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December 24, 2017

Up in the heavens, the moon eclipsed the sun.

The late summer went up in forest fire smoke.

Willie Taggart flew away to Florida.

Lane County home prices continued their surge through the roof.

Does all that make 2017 an “up” kind of a year?

Here is one editor’s take on the big local stories of 2017:

1. You can’t eclipse an eclipse

The much-hyped August event failed to produce the apocalyptic traffic jams and other mass calamities that were feared. But for observers — especially those in the path of totality — the event won’t soon be forgotten.

The months-long scramble to line up camping spots, the warnings of potential disaster from state traffic experts, the last-minute rush to secure crucial protective eyewear and the eerie experience of the eclipse itself all made it the year’s biggest story.

2. Where there’s smoke

Sparked mostly by lightning, a string of forest fires west of the Cascades summit grew and grew and grew, totaling a little more than 500,000 acres by the time the fall’s rain and snow put them out. The acreage burned may be a record for the region in recent decades. The air pollution was the worst the area has endured in many years. From early August to late September, winds pushed the smoke into Eugene-Springfield and other Lane County communities, choking residents with exceptionally severe particulate pollution. Residents donned protective masks and stayed indoors to escape the foul air. Many of the fires were so vast and remote that firefighters could only wait for the arrival of the rainy season.

3. Revolving door

After just one season as head coach of the University of Oregon football team, Willie Taggart flew the coop and accepted the top football coaching spot at Florida State University. Some fans lambasted Taggart for dropping the UO so quickly. Others said he was justified in pursuing his career dreams. Regardless, within two days, the UO named a replacement: Mario Cristobal, whom the UO had appointed interim football coach in the wake of Taggart’s departure. Cristobal had been brought to the UO as co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach by Taggart.

4. Gimme shelter

The Lane County economy continued to boom, with record low unemployment, a record high jobs count and record high home prices. It was all good news — unless you were trying to buy a home, only to be outbid by lightning-fast competitors. The average sale price for single-family homes surged throughout the year, setting an all-time record in August of $313,500. The average price has increased about 50 percent since 2011-12, when it was around $200,000. So far this year, average single-family-home sale prices are up about 10 percent.

The Lane County jobless rate, meanwhile, held well below 5 percent for the entire year, including a dip to a record low of 3.8 percent in May, as the strong economy created more jobs. In October, the county had 163,600 jobs, the highest ever, and up 2.8 percent from 12 months earlier. By contrast, the county had on average about 143,000 jobs in 2011-12.

5. Opaque glass company

In late September, an obscure, newly formed company called Damon Enterprises paid $12.75 million for the massive, long-vacant Hynix plant in west Eugene. Damon issued no statement and public officials kept mum. But using public records, Register-Guard reporter Sherri Buri-McDonald figured Damon might be affiliated with Corning Inc., the New York maker of high-tech glass and other glass products. She called Corning, which in tight-lipped fashion acknowledged Damon was a Corning entity but would say nothing more.

Whether the purchase amounts to significant news depends on what, if anything, Corning does with the plant. If Corning implements big plans, that could send a major economic ripple through Eugene-Springfield. The opening of the Hynix computer chip plant and its 1,000-plus employees in 1998 accelerated a local economic boom that came to a close only as Hynix — and many other local factories — shut down 10 years later.

6. Taxing times

State legislators couldn’t agree on how to curb ever-escalating Oregon public-employee retirement and other costs, which have hammered local and state agencies. Nor could they agree on how to raise taxes to cover those costs. But they did pass a slew of tax and fee increases that will begin in 2018 and are aimed at paying for transportation infrastructure. The hikes include: a 10-cent increase in the state gas tax over the next seven years, starting with a 4-cent increase in 2018, followed by 2-cent increases every two years until 2024; a $13 increase in vehicle title and registration fees in 2018, with more increases in 2020 and 2022; a new statewide payroll tax of 0.1 percent paid by all employees to fund transit districts around the state; a new tax of 0.5 percent on the sale of new cars, motorhomes, motorbikes and snowmobiles; and a $15 tax on the sale of adult bikes more than $200.

Lawmakers also approved some new taxes on hospitals and certain health insurance plans to help pay for the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s Medicaid program. Those costs are expected to be passed on to consumers through higher medical bills and insurance premiums. However, opponents succeeded in referring some of health care taxes to voters for approval in a January special election.

7. Buildings blocked

Try as they might, Lane County and city of Eugene officials were unable to make headway on their two pet multi-million-dollar projects: building a new City Hall and a new county courthouse. They spent the year trying to orchestrate a swap — the county would trade its so-called butterfly lot in downtown for the vacant city-owned former City Hall site. But by year’s end, they failed to get the legal ruling they wanted from a judge declaring that construction of the courthouse on the old City Hall site and a new City Hall on the butterfly lot didn’t violate restrictions written into old deeds. The two governments were left scratching their heads about how to proceed even as a new year loomed.

8. Construction delayed

The planned $1 billion Knight science center at the University of Oregon made big strides this year, but the UO missed its self-imposed deadline of starting construction this fall on the Franklin Boulevard facility. Instead, the UO bumped construction to early 2018. But this year the UO refined plans for the huge project, secured the real estate it needs along Franklin and got the Eugene City Council to agree to sell to the UO a large parking lot set back from Franklin. The UO needs that lot for the project, the city said.

9. Just say no

In a widely watched and talked-about election, Creswell voters in November lopsidedly booted out an effort to allow marijuana sales in the city limits. One Gro, a Creswell-based regional pot growing and retail company founded by local attorney Mike Arnold, had pushed the pot-sales measure. But Creswell residents balked at the move to overturn the city’s earlier rejection of pot sales. They snuffed out One Gro’s effort by a nearly 6-to-1 ratio.

10. No future in plastics

After decades of being told to increase their recycling, many Lane County residents were being instructed this fall to head in the opposite direction and put some recyclables in the trash bin instead. China is accepting fewer recyclables, especially plastics, so local haulers are scaling back what they collect in recycling bins. Depending on where you live and who your hauler is, items that must now go in the trash — instead of recycling bins — include most plastic containers (excluding milk jugs), plastic bags and aseptic cartons such as milk or juice cartons.