City of Dreams

A quarter century after its annexation was first proposed, Roseland remains a county island smack amid a city. What's the holdup?

Laura Martin awoke from the loud crash at 3am. At first, she thought it was an explosion. She ran from the bedroom and saw that a drunk driver had barreled through her front fence, through her yard and smashed into her car, slamming it against the side of the house. She called 911.

Martin gave her address, McMinn Avenue, and was asked by dispatch if she lived in the city or the county. County, she said, and was transferred to the Sonoma County Sheriff. Was the car on the sidewalk? they asked. Because the front yard is county and the sidewalk is city. She was transferred to Santa Rosa Police. They looked at her address: right inside the county line. Transferred her back to county. And so forth. For 15 minutes.

Half an hour later, officers finally arrived, but it was too late. The driver had long since driven away. Martin’s car was totaled. She was beside herself, a schoolteacher with a young son. “It was really scary,” she says, still flustered by the runaround. “We moved not too much longer after that.”

Look at a map of the city limits of Santa Rosa, and down in the southwestern corner there’s a giant hole. The city limits extend entirely around and beyond this pocket of land, creating an island of county jurisdiction with about 6,000 residents. It’s never been made an official part of the city of Santa Rosa, even though it’s been an established community for over a hundred years, has a healthy businesses district and is just one mile away from downtown and city hall.

This is Roseland—home to the highest concentrated population of Latino residents in the city, although “in the city” is a misnomer. The residents of Roseland don’t get to vote in city elections. They lack parks, libraries, pools, community centers and other amenities the city provides. They are connected to city water and sewer services, but public works infrastructure for their roads and sidewalks is passed back and forth between the county and the city, as is the area’s law enforcement, which, as Martin’s story illustrates, results in a jumbled, often confused combination of Santa Rosa police, county sheriff and highway patrol.

Some see race as a factor in why Santa Rosa has treated Roseland like a bastard child, so far failing to offer it the respect of annexation. Welcoming the neighborhood into the city limits is not just the city’s duty to the area, they say, it’s the city’s moral duty. By annexing Roseland and thus disproving the notion that it is systematically shutting out its Latino community, its poor families and others too often accorded second-class treatment, Santa Rosa will emerge a stronger, prouder city.

And yet annexing Roseland, which is now in the city’s general plan, has become a story of missed opportunity. The city areas surrounding Roseland were annexed largely because of revenue generated from development, which, as any local construction worker can attest, no longer exists in the current economy. Some residents who had previously worked with the city on annexation have lost interest or faith, or both, in the numbing bureaucratic process. And in the meantime, Roseland has been getting along without what some see as the condescending air of governmental oversight.

Will Roseland ever be a part of the city of Santa Rosa? If so, it will take years and lots of money. Even then, it could be protested and put to the residents for a vote. While the entire annexation project is on a recession-born backburner, it’s worth asking if residents really want it and how the city can ever find a way to actually embrace Roseland as its own.

Not Pointing Fingers

“I’ll tell you what,” says Efren Carrillo, sitting at a table outside the Delicias Elenitas taco truck in Roseland, interrupted often by old friends and well-wishers from the neighborhood, “both the city and the county share some blame and share responsibility for having an area that has become increasingly urbanized not annexed.”

As the Fifth District county supervisor, Carrillo, 29, has been pushing hard for annexation, in part because he grew up in Roseland and knows how it’s been underserved in the past. “Fixing this road”—he gestures to Sebastopol Road, the once virtually undriveable main artery of Roseland—”that’s been the biggest improvement here since 1984, when we went into redevelopment. For an area to be in redevelopment for so long, and yet this is all we’ve got to show for it, there is some sense of injustice there.”

That sense of injustice parlays into comments, widely repeated regarding Roseland’s exclusion from city limits, which accuse Santa Rosa of out-and-out racism. Carrillo’s heard them before and strongly disagrees, although he admits the city should have made a plan to annex Roseland during its rabid annexation of the revenue-generating land surrounding Roseland in the 1990s. “I just think that folks failed to recognize this area as a priority area,” he says. “And I won’t point fingers, because that does us no good.”

