May 28, 2024
“They look like urban areas, they're receiving urban services,” Jones said of the unincorporated communities. "If they're acting like a city, they should become a city.”

Alameda County is one of the densest, most urban regions in the country, but recent research has indicated that county services are failing many people living in unincorporated areas. As residents seek solutions, a new report has rekindled a longstanding debate over reorganizing local government in the East Bay.

The issue at its core? Whether or not to create new cities.

The report puts hard numbers on the financial feasibility of creating new municipalities, long a controversial topic. Although there have been discussions about turning the urban unincorporated areas of Alameda County into cities for decades, the report by the Alameda County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) provides some framework behind how it could be achieved.

Rachel Jones, the commission’s executive officer, said the feasibility study was produced after inquiries from residents in the unincorporated communities about what incorporation would look like. Although the agency produced the report solely for informational purposes and won’t push the conversation one way or the other, Jones said it makes sense to incorporate such communities.

“They look like urban areas. They’re receiving urban services,” Jones said. “If they’re acting like a city, they should become a city.”

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Still, according to the agency’s own report, incorporation might not be financially feasible.

The report identifies three scenarios: one in which Castro Valley incorporates on its own; one in which Castro Valley, Fairview, and Eden incorporate together; and one in which Fairview and Eden incorporate.

In all three scenarios, the report estimates the potential new cities would end up millions of dollars in the red and accrue large annual deficits each year. Those expected shortfalls can primarily be traced back to a law change under Gov. Jerry Brown that diverted vehicle license fees away from cities. Since that law, there have been few successful examples of incorporation in California.

So the plan might be dead in the water before even considering popular support. A 2002 vote to incorporate Castro Valley failed by a margin of 72% to 28%.

But according to Peter Rosen, a member of Castro Valley City, a local group of residents who continue pushing for cityhood, that previous hard stance against incorporation may be shifting. Over the past 20 years, a growing number of affluent tech-hub residents who have moved to the area demand a higher level of services that only incorporation can provide, Rosen said.

Many of the benefits of incorporation boil down to local control, and coming out of a pandemic, those benefits are increasingly clear. If Castro Valley was a city, Rosen said, it would have had the ability to apply for relief funds and make determinations about vaccinations and testing. Beyond the pandemic, becoming a city would allow residents to decide where to build new housing to meet the state’s updated housing requirements, rather than those plans being dictated to them by the county. It would allow them to support local businesses, build sidewalks and provide more localized services.

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“I tend to think the local people have a better idea of where our resources should be spent versus people who don’t live here or are responsible to people who live in Oakland,” Rosen said.

Even if incorporation doesn’t ultimately pencil out financially, Rosen and others in the unincorporated areas said the report raised serious questions about the services provided by the county.

“My question is: Are we getting our fair share from the county right now?” committee member Moira Dean asked at an Aug. 8 meeting of the Eden Area Municipal Advisory Committee, where the incorporation report was presented. “It looks like there is all this money generated from unincorporated areas, but I don’t think we’re getting it back.”

In July, a report on housing conditions in the Eden Area — broadly defined in the report as the communities of Ashland, Cherryland, Hayward Acres, and Castro Valley — painted a damning picture of the injustices renters in Alameda County’s urban unincorporated area face on a daily basis. Rosen said three of the five roads into Castro Valley flooded during the winter storms, in part due to poor maintenance of the creeks. County code enforcement no longer works on weekends.

Dean’s question, ultimately, may be the legacy of this report — not incorporation, but perhaps an audit.

“Even if incorporation isn’t the answer, it’s a valid exercise to look at what we are getting back from the county,” Rosen said.