The City of Bakersfield has proposed a 112-square-mile expansion of its sphere of influence, the first step toward a major expansion of the southern San Joaquin Valley city of nearly 300,000 people.

City officials say that the proposed sphere expansion, which would cover nearly as much land as the current city, is simply a logical step in Bakersfield’s inevitable growth within a large metropolitan planning area. Kern County officials, thus far, are not opposing the move. In fact, there appears to be little in the way of major opposition locally. Still, the shear size of the proposal — 71,576 acres — has generated outside interest.

“I think it’s one of the largest sphere of influence applications a LAFCO [Local Agency Formation Commission] has ever seen,” said William Chiat, executive director of the California Association of LAFCOs, or CALAFCO.

Actually, although the City Council approved the sphere application on October 12, the Kern County LAFCO had not yet received the application as of late October, and Executive Officer William Turpin was reluctant to discuss Bakersfield’s proposal.

Both the Department of Conservation and the state Attorney General’s office appear to be paying attention to the city’s proposal, which could ultimately urbanize tens of thousands of acres of farmland. If the sphere were approved and the city later annexed the area, Bakersfield, a city with some of the worst air pollution in the country and minimal public transit, would stretch over nearly 30 miles, from Interstate 5, across Highway 99, to the mouth of the Kern River canyon.

City officials offer no apologies for their proposal. The area the city is eying lies entirely within the 408-square-mile region covered by the Metropolitan Bakersfield General Plan, a joint city-county plan for development of Kern County’s largest urban area.

“This is step one of a good, long-term plan,” Bakersfield City Councilman David Couch said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me for our sphere not to be as big as the metropolitan planning area. If our sphere is not the same as that, we run into development in the county that is not at the same standards as in the city.”

Bakersfield Development Services Director Stanley Grady said that — based on projected growth rates and a population density of 2,500 people per square mile — the proposed sphere area would accommodate 280,000 people, or about 20 years worth of growth. A 20-year planning horizon is not uncommon, he said.

The proposed sphere area’s buildout “is well within the range of what you should be planning for,” Grady said. “You don’t want to wait until you’re 5 or 10 years out to start planning for the infrastructure you’re going to need.”

In fact, the city’s proposal is not out of character with the metro general plan. In a report to the Board of Supervisors, Kern County Planning Director Ted James wrote, “After reviewing Bakersfield’s SOI [sphere of influence] proposal and conferring with Bakersfield officials, the County Administrative Office and Planning Department jointly conclude the proposed City of Bakersfield planned expansion area is consistent with the intent of the Metropolitan Bakersfield General Plan.”

By almost any measure, Bakersfield is one of the state’s fastest growing cities. According to the Department of Finance, the Kern County seat added 13,222 people in 2004 — more than any other city of fewer than 300,000. The city’s population has increased by 70% since 1990. In recent years, the city has permitted 4,000 to 5,000 housing units a year, and billboards from the nation’s largest builders rise all over town. Tens of thousands of units are planned.

Exactly what is driving the boom is a bit unknown. Real estate experts say as many as one-third of new houses are being purchased by speculators. With a median price of less $300,000, Bakersfield remains one of the least expensive markets in the state. There also is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the inexpensive real estate is drawing Southern California retirees who are cashing out of pricey urban areas, and commuters to Los Angeles. The tens of thousands of jobs in Santa Clarita are only an hour’s drive away — when conditions are clear — from the south end of Bakersfield.

Chiat, of CALAFCO, said he would expect the environmental and agricultural communities to object to any sphere of influence proposal as large of Bakersfield’s. However, there is little political opposition to urban growth in Bakersfield.
“There is not a lot of public involvement here,” said Lorraine Unger, who, with her husband, Arthur, heads the Kern-Kaweah Chapter of the Sierra Club. Lorraine Unger said she monitored local government public hearings for years, and “I used to be the only member of the public at the meetings.”

Arthur Unger said that Bakersfield’s growing population is self-selected to be apathetic.

“Who comes here from Los Angeles? The person who says they want the most house per dollar, the easy traffic and he’ll take his chances with the smog,” Arthur Unger said.

Grass-roots efforts to push “smart growth” in Bakersfield appear to have waned in recent years. Rather than try to block growth, the local Sierra Club cuts deals with developers. In exchange for a developer’s paying $1,200 per house to fund air pollution mitigation, the Sierra Club agrees not to sue over a project’s environmental review, explained Gordon Nipp, a local activist. The money goes to a private foundation that will fund things such as cleaner school buses. The idea is prevent housing development from making air quality worse, explained Nipp. Although some have complained of “environmental extortion,” developers of 16 projects have agreed to pay the $1,200-per-house fee to stay out of court.

Farmers also appear to be presenting little resistance to the sphere proposal. James said the owners of thousands of acres of land that have been covered by the Williamson Act — which provides tax breaks to farmland owners who agree not to develop their property — have canceled their contracts in recent years. Farmland that sold for $4,000 an acre in recent memory is now fetching $120,000 or more per acre, James pointed out.

Tellingly, one of the recent Williamson Act cancellations was filed by James Borba, who owns about 2,400 acres off Interstate 5 and within the proposed sphere expansion. Borba fought very hard to open a 14,000-cow dairy on the property only a few years ago. The Bakersfield California reported in September that Borba is working on a deal with developer D.R. Horton.

In many places, the county would oppose a large sphere of influence expansion into unincorporated territory — but not in Kern County, where the Board of Supervisors is keeping the county out of the urban development business. The county is starting to use the issue of sewage more aggressively to limit growth in unincorporated areas. There is little sewer service outside the Bakersfield city limits, and the county is in the process of increasing the minimum parcel size that can have a septic system from 1 acre to 3 acres.

“We are not in the business of providing sewer,” James said. “We send landowners to the city.”

Indeed, the city has more than 50 annexation applications at LAFCO, and the county has more than 20 general plan amendment applications, mostly northwest of the city limits.

James recommends a comprehensive look — and one large environmental impact report — for all of the activity, including the various applications and the sphere of influence proposal. He also would add an update to the metropolitan general plan, even thought it was last revised only three years ago.

“We’re looking at urbanizing a big area, but it’s happening piecemeal right now,” James said. “We’re missing something if we don’t update all of this at one time.

“Quarter-acre lots are the king around here,” James continued. “Shouldn’t we be talking about density? How can we get more efficient land uses?”

Turpin, the local LAFCO officer, noted there is 70,000 acres of undeveloped land within Bakersfield’s current 207-square-mile sphere of influence.

But Grady, the city’s chief planner, has little patience for such discussions. The city’s newer areas have densities of 400 more people per square mile than the city’s former average, he noted, and the city has approved residential lot sizes as small as 4,500 square feet. The community has chosen to develop at low to moderate densities, and comparisons with more crowded coastal areas are unfair, he contended.

“There’s not a lot of infill left to do in Bakersfield,” asserted Councilman Couch. “We have some redevelopment projects downtown. And we have some county islands, but they are built out.”

Loss of farmland is not a factor, added Grady, who contended there is more productive farmland now than 10 years ago. “We figure if there’s a statewide problem, then the state should be addressing it,” he said.

The loss of farmland would appear to be a good subject for an environmental impact report on the sphere expansion. However, the city, saying the sphere change is merely paperwork, is proposing to use a negative declaration. Further environmental review would be conducted when there is a proposal for annexation, Grady said.

Whether LAFCO will accept that argument is unknown, and Turpin declined to speculate. But CALAFCO’s Chiat said, “I can’t imagine that Kern LAFCO would adopt a sphere like that without a pretty substantial environmental review.”

Coincidentally or not, Gov. Schwarzenegger in October signed a bill (SB 967, Florez) that guarantees Bakersfield has a representative on LAFCO.

Stanley Grady, Bakersfield Development Services Department, (661) 326-3733.
David Couch, Bakersfield City Council, (661) 326-3767.
Ted James, Kern County Planning Department, (661) 862-8600.
William Turpin, Kern County Local Agency Formation Commission, (661) 716-1076.
Arthur and Lorraine Unger, Kern-Kaweah Chapter, Sierra Club, (661) 323-5569.
William Chiat, California Association of Local Agency Formation Commissions, (916) 442-6536.