Toris Jaeger, Bill Ayers and Joe Loudon. Budget cuts, downtown plans and parcel taxes.

Each year the Lamorinda Sun takes a look back at the people and events that defined the year in Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda. Though today marks the beginning of 2010, here's our top 10 of what made news in 2009:

1. Downtown plans move forward

Debates over downtowns take our top spot this year, as discussions that occurred in 2009 could affect the makeup and character of Lamorinda for decades to come.

In all three cities, plans to rezone, remake and reshape downtown areas worked their way through commissions, committees and city councils. All three plans could bring higher densities and greater housing diversity, such as condos and apartments, to Lamorinda.

In Lafayette, height limits dominated the debate. Several residents were worried taller buildings would create a "canyon effect" downtown, while business leaders countered taller allowed heights are essential to attracting new retail. The city is studying the economic impacts of various height restrictions.

Moraga's downtown plan, seven years in the making, is set to be approved this month. It would center new retail, single-family residences and high-density housing around a new "main street" that would be created by extending School Street to Moraga Road.

And in Orinda, council members are working their way through a number or zoning and code changes that could allow greater housing diversity in the downtown area. They'll continue those discussions, along with others that affect residential areas, in January.

2. Orinda copes with teen's death

Joe Loudon's death rocked the Orinda community. Then came the aftershocks.

The 16-year-old died May 23 after collapsing at a party on Hillcrest Drive where teens were drinking.

As family, friends and the community as a whole mourned the loss of the boy nicknamed "J-Lo," a popular athlete at Miramonte High School, a big question remained: What caused him to collapse?

The coroner's report provided an answer, at least initially, and a surprise. A combination of alcohol — Loudon's blood-alcohol content was relatively low — and papaverine, a seldom-used prescription medication, caused him to vomit and choke.

Speculation that Loudon used the drug recreationally added to his family's grief. Loudon's mother, Marianne Payne, lashed out at what she called an "out of focus" investigation.

Police searched in vain for the source of the drug and ultimately determined Loudon's death to be "accidental." The two adult hosts of the party and a 16-year-old were arrested and have been charged with providing alcohol to minors.

Then in September, the stunner: Loudon didn't get papaverine at the party. He got it after he died.

The Northern California Transplant Bank said they gave the drug to Loudon as part of the tissue transplantation process, before blood was drawn for toxicology tests.

The coroner now says although Loudon most likely vomited and choked to death, there is no way to know for sure. The cause of death has been changed to "undetermined."

3. Cash-strapped cities look for new money

The recession meant another tough budget year for Lamorinda cities.

Sales and property tax revenues continued to plummet, and state legislators hoping to close California's budget deficit began eyeing cities' gas tax, property tax and redevelopment agency dollars.

Lafayette ate into its large general fund reserve to balance its budget. Orinda and Moraga were able to avoid red ink, but not without major cuts.

As city officials began to look for sources of stable, locally-controlled funds to pay for road repair, police and other city services, "revenue enhancement" became a popular phrase.

That could mean new taxes for Lamorinda residents, if they're willing to vote for them.

Among the options are a utility users tax, a hotel occupancy tax and an increase in the property transfer tax. Some of them could be on the ballot this year.

With another state budget deficit looming and the economy showing few signs of a quick recovery, 2010 could be another difficult budget year for Lamorinda officials.

4. Parcel taxes ease some, but not all, of schools' pain

School districts also were hammered hard by the recession. As property taxes, a major funding source for schools, declined and the state budget crisis lingered, districts were forced to cut teachers and staff, eliminate programs and increase class sizes.

But the news wasn't all bad as voters overwhelmingly approved parcel taxes in the Orinda and Acalanes school districts.

An increase in the Orinda Union School District's annual parcel tax from $385 to $509 received more than 70 percent of the vote in March. Officials said without the parcel tax the district would have faced a $1 million deficit.

In the Acalanes Union High School District, about 75 percent of voters approved extending the district's annual $189 parcel tax indefinitely. The parcel tax represents nearly $7 million, officials said, or the equivalent of staffing one high school.

But the taxes have only slowed, rather than stopped, the bleeding. As legislators in Sacramento gear up for another year of tough budget negotiations, school officials are bracing for additional cuts.

5. New Lafayette library opens

Shortly before it opened, Lafayette City Manager Steven Falk called the Lafayette Library and Learning Center, "far and away, the largest, most expensive, most spectacular, most important public improvement not only in the 40-year incorporated history of Lafayette but in the 160-year period since the first Yankee settlers arrived in Lafayette."

When the $42.5 million building debuted in November, it appeared to live up to the hype.

Visitors packed the sprawling facility for the grand opening and in the days that followed — so much so that staff and volunteers were overwhelmed by the number of kids and teenagers stopping by after school.

In addition to books, the library also features the Glenn Seaborg Learning Consortium, a collection of a dozen Bay Area arts, cultural and educational organizations who will provide programming at the new facility.

Lafayette officials hope the library, at the corner of Mt. Diablo Boulevard and First Street, will become the cultural and educational focal point of the downtown as it continues to develop.

6. Scrutiny over fire chief's pension

Pete Nowicki made about $185,000 in base salary during his final year as the Moraga-Orinda Fire District chief. He retired in January with an annual pension of about $241,000.

That difference drew fire from some residents, and eventually landed the district in the pages of The Wall Street Journal.

Nowicki cashed in unused vacation and other accruals to raise his final year's salary, which is used to calculate pension. The practice is referred to as "pension spiking" by some, but it is allowed by the county retirement association and state law.

Pension reform advocates nonetheless took aim at Nowicki and the district's board of directors, who spent much of the year responding to criticism. Fire district officials say they agreed changes to the pension system are needed, but that their ability to enact those changes themselves is limited.

Nowicki was immediately rehired on a $14,000-a-month contract and stayed on until the district appointed a new chief, Randy Bradley, in November. Bradley's contract included some provisions limiting the extent to which he can cash in accruals.

7. Gateway development stalled, then back on track

It was a roller coaster year for the Wilder project, a 245-lot luxury housing development planned for the Gateway Valley just east of the Caldecott Tunnel.

In March its developer, OG Property Corp., defaulted on its $180 million mortgage. Then in May, lender Merrill Lynch sued OG Property, seeking to foreclose on the development.

Construction, halted for the rainy season, never picked up again. The property went into receivership. Still, the developer and city officials remained optimistic the project would continue.

Their optimism was rewarded in July when San Francisco-based investor Farrallon Capital Management agreed to pay off the debt and finance the project.

A spokesman for the developer said Thursday that construction on the swim club, playfields and the first roads will begin this year, as well as construction of the first houses.

8. William Ayers speaks at Saint Mary's

For one night, the tiny Saint Mary's College campus resembled its larger cousin on the other side of the Caldecott in Berkeley.

Hundreds came to the Moraga school Jan. 28 to protest a speech by William Ayers, the former leader of the radical Weather Underground who is now a university professor in Chicago.

Ayers was invited as part of the college's "Against the Grain" lecture series.

Outside the college's Soda Activity Center, protesters heard speeches from an FBI informant who infiltrated the Weather Underground and a police officer who was at the scene of a bombing he said was orchestrated by Ayers' wife, Bernardine Dohrn.

Shouts of "shame on you" from those who traveled to Moraga to protest Ayers' speech mixed with chants of "S-M-C" from Ayers' supporters and some students.

Inside, Ayers' speech drew a mixture of jeers and applause. He steered clear of radical language, calling for education reform and objecting to the suggestion that he would warp students' minds.

9. Residents attempt to save Orinda naturalist

When the part-time naturalist position in the Orinda school district appeared on a list of jobs to cut, some in the community cried foul.

The job belonged to Toris Jaeger, who staffed the Wagner Ranch Nature Area at Wagner Ranch Elementary School. District officials said budget cuts left them with no choice but to eliminate Jaeger's position, along with others.

A number of parents protested, arguing Jaeger and the nature area provided students a unique and essential outdoor education experience.

Parents said they could provide the money to keep the area staffed. But district officials said they could not use a one-time donation to fund an ongoing position.

Because Jaeger had tenure, she was offered a full-time classroom teaching position, but chose to retire for personal reasons. She said Thursday the district has granted the Friends of the Wagner Ranch Nature Area access to the site, and the group pays for Jaeger and others to staff the area and work with teachers.

10. Moraga hires new town manager

After a months-long search and dozens of applications, the Town Council in February appointed a new town manager, Mike Segrest.

Segrest had most recently been the town manager of tiny Snowmass Village, Colo., a ski resort town of about 1,600.

Council members said Segrest's prior experience as a town manager was a major factor in why they chose him.

Segrest replaced former Town Manager Phil Vince, who had stepped down in June 2008 to become Martinez's city manager.

What do you think were the year's top stories? Share your thoughts at the Lamorinda Sun blog at www.ibabuzz.com/lamorindasun.