Clark County's top 10 stories of 2012

Here is a our list of stories we’ll talk about after the year’s over

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter



TOP stories of 2012

(With newsroom votes received as No. 1 story)

  1. Columbia River Crossing (12)
  2. Same-sex marriages (9)
  3. Legal marijuana (1)
  4. Election drama (2)
  5. Condit Dam removed (4)
  6. Economy (2)
  7. Liquor sales privatized (0)
  8. Jail suicides (1)
  9. Coal trains (1)
  10. Whooping cough (0)

Stories also receiving newsroom votes

Heritage sites -- Academy and East and South Barracks -- change hands.

Fires devastate Sikh temple, vacant Thunderbird hotel.

Crime spree crosses county and into Portland.

Judge John Wulle reprimanded by state panel, loses re-election bid.

"Caged kids" trial ends in acquittal.

Driest three-month stretch on record is factor in 100-acre Steigerwald fire.

Vancouver Police Chief Cliff Cook resigns.

Salmonella sickens more than 100 people who ate at a Mexican restaurant.

Youth suicides in Battle Ground generate community response.

Readers' Top 10 List

Here's how you voted when we asked what you thought was the top story of 2012:

  1. Columbia River Crossing (42)
  2. Legal marijuana (24)
  3. Same-sex marriages (15)
  4. Election drama (9)
  5. Youth suicides in Battle Ground (7)
  6. Liquor sales privatized (6)
  7. 'Caged' kids trial (4)
  8. Coal trains (3)
  9. Economy (2)
  10. Crime spree spreads from here into Portland (2)

The Columbian's top 10 online stories

Top 10 online Columbian stories from 2012 with the total page views, description and date.

49,272* -- Offramp leads to frustration for family (with autistic son), Sept. 26.

27,159* -- Lower River Road fatal crash, Aug. 6.

21,696 -- Woman's body found near state Highway 503 in Battle Ground, May 11.

18,672 -- Fatal crash on Highway 99 in Hazel Dell, Nov. 27.

17,590 -- Shooting reported at Clackamas Town Center, Dec. 11.

17,100 -- Four Evergreen schools in lockdown, Dec. 12.

15,442 -- Fire destroys Doubletree's Thunderbird hotel on Hayden Island, Sept. 2.

14,431 -- Motorcyclist dies in Mill Plain Boulevard crash, July 9.

13,706 -- Mandy Lathim, 18, dies after California crash, July 19.

13,599 -- Victims identified in fatal Highway 99 crash, Nov. 28.*

NOTE: Readers linked to these two stories from and, respectively, greatly increasing their page views.

The Columbian's Top 10 OF 2011

  1. Lousy economy persists.
  2. Condit Dam breached.
  3. Murder-suicides by fire.
  4. "Gang Green" drug raids.
  5. Bears baseball plan.
  6. Downtown makeover.
  7. Abuse cases.
  8. Columbia River Crossing.

9-tie. Davy Crockett cleanup.

9-tie. First Independent Bank sold.

More year in review stories

Year's top photos

Top Business news

Top Sports stories

Celebrity deaths

Clark County's top two stories of the year were about connecting people, although on significantly different scales.

The Columbian's No. 1 story of 2012 is the state-to-state infrastructure saga of the Columbia River Crossing.

The second topic on the list features a much more intimate, person-to-person link: same-sex marriage.

Those two stories combined to capture 21 of the 33 first-place ballots in voting by members of The Columbian's news staff.

There was another theme in three of the top seven stories: voters' weighing in on the state's oversight of personal behavior.

Those three stories including legalizing same-sex marriage, of course.

It also became legal for people 21 and older to possess one ounce of marijuana.

And liquor sales expanded this year, thanks to a 2011 ballot measure. With the end of the state's liquor monopoly, Clark County supermarkets were able to stock vodka, tequila and whiskey just around the corner from the bakery section or ice cream aisle.

Voters in Clark County opposed the same-sex and marijuana ballot measures, which were heavily supported by Puget Sound-area voters.

More than 52 percent of Clark County voters rejected Referendum 74 for same sex marriage; it passed statewide at 53.7 percent.

And 50.3 percent of the county's voters rejected Initiative 502 to legalize marijuana; it passed statewide with 55.7 percent.

The Top 10:

1) Columbia River Crossing

The Columbia River Crossing lurched forward in 2012 despite an embarrassing revelation that left many observers shaking their heads. After years of planning and tens of millions of dollars spent, project officials had designed a bridge that was too low.

Planners of the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project had long assumed they'd build a span with 95 feet of clearance over the Columbia River. But warnings from the U.S. Coast Guard and others made it clear that wasn't enough to meet the river's navigation and economic needs. CRC planners spent months scrambling to adjust their design, eventually settling on a height of 115 to 116 feet over the water. Project leaders plan to submit their bridge permit application -- which the Coast Guard must approve for the CRC to move forward -- in January.