Carrillo mentions plans for the area, including an extensive project to finance and build mixed-use housing with an outdoor plaza and a cultural center on Roseland’s large, abandoned strip mall, as “one of the biggest potentials for economic development in the county or, if it’s annexed, the city.” He talks highly and extensively of the work the city and county are accomplishing together, and laments the distorted perception most of the rest of Santa Rosa has about his old neighborhood.

Carrillo gets up from the table. Residents keep recognizing him, calling out to him in Spanish while he gets into his car. It’s Sept. 15, the eve of Mexico’s bicentennial celebration of independence, and he’s headed to a party in San Francisco. Before leaving Roseland, though, he drives around the block to revisit his childhood home, the one-bedroom duplex he grew up in, on Sunset Avenue.

In front of this place, with a broken fence and trash in the yard, the memories come flooding back. With a family of five already, it was tough when Carrillo’s grandfather had to move in. Space outside was another concern, since Roseland has a staggering lack of park land. Carrillo stares across the street that used to serve as his front yard. “See that kid?” Carrillo asks, waving to a boy kicking a ball in the asphalt parking lot of a graffiti-tagged apartment building. “That’s his ball field, right there.”

What’s Going On

A strong push for annexation began seven years ago, after the closure of the Albertson’s on Sebastopol Road. The empty supermarket has since towered over an empty parking lot, a looming, boarded-up reminder of the neighborhood’s neglect, causing the city and county to finally look at the possibilities of formulating a plan. Or, in the parlance of government, to formulate a plan to have a plan of finding an approach to move forward with bridging the gaps of developing a method for crunching the numbers of annexation.

The city and county’s first step had been to look at how much revenue the area makes (in property taxes, sales taxes, utility taxes, motor vehicle taxes and more) versus how much expense the area requires (fire, police and roads, mostly). Roseland costs money and is viewed, at least on paper, as an economic burden. In 2005, studies conducted by out-of-town consultants determined the amount of Roseland’s cost to the city and county over a projected 10-year period; the city estimated a $2.4 million annual cost, while the county estimated a $1.3 million annual cost.

The majority of that $1.1 million annual discrepancy, which is still holding up proceedings, was the cost of law enforcement, which the county calculated as costing $613,034 less than the city’s estimate. “Our feeling is that when the police are already serving the residents around these islands, the added cost is marginal,” says deputy county administrator Lori Norton. “It’s not like you’re having to add a whole new beat or set of services.”

This gap caused the city and county to jointly hire an additional out-of-town consultant to not simply run the numbers again but to develop a standard of methodology toward running the numbers again. It is costing the city and county $35,000.

When that report comes back, yet another out-of-town consultant will be hired. And after that? “Once the city and county identify what the costs are, and we agree, or agree to disagree, then we’ll have to have some kind of a plan,” says Chuck Regalia, director of community development for Santa Rosa, illustrating the lengthy process.

“And that plan might be? I don’t know what it is,” he adds. “My sense is I can’t imagine where we would get the money to hire more officers at this point. So maybe it’s a timing thing. It’s a plan as to when that can happen. There’s a whole process—we’d probably have to do an environmental impact report, there would be a pre-zoning. That’s just the normal annexation process that usually takes a year.”

At that point, it would only take 25 percent of registered voters in Roseland to protest annexation and put it up for a vote. Regalia says he’s attended several community meetings, “and it wasn’t clear to me that people wanted to annex.”

Carrillo resolutely says residents “absolutely” want annexation, and would be amazed if it was successfully protested. (An oft-cited poll from the 1990s showed that residents were at that time against annexation, but not only was it conducted before surrounding development arose, it’s also rumored to have been canvassed and massaged by an anti-annexation contingent.)

Perhaps the city should conduct a current preliminary poll before advancing with expensive annexation plans, but that would cost money. Though it’s easy to mock the slow pace of governmental progress, it’s a simple fact that Santa Rosa is severely neck-deep in economic molasses. Its city budget has already been drastically cut, with the general fund projected to be a further $8 million short next year.

