Corrine Brown began her prison sentence, Alachua County and Gainesville leaders squabbled over seemingly every issue large and small, and six weeks into the new year, the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland changed much about what was to unfold.
It was a busy year in local and statewide Florida news. We’ve tried to keep up with it all to give you a sense each morning of what’s unfolding near you and around Florida.
These were some of the low points and highlights of the year that was.
The Point will return to its normal time and format on Jan. 2, but here’s a (roughly) chronological look at the stories we followed for you in 2018.
- Gainesville city commissioners in January opted against removing former congresswoman Corrine Brown’s name from the RTS facility near South Main Street — even with her impending prison term beginning later that month. (Brown still has a pending appeal date for February 2019.)
- The 2018 Florida legislative session got an early start, and during each day of the 60-day session we tracked all the proposals from our area delegation all the way through to their conclusions in June.
- Amanda Mills shared with us her personal decision to give her children racially ambiguous names: “I want my kids to go further than I did.”
- Relations became awkward for a time between Alachua County and the University of Florida over a disputed $302,000 bill stemming from the October 2017 Richard Spencer event. The county in January sent it down University Avenue, the university accidentally paid it, then the county gave the money back, before UF eventually did agree to pay about 20 percent of that bill.
- One of our most popular Untold Florida stories early in the year was a look into how much arsenic has been found in Gainesville city tap water. The good news is it’s a very small amount, but homeowners with well water need to pay much closer attention.
- What sort of statue or marker will replace the Confederate statue in downtown Gainesville? The question still vexes Alachua County commissioners, more than a year after “Old Joe” moved on.
- The on again/off again progress of the Southwest 62nd Boulevard connector between the Oaks Mall and Butler Plaza areas in Gainesville was part of the rancor between Alachua County and Gainesville elected leaders. It appears that the project — estimated to cost $72 million — is moving forward as the year comes to a close.
- The Florida Department of Transportation has a threshold of five accidents in a one-year period that it requires before allowing the installation of a crosswalk at an intersection. The crossing on Northeast 39th Avenue near Grace Marketplace didn’t meet that requirement, but it is getting a crosswalk after a series of tragic accidents in the past few years.
- A piece of University of Florida history received more attention this year: Famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright once designed a fraternity house for the school. State bureaucracy kept it from ever being built.
- The dark chapter of lynching from Alachua County’s history also had renewed scrutiny in 2018, with a report in January widening the scope of the problem beyond what was previously known. Here’s what else happened to begin the truth and reconciliation process during the past 12 months.
- Intergovernmental squabbling between Alachua County and the City of Gainesville consumed many headlines this year. One of the most fraught was the continued funding and control of the Community Redevelopment Agency — a battle that ended up in Tallahassee after state Rep. Chuck Clemons filed a bill that would have given more control to the county.
- Another city agency in February helped a woman get a new home.
- As candidates lined up for the Gainesville City Commission election, it became clear that voters had a chance to choose the most diverse elected body the city has had. After balloting in March and a runoff in May, two African American women were sworn in for the first time in city history.
- Alachua County chose to join the state and national litigation wave against pharmaceutical companies it says are partially responsible for the opioid epidemic. In Ocala, the police department began an amnesty program to help stem the epidemic.
- Former Gator quarterback Shane Matthews spent three months in federal prison for his role in a health care fraud scheme.
- The Alachua County Clerk of Court launched a new program to make you feel better about serving jury duty.
- The news about Hurricane Irma didn’t end in 2017, with the storm changing flood zones in parts of the region.
- The last private water system in Alachua County was sold off in February.
- Southern Pine Beetle infestation devastated parts of Florida in the mid-1990s, so officials acted quickly when they saw it returning this year in San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park.
- More and more patients begin using medical marijuana every week in Florida, but Micanopy opted against allowing dispensaries in town limits for the year.
- The regulation of Airbnb picked up steam in 2018, with Alachua County at last beginning to collect bed taxes from the company just as the government does from hotels and traditional bed and breakfasts. Gainesville is also beginning to look at regulating the short-term rentals, with an ordinance perhaps coming in the new year.
- Parkland changed much about 2018, from a new state gun law to funding shortages to school safety training and new protocols. In the hours after the shooting, though, it was the close connection many students at the University of Florida had to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that caught our attention.
- A Vietnam veteran who we first interviewed in 2017 as part of a retrospective on the war made news this year when he bought a bus with the sole purpose of helping other veterans. Lewis Alston has made many friends in Ocala.
- One of our favorite rural Florida stories of the year is this one about the people who help to round up cows when they go astray.
- The proposed Coastal Connector angered many in our region who don’t want an offshoot of Interstate 75 interrupting their way of life. The idea was effectively torpedoed in late spring when Marion County commissioners heard enough from the public that they told the state it wouldn’t work in their county.
- A decade and a half after the Kennedy Homes housing project burned in east Gainesville, the Heartwood neighborhood development is now under construction on that site and poised to have an impact on the nearby property tax base.