The CRC took on a higher profile outside of Clark County as legislative oversight committees in Washington and Oregon put a new spotlight on the project. In November, local voters shot down a sales tax increase that would have helped pay to operate light rail in Vancouver, planned as part of the project. That led a group of Washington Republicans to call for an overhaul of the CRC that dumps light rail. Supporters vowed to push forward.

Next year could prove to be critical for the $3.5 billion project. CRC leaders have urged lawmakers in both states to commit funding in upcoming legislative sessions. Local funding for light rail will also have to fall into place for the project to secure a crucial federal grant. And the bridge's height must be resolved if the CRC hopes to begin construction in late 2014.

2) Same-sex marriage

There were 130 same-gender marriages from Dec. 6 though Dec. 24, according to Paul Harris, manager of Clark County's marriage license department.

It was the result of a pivotal ballot measure on Nov. 6 giving same-sex couples the right to marry. Washington, along with Maine and Maryland, became the ninth state to legalize marriage between people of the same sex. The Election Day results were unprecedented in that voters, rather than lawmakers or judges, approved giving the right to gay couples.

The first gay couple to apply for a marriage license in Clark County were Harris and his partner of 40 years, James Griener. The first couple to marry were Ashley Cavner, 21, and Jessica Lee, 19.

For much of the year, the fate of gay marriage remained up in the air in Washington. The state Legislature passed a law to allow it in February, but opponents petitioned to overturn the law on the ballot, postponing the date when the law went into effect from June. In November, voters made it clear a majority agreed with lawmakers.

3) Marijuana

While people lit joints under the Space Needle and on Seattle's sidewalks to celebrate the passage of Initiative 502, Clark County had no such pot party. Local voters narrowly rejected the initiative in the Nov. 6 elections.

Perhaps they were less enthralled with Rick Steves' visit to Vancouver, where the travel guru discussed his support of the initiative, his European prospective on cannabis consumption and his love of smoking a bowl in front of a roaring fire.

Or maybe they were just confused about how the law's details would pan out. After all, Initiative 502 conflicts with federal law, putting cannabis in a legal limbo while officials began sorting out the details.

Possession of one ounce of marijuana for people 21 and older became legal Dec. 6 in Washington, based on the initiative. However, there isn't any way to legally purchase the product. Washington's Liquor Control Board has until Dec. 1, 2013, to adopt rules for growing and distributing pot.

Voters opened a market for growing, packaging and selling marijuana and also created a potentially lucrative new source of state tax revenue. It's still unclear if out-of-state residents will be allowed to purchase marijuana products in Washington.

Sgt. Shane Gardner of the Clark County Sheriff's Office said more deputies will need to be trained to recognize when someone is under the influence of marijuana.

Less than two weeks after legalization, police dealt with a pot-related traffic fatality. A motorist allegedly under the influence of marijuana hit a pedestrian crossing the street on Mill Plain Boulevard in east Vancouver. An investigation continues.

There are still unanswered questions for local police agencies on how to enforce the new laws.

What happens when you catch someone who's carrying just over the legal amount? Would it be treated like speeding 5 mph over the limit? Will local retailers, such as Mary Jane's House of Glass, start selling cannabis? What happens to those transporting marijuana over the border to Oregon or Idaho? How will officials address underage smoking?

4) Elections

The primary and general elections offered plenty of upsets and nail-biters.

Two legislative races in the 17th District came down to hand recounts, delaying those election outcomes for a month. When the dust finally settled, Democrat Monica Stonier had defeated Republican Julie Olson by 140 votes in their House race, and state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, was re-elected by 76 votes over challenger state Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver.

Statewide, all eyes were on the Benton-Probst race, as a Benton win would allow Senate Republicans to effectively control the chamber, along with two fiscally conservative Democrats.

Longtime judge John Wulle, who faced conduct violations while campaigning, was unseated by David Gregerson in August. It was the first time a judge had been unseated in Clark County in 37 years.

Two-term Republican Marc Boldt was unseated in the race for county commissioner by wealthy businessman and Columbia River Crossing critic David Madore, also a Republican.

Seventeen-year state Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, resigned, allowing state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, formerly of the House, to take his place.

Rather than seek re-election, state Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, ran for state auditor -- only to lose in the primary.

5) Condit Dam

After Condit Dam's dramatic breaching in 2011, demolition crews went to work on a more methodical job in 2012 and actually removed the 125-foot-high concrete structure, piece by piece. After months of chipping away, the last pieces of the dam came out of the White Salmon River in September.