Unless the city can simultaneously annex revenue-generating areas of the county, such as the Friedman’s Home Improvement site on Santa Rosa Avenue, then bringing in Roseland would be yet another strain on a city budget that’s barely hanging on by a thread. Both Norton and Carrillo confirm that Friedman’s is the county’s primary source of sales tax, but acknowledge that the county would be willing to look at other sources of revenue after potentially trading Friedman’s for Roseland.

Such a trade would be made complicated, Regalia explains, by the multitude of mobile homes along Santa Rosa Avenue which the city would be required to annex in order to access Friedman’s sales taxes. The city and county have different rules for mobile homes. Residents require public services. Ideally, the city would skip the mobile homes and just take Friedman’s, but, he says, “you can’t go out and just annex Friedman’s as an island.”

And yet it’s perfectly OK to create a county island within city limits? “Well . . . yes,” Regalia says plainly. “I mean, we did.”

Losing Faith

“They’ve annexed all the areas around Roseland,” says Magdalena Ridley, sitting in Santa Rosa’s Courthouse Square, “and gotten commercial and tax revenue from developing the fields I remember as a kid, and the Corby auto row and all the shopping centers that people from Roseland shop at along Stony Point Road. That’s all part of the city, and we, somehow, are considered separate from that. We don’t get credit for that revenue. We’re seen as ‘islands,’ as if we landed here from somewhere else. We created the opportunities for all these areas to be developed.”

Ridley, 29, an outreach coordinator at LandPaths Bayer Farm on West Avenue, is a lifelong Roseland resident and one of its most passionate defenders. She has been asking Public Works for a crosswalk in front of her daughter’s school, Sheppard Elementary, for over a year. Proud of her community’s resolve, dismayed at its neglect, she’s been involved with the annexation process, listening to the numbers game continually put forth.

“And it stalls in these endless, stupid meetings where they talk about the same thing over and over,” she says. “They’re paying consultants to tell them what the price differential is going to be! Stop wasting all that money. Just annex it already and deal with it.”

But with annexation would come changes. Many Roseland residents keep goats and chickens, and city ordinances currently prohibit keeping livestock in one’s backyard. Taco trucks and chicharrón carts are a staple in the neighborhood, but city ordinance severely limits them. (The owners of at least two popular taco trucks in Roseland say that they are opposed to annexation because of the restraints on hours of operation.) “We have a lot of car clubs in the neighborhood,” says Ridley, “and a lot of people who work on their own car in their front yard, and I’ve heard that’s an issue, too.”

Carrillo assures that certain land uses could be grandfathered in with annexation, while Regalia notes that the zoning code could possibly be altered citywide to allow residents to keep a certain number of backyard animals. However, Regalia says enacting similar city code changes regarding taco trucks, street food carts and pop-up vendors is unlikely, meaning that such staples of the Roseland neighborhood would be threatened. Taco trucks would be required to stay mobile, only selling in one location for 30 minutes at a time, and reports of enforced closing times within city limits range from 5pm to 6pm, according to truck owners.

The city’s longstanding fixation on new development also worries Ridley, since sales tax is the city’s primary source of revenue for public services. “If the city comes in and makes this place as brand-new and fixed-up as anywhere else, where is the community going to go?” she asks. “I find it so fascinating that there’s this entire culture in Sonoma County of ‘Go Local,’ but nobody recognizes that the highest concentration of locally owned businesses is on Sebastopol Road. Those businesses need to be protected.”

Business as Usual

One such business is Wescott’s Auto Wrecking, whose purpose was singled out in a 2007 urban vision plan report for Sebastopol Road, prepared by yet another out-of-town consultant. The report cites uses in the area that are “incompatible and no longer desirable (such as auto wrecking yards),” but this doesn’t alarm owner Bob Wescott. “It’s similar to the garbage men,” he sighs, having heard it all before. “Everyone wants you to pick it up, but no one wants you to put it down.”

Wescott’s wrecking yard has been on Sebastopol Road since 1948, and he raises an eye at the same plan’s insistence on environmental sustainability. “How much environment are we saving by selling all this used stuff?” he asks