery for a brain tumor, Sarah had to undergo six weeks of daily chemotherapy — all while still at the tender age of 11.
But through faith in God, a GoFundMe for medical expenses and proceeds from selling shirts that said, “Sarah Smiles” on them, Sarah was still on her feet enough to enjoy the community support on her birthday.
Tears of surprise and joy streamed down her face that day as she received the cards, balloons, roses and hugs.
“I would never be able to get through it without everybody’s prayers and everything they’ve done for us,” she said. “It would be so hard to do this alone.”
— Crystal Duan
Railroad Fire burns two buildings, 11 apartments, displaces scores of Newhall residents
The Railroad Fire broke out on the last day of July in a vacant lot on Railroad Avenue about 4:15 p.m. It was reported, initially, as a 3-acre brush fire moving toward the apartment buildings on Adler Drive and Trumpet Drive.
Although it burned about 10 acres of brush, before it was extinguished the Railroad Fire damaged at least 14 apartments in two buildings in Newhall, displacing scores of people.
It quickly damaged three structures — two apartment buildings including 11 apartments on Alder and three on Trumpet.
The destruction caused by the Railroad Fire sent about 100 people to the American Red Cross evacuation center set up in the gymnasium of Golden Valley High School.
At least three firefighters suffered minor injuries and were taken to the hospital.
— Jim Holt
Local leaders grapple with homelessness
The issue of homelessness gained a higher local profile in 2018 as the city of Santa Clarita made progress and encountered pitfalls as leaders strived to develop a year-round plan to help the homeless.
In August, the City Council revealed a homelessness plan formed from meetings with local stakeholders, and authorized the formation of a collaborative task force to help execute its goals.
The task force, headed by Mayor Pro Tem Cameron Smyth, is to tackle five planned topic areas: “Preventing Homelessness,” “Increasing Income,” “Subsidized Housing,” “Increase Affordable Housing” and “Creating Local Coordination.”
This came on the heels of a controversial municipal code amendment in June geared toward preventing people from “living” in public places. The code expanded language to include locations that were not previously codified and allows city officials to address any encampment or dwelling that may arise.
Residents raised concerns that the homeless would be negatively affected by the new language, which states that people may not “sit or lie down upon a public sidewalk” and other areas.
At the time, Bridge to Home, a nonprofit that operates the Santa Clarita Valley’s seasonal homeless shelter, was in the process of solidifying a year-round location.
But in December, Bridge to Home’s grant process with Los Angeles County was terminated due to insufficient Measure H dollars, leaving members of the community and local dignitaries disappointed — and without the $900,000 in anticipated grant funds.
But officials with County Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s office said they will work on a solution to fill the funding gap.
Although Santa Clarita is working on a more accurate homeless count, the 2017 annual point-in-time count reported a total of 331 homeless individuals, while an estimated 31,138 were identified in the city of L.A.
Mike Foley, executive director of Bridge to Home, said the organization is planning on applying for another grant. If chosen, funds would not become available until July, he said.
In light of Bridge to Home’s county grant cancellation, Smyth intends to request council approval of funds at the next council meeting on Jan. 8, followed by a City Council vote at the Jan. 22 meeting if approved.
— Crystal Duan