Even before that milestone, the river continued a remarkable evolution that has reshaped the landscape around the former Northwestern Lake. Migrating fish were confirmed upstream of the dam site for the first time in nearly a century. A new White Salmon River opened to paddlers all the way down to its confluence with the Columbia River.

Not everyone welcomed the change. Many cabin owners saw their waterfront views turn to mud after the breaching drained Northwestern Lake. Fast-tracked erosion left some structures on shaky ground in 2012.

Condit's demise marked the end of a years-long struggle to remove the dam. Scientists will continue to monitor the White Salmon River and fish activity into 2013 and beyond.

6) Economy

A pattern of slow but steady improvement continued as the county's jobless rate dropped into single digits at 9.7 percent in October, after years of double-digit unemployment.

Employment for the year grew by 2 percent, less than half the growth rate at the county's pre-recession peak. Despite the modest improvement, Clark County unemployment continues to run two percentage points or more above the statewide and Portland metro averages. For October, the most recent month with a corrected reading, 20,440 county residents were unemployed.

Home prices turned upward after a long decline that began in 2008. The county's median home price climbed above $200,000 in the spring and reached $203,500 in November -- up 2.8 percent from a year earlier.

On a down note, the number of homes in foreclosure rose as settlement of legal issues involving the process put more bank-owned homes onto the market. In November, homes in foreclosure had increased 77 percent from November 2011, according to RealtyTrac.

7) Liquor sales

Vodka, tequila, bourbon and lots of other varieties of liquor made their sales debut in local grocery stores on June 1.

That was the first day of Washington's voter-approved privatized liquor sales. Excitement and a bit of price confusion accompanied the new law, the result of Initiative 1183's passage in November 2011.

There was some initial sticker shock because of the different ways the state liquor stores and private retailers marked the goods on their shelves. The rules requiring a 20.5 percent sales tax plus a $3.7708 per-liter tax didn't change with the new law.

The taxes were already part of the shelf price in the old state-run liquor stores, so nothing was added at the checkout stand. Private retailers showed -- and advertised -- a shelf price, then added those taxes at check-out. In some supermarkets, a bottle of liquor with a shelf price of $10.99 could cost about $21 at the checkout stand.

Oregon's state-run liquor store on Hayden Island reported booming sales due to its lower prices, while Costco and other major retailers fought for market shares.

The former state-run liquor stores, purchased by private individuals, struggled to survive.

8) Jail suicides

After four suicides by jail inmates early in 2012, county commissioners approved a $545,000 prevention campaign.

That work includes replacing all 42 shower heads with shorter-nozzled models, and replacing at least 356 protruding fire sprinklers. Installing new sprinklers requires cutting into walls and moving pipes.

In addition to the four inmates who hanged themselves, 19 inmates attempted to take their own lives in 2012.

More than 60 inmates were on suicide watch every day in 2012.

In addition to upgrading facilities, jail officials are looking at program changes; they include an inmate orientation video, an anonymous inmate mental health hotline, and increased training of custody officers.

Suicides in the county jail was not a one-year issue. In 2011, there were three jail suicides and 11 attempts; in the four previous years, there were a total of six suicides and 48 attempts.

9) Coal trains

Clark County got pushed into a worldwide debate pitting demands for fossil-fueled growth against calls to embrace renewable energy.

The forces behind that push were six proposed export terminals -- three in Washington, three in Oregon -- that would process coal hauled primarily by train from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana on its way to energy-hungry Asian markets.

Now the list of proposed coal-export facilities is down to five, including one in Longview. While none are proposed in Clark County, the county would see increased train traffic and other impacts if the facilities are built.

In December, about 650 people turned out for a hearing at Clark College aimed at collecting public comments on the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point near Bellingham, which would handle coal and other commodities.

That terminal, and the other four, aren't likely to be built anytime soon. All of them must go through a battery of local, state and federal regulatory reviews.

The formal comment period on the proposed terminal near Bellingham, for example, will continue in the months ahead. But the completion of a draft environmental impact statement could take another year to prepare, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology.

10) Whooping cough

This year, a whooping cough epidemic swept across the state, infecting more than 4,600 infants, children and adults.

From Jan. 1 to Dec. 20, Clark County Public Health reported 325 cases in the county -- more than three times the number of cases in 2011.

Clark County whooping cough numbers started to increase in February and peaked in May when 70 people were diagnosed with the respiratory illness. The pace slowed by October when only four Clark County people were diagnosed.

The situation was likely much worse.

Health officials estimate only 10 to 12 percent of whooping cough cases are reported. That's largely because adults who get the illness are often not sick enough to seek medical care.

Columbian staff writers Eric Florip, Paris Achen, Patty Hastings, Stevie Mathieu, Gordon Oliver, Cami Joner, Stephanie Rice, Erik Hidle, Aaron Corvin, Marissa Harshman and John Hill contributed to this story.