Posted on Tue, Nov. 28, 2006

Residents, officials look for ways to improve life beyond city limits OR HOW THE BOARD OF STUPES WILL MEDDLE IN YOUR LIFE IF YOU LIVE IN AN UNINCORPORATED AREA OF CONTRA COSTA COUNTY!!


By Danielle Samaniego

Jennifer Grey believes her neighborhood speaks for itself.

"We're unincorporated here, and you can tell where we start because it's where the sidewalk ends," said Grey, who has lived in the Mountain View neighborhood for nine years.

The enclave is surrounded by Martinez, but it clearly is unincorporated. City sidewalks give way to gravel, and roads begin to crumble past the city limit sign.

Mountain View is one of several unincorporated pockets throughout Contra Costa County, inches away from city limits, but it might as well be miles away. The county's unincorporated areas -- with a population of 162,000 in 505 square miles -- rely on the county to play the role of a city, which does not always work out, according to some residents.

"Our children play on crumbling roadways and dodge the cars trying to ride their bikes or play basketball using the streets," Mountain View resident Cheryll Grover said. "We have no parks and extremely poor air quality and high levels of noise, living on extremely busy streets and under the towers of the refinery."

But some neighbors like their homes away from the prying eyes of county officials who might take issue with parked boats and other items filling their front yards and driveways.

"With other neighborhoods you go to in Walnut Creek, everything is so manicured, with sidewalks and everything, and here you don't have that and people like that," said Sharon Muhlenkort, who lives in the Walnut Knolls unincorporated neighborhood outside of Walnut Creek. "It's a real rural feeling ... there's still horses within a stone's throw around here."

Getting some of the most basic issues taken care of through county municipal services is also a problem, though one county official is trying to address it. Outgoing Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier pushed for local legislation to better coordinate such services to provide easy access for county residents.

"I don't think we've done a good job of proving that we could do as good of a job providing municipal services as cities," said DeSaulnier, who was recently elected to the state Assembly. "It's not that they don't want to do a good job, but it's hard to get through. ... The bigger the bureaucracy gets, the easier it is to get lost in."

County staff members are scheduled to present a report to the internal operations committee Dec. 18.

Other counties have already made strides. In Sacramento County, neighborhood service centers were established in unincorporated areas so county residents could apply for building permits, pay property taxes and get information about traffic engineering without having to drive to downtown offices, according to DeSaulnier's staff report.

In Los Angeles County, an unincorporated area strategic plan was developed to address similar issues.

Some Contra Costa neighborhoods accept the inconveniences, embracing their communities, much like Walnut Knolls has.

The neighborhood of about 600 people near Murwood Elementary School in Walnut Creek treats its community like a small town through picnics, parades and barbecues while taking advantage of nearby city amenities.

Residents of Sandmound Slough near Oakley launched a successful campaign against annexation of their neighborhood and neighboring Dutch Slough into the city. In their plight, residents said they valued their independence and settled in the remote Delta area for the rural atmosphere and autonomy from local government.

Then there are those like Grover, a longtime Mountain View resident, who argues that her neighborhood lacks sufficient municipal services and police and fire assistance.

The backdrop of the nearby Shell Oil Refinery outside Martinez city limits provides a backdrop to the neighborhood. Older homes commingle with newer properties. Nice landscapes clash with gated front yards full of everything and anything the neighbors care to keep out.

Residents of Montalvin Manor, an unincorporated neighborhood outside of Richmond, grapple with pedestrian issues. Supervisor John Gioia has asked county staff members to look into providing a possible safe pedestrian route across some railroad tracks after 11-year-old Ruben Anthony Torres Ramirez died Oct. 26 after he was hit by an Amtrak Capitol Corridor train.

The MonTaraBay community center and ball fields, which Montalvin Manor shares with two other unincorporated communities, is sandwiched between two busy railroad rights of way, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and the Union Pacific.

When it comes to police services, the number of sheriff's deputies on hand are not really different from what cities offer. The Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department has 212 deputies assigned to county patrol, serving 505 square miles, according to sheriff's spokesman Jimmy Lee. The department has roughly one deputy per 1,000 residents. In comparison, Martinez has one police officer for every 1,000 residents within a 12.5 mile radius.

Still, Contra Costa County Sheriff Warren Rupf has acknowledged the challenges facing his department.

"You cannot expect a municipal level of police services in an unincorporated area," he said. "Still, in spite of the limited resources and personnel, our staff are making a heroic effort."

Staff writers Theresa Harrington, Paula King and Tom Lochner contributed to this story. Reach Danielle Samaniego at 925-943-8011 or