- There is a veterinarian who treats the pets of people living at Dignity Village, Gainesville’s homeless camp. Patti Gordon is one of several kind-hearted animal doctors in the area, similar to those who work on Tuesday mornings at St. Francis Pet Care.
- Brittany Bowe made Ocala proud in February as a bronze medal-winning speedskater in South Korea.
- Hurricane Irma brought down a tree in Melrose named “Big Irma” (yes, really) but only part of the way. People there tried for two months to save it, until Putnam County put an end to that.
- Alachua County’s housing market had a strong 2017 and 2018, with many cash buyers scooping up homes on the market.
- One of the weirder stories to come out of the 2018 state legislative session was the successful push to increase penalties for bee colony theft. We spoke with beekeepers to find out just how pervasive the problem is and why people steal them.
- An Alachua city commissioner took to sharing his story on Facebook and then with us. Robert “Fightin’ Bubba” Wilford has survived sexual abuse by a Catholic priest, as well as a brutal fight against cancer.
- The neighborhood around Duval Park is going to receive investment from the City of Gainesville next year, but the first question city officials wanted to ask of people living there was what type of investment they wanted to see.
- The Alachua County School Board, reacting to the shooting Parkland, opted against allowing armed guardians in schools but did hire a new districtwide security chief.
- A team of our reporters spent months this year auditing local governments across the state to see how much they’re charging for public records.
- A massive development on Gainesville’s northern city boundary is still pending, with Weyerhaeuser having to come to an agreement with the city on a conservation management plan for the nearly 1,800 acres.
- It took a while for anyone to notice that the parking garage attached to The Standard complex in Gainesville had been built too close to a public sidewalk. To make amends this year, the company paid for murals on the side of the building.
- Conversion therapy for minors is no longer legal in Gainesville city limits after a new ordinance passed in March.
- Some of the dangerous pedestrian overpasses atop Interstate 75 cannot be replaced without additional funding. In the meantime, people keep crossing one of them inside this metal walkway.
- Businesses in downtown Alachua are trying to make the area a destination for foot traffic.
- Attendance at the Gainesville Raceway has continued to grow each year since the end of the recession, and 2018 was no exception.
- The Gator baseball team is getting a new $50 million stadium on the west side of campus.
- A solar farm equivalent in size to 130 football fields generates enough power to serve 15,000 Florida homes, but it also frustrated nearby landowners on the Alachua-Putnam County border.
- UF had a humanitarian viral hit on April Fool’s Day with its no-joke plan to forgive parking ticket fines in exchange for food donations.
- The nationwide debate over immigration and deportation manifested in Gainesville after the police department made a statement in April — that it then had to walk back — about reporting to federal immigration officials people who are here illegally.
- That same department made strides in partnering with mental health professionals on a pilot program to help people in crisis.
- The state’s decision during the spring to limit prison visitation caused a furor among families of those imprisoned.
- This was the year when the impact of the $130 million sales tax for more public parks in Alachua County began to become a reality. One of the most notable was the city and county’s multimillion dollar purchase of hundreds of acres for what will be known as Four Creeks Preserve.
- The April prediction of an above-average Atlantic hurricane season later proved to be just about spot on.
- Micanopy is nothing if not historic, and the town worked this year to restore the Montgomery Wall. It’s more than 150 years old.
- Members of Florida Carry in April helped organize a march in Ocala with rifles and fishing rods as backlash to Florida’s new gun control law continued.
- This was a pivotal year for the future of the Alachua County Fairgrounds. First, there was disagreement between the school board and county commission over its funding as a hurricane shelter. And it seemed for a week or two that the whole project might be moved to the toxic Cabot/Koppers Superfund site. Newberry eventually snagged the future agricultural part of the fairgrounds, with the events center location still to be determined next year.
- Drivers of U.S. Highway 441 longed throughout winter and spring for enough dry weather to get two lanes of the road reopened through Paynes Prairie. In May, the state finally removed the barrels.
- Ocala’s approach to stemming the opioid crisis included the indictment of a suspected heroin dealer for first-degree murder.
- Gainesville police began a three-year contract for body cameras that costs $600,000 but could bring additional transparency to their work.
- His motive will likely never be known, but a man shot and killed two Gilchrist County deputies on an April afternoon as they sat and ate their lunch. Hundreds the following week mourned Taylor Lindsey and Noel Ramirez. The county later had to pay for the shooter’s cremation when no one claimed his body.
- Marion County decided to accelerate its placement of law enforcement in every school after a shooting at Forest High School.
- While not every county in north central Florida has had success in reducing its number of euthanasias, many have. We investigated where it’s working and why.
- The battle to save St. Michael’s Episcopal Church picked up steam in April and continued past Christmas, when a wrecking ball defeated the preservationists’ effort.
- Gainesville police had a tough year for attrition, and dozens of sworn officer slots remain unfilled. A new contract vote in September didn’t earn much favor from those supporting the blue, either.
- One of the strangest crimes of the year occurred at Santa Fe Zoo, where 11 animals were taken in May. Three people have been charged.
- Even stranger may have been this plane’s emergency landing on I-75 in June. No one was hurt.
- One traffic stop drew more attention than any other this year. An Alachua County Sheriff’s Office deputy saw Keyon Young speeding through a school zone on the morning of June 13, pulled him over, and asked him to step out of the car. When he didn’t, a sequence unraveled that brought attention to area law enforcement’s varying instructions when you get pulled over.
- Charles Goston, fresh off his defeat for reelection to Gainesville City Commission, decided to mount a surprise run for state Senate under a no party affiliation label. He didn’t win.
- One of the ways UF wants to connect itself to nearby Gainesville neighbors is through a “Wi-Fi canopy” between campus and downtown.
- Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell requested and received an extra $430,000 from the school board to meet state demands after Parkland.
- The legislature’s response to Parkland did have the effect of cutting millions of dollars in state grants for arts organizations across Florida.
- A budgetary spat between Darnell and county commissioners ended up in court, where Darnell was temporarily victorious. The commissioners have decided to appeal a judge’s ruling that would have given her more control over her own budget.
- The family of Gainesville homicide victim Antonio Mason is still seeking justice, but we visited them ahead of the two-year anniversary of his murder to see how his daughter is doing. She was an infant in his arms when he was shot and killed.
- There are too many structures classified as “dangerous buildings” for City of Gainesville employees to keep up with their demolition.
- Parking — ever a headache on the UF campus — is about to get worse, with additional construction in the next two years temporarily replacing hundreds of spaces.
- Starke city government was something of a hot mess according to a 2014 state audit, and we found a follow-up in July that said there’s still work to be done.
- The number of dog bites in Alachua County rose every year from 2014 to 2017, and we couldn’t find anyone who had a clear explanation why that’s happening.
- Another unfortunate increase — car burglaries — could be controlled if more people would lock their car doors.
- Andrew Gillum and Ron DeSantis surprised the Florida political establishment in the August primary.
- At the local level, Tina Certain beat out an incumbent school board member to put two African American women on the Alachua County School Board. That was also a first in local history.
- A team of our reporters visited Puerto Rico nearly a year after Hurricane Maria devastated the island to document how recovery was proceeding. The resulting project is “Life After Maria.”
- The yearlong uncertainty over Hawthorne Middle/High School’s future came to an end in September with its passing grade from the state.
- Still without end, though, is Gainesville’s continued racial disparity. The city held a Saturday town hall, and dozens of people showed up to talk about solutions.
- The city thought it had a solution to one aspect of that disparity with new zoning laws intended to spur affordable housing. People throughout the fall came to city hall to speak against the city’s plan, and commissioners in 2019 will have to start the process all over again.
- Tom Petty died in 2017, but he wrote a song describing his hometown that was released posthumously this fall.
- We tracked down the man named Sandy who once loaded up his van and who now has a Petty lyric in his honor.
- Both Gainesville and Ocala customers paid more for utilities this year than they did before.
- People in a northeast Gainesville neighborhood didn’t much care that Alachua County has a better floodwater management ranking from FEMA. They just wanted a yard that wasn’t full of water.
- Some two years after a report called for the closure of Dignity Village, that appears to be the tack Gainesville is taking as 2018 ends.
- Gainesville had the hottest September on record by more than one degree Fahrenheit.
- As Hurricane Michael gathered extreme force in the Gulf of Mexico, we headed toward Gulf communities like Cedar Key, Horseshoe Beach, and Steinhatchee to document people helping each other to prepare for the storm.
- Michael largely avoided those areas, but it did devastate parts of the Panhandle with historic winds.
- All Alachua County public schools now have lead filters installed for their drinking water.
- While Florida has made progress in eliminating its sexual assault kit backlog, we heard from a woman whose kit was sadly destroyed decades ago.
- The lack of a functioning radio system was one of the most tragic discoveries of Sept. 11, 2001, and Alachua County officials are now spending millions to upgrade theirs and ensure it covers the entire county.
- If you’re tired of seeing political and business signs left behind on public property in Alachua County, a new ordinance in 2018 allows you to throw them away yourself.
- Marihelen Wheeler brought female representation back to the Alachua County Commission with her election in November.
- The election for three statewide offices did not end on election night. Florida in 2018 returned to recount land.
- One other significant outcome from November is voters supporting the restoration of voting rights to millions of ex-felons, a problem we documented in two projects: “Locked Out” and “Silenced.”
- Insulin has gotten more expensive during the past 15 years, with its cost nearly tripling. There’s a patchwork effort in Gainesville to help diabetes patients get the help they need.
- The mystery to this Untold Florida question remains: Where did Waldo get its name?
- If you’ve always wanted to watch the Lubee Bat Conservancy’s winged creatures hang without having to leave your home, 2018 brought good news for you.
- Gainesville city commissioners will have to hire a new city manager in 2019 after Anthony Lyons decided to resign rather than face a resistant commission.
- The push to ban Styrofoam and plastic bags picked up momentum late this year, and 2019 could be the first year when they’re illegal in Gainesville.