What would a year be without a few surprises? 2007's "news of the incredible" -- from a Thunderbird that found its way home after three decades to toilets that acted more like geysers -- provoked amusement, outrage and sighs of relief. Here are Palo Alto Online's top 7 things we can't believe happened.
Redwood trees downed by doctor's note
Palo Alto's namesake redwood trees came under attack in 2007, when some very determined residents spotted a loophole in the city's protected-tree ordinance.
The ordinance tries to make it tricky to cut down a healthy tree, but what if that tree's very health is causing human suffering? Surely a person's comfort and desire to breathe trump the tree's right to spread its pollen, or so argued Lauren and Flavio Bonomi, and Mark Grossman and Lauren Janov.
By submitting notes from a doctor, the Bonomis took down two redwoods and Grossman and Janov removed four. The city has no expertise to verify the veracity of a doctor's note, planning officials said, as they allowed the removals.
But in November, the tree tale took a twist when Planning and Community Environment Director Steve Emslie denied Janov and Grossman's second request to remove two trees.
Without ruling on the central question, Emslie said one of the two trees was partially owned by the city, and if it remained, the other might as well.
The loophole inflamed tensions between private property owners and those advocating community standards. The debate is expected to continue into 2008.
Web site -- whoops!
It might be understandable if a place like Enid, Okla., had a less-than-engaging Web site, but Palo Alto? When city officials in the birthplace of the Silicon Valley introduced a new site in August, local denizens expected it to be at least as good as the old one.
Not so, critics said. The $240,000 site was slammed for small type, a faulty search engine, near-nauseating images and cheesy text ("Distinctive in every way, Palo Alto offers its business community a diverse and exciting environment in which to work and live.").
City staff members defended the site, which apparently works great for them, but by year's end they relented and purchased a $30,000 Google search bar. The city plans to continue refining the photos, font size and other portions of the site, Chief Information Officer Glenn Loo has said.
On the bright side, the city this year did manage to replace its aging "Teleminder" system, which notifies residents by phone of emergency situations. While the old method worked at a snail's pace, the new dialer is capable of swiftly contacting cell phones and e-mail accounts. And, it actually works.
Fun, fun, fun ... 'til someone took that T-bird away
Imagine former Palo Alto police officer Ronald Leung's surprise when the very same 1956 Ford Thunderbird that was stolen in 1976 showed up in Southern California -- more than 30 years later and in better shape than ever.
The latest owners had found it on eBay; the sellers had restored it in Ohio (and hadn't a clue that it was stolen since it had been legally registered in two states before they bought it). The hard-to-find vehicle identification number (VIN) -- and its record of being stolen -- was revealed when the new owners went to register the car.
The SoCal buyers got their money back, and there was even good news for the restorers: Insurance finally reimbursed them, but not without a fight, according to a Town Square posting by tbird56. And Leung has his pride and joy back.
Security -- or judgment -- lapses?
Not once but twice this year, Stanford University security was breached when faux students simply showed up and went to class, lived in a dorm and made coffee for the physics department.
Azia Kim, 18, faked her way as an undergraduate for eight months, slipping in and out of her dorm through a window -- lost her key? -- eating in the dorm, buying textbooks and studying for exams she never took. She claimed a mix-up in the housing office left her without a roommate.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Okazaki posed as a physics department grad student for four years, attending graduate seminars and sometimes living at the Varian Physics Lab. She started as a temporary employee -- and just stayed on.
Ultimately, students noted she couldn't keep up with the high-level physics conversations.
While Okazaki's behavior was deemed annoying, Kim's was defended on Town Square when a local parent said, "This girl does not deserve to be punished, rather to be helped. She could easily be the product of Palo Alto. She could easily be one of the many very good students in either Gunn or Paly who feel that they have failed in life by not getting into a top 10 university. Let this be a lesson to all parents in Palo Alto."
Exploding toilets create messy political upheaval
A 9-year-old girl just out of a shower Aug. 31 ran screaming from the bathroom when the toilet in her grandparents' Chimalus Drive home exploded in a geyser of sewage.
The girl's grandfather did some exploding himself, being longtime critic of city operations Richard Placone. He wrote city officials recounting in messy detail the incident and the city's equally messy bureaucratic response.
He prefaced his complaint with a reference to his granddaughter's favorite literature: "If you have read the Harry Potter books you will be familiar with the wizard mischief of placing a jinx on a Muggle (a non-magical creature) toilet so that it flushes in reverse, i.e. becomes a regurgitating toilet."
The cause of the geysers was no curse but pressure-flushing of city sewer lines by city crews. Apologies flowed from City Manager Frank Benest and Utilities Director Valerie Fong, who instituted changes in sewer-line maintenance.
But the story continued with numerous other complaints of exploding toilets on the Town Square online forum and letters to the editor.
One woman was "thrilled" to read the story. She said she thought her family "was alone in the most horrifying thing a household could experience."
Eruv slips in -- under the wire
After eight years of controversy, the eruv -- a thin wire suspended from poles around the perimeter of Palo Alto -- quietly went up in September, allowing Orthodox Jews to consider the outside community as an extension of the home. Young parents now can carry children who cannot yet walk or to use a stroller on the Sabbath, which had been previously forbidden. The eruv, which cost an estimated $150,000, became the subject of a bitter divide in the city when first proposed. Some residents argued it violated separation of church and state; others said its erection is a matter of freedom of worship. Some in the community thought it was dead, but proponents persevered. Its approval in 2007 became no more than a bureaucratic ho-hum.
Romic shuts down
After more than a decade of state-law violations and community protests, Romic Environmental Technologies' East Palo Alto headquarters finally was closed down in late September by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. Romic, in East Palo Alto since 1963, had already announced in August that its hazardous-waste facilities had been purchased by Clean Harbors, Inc. of Massachusetts, but the East Palo Alto facility was not part of the sale. Palo Alto was downwind of the Romic during the summer months. A cleanup of the 14-acre site, which processed much of Silicon Valley's waste, is under way and is expected to take as long as seven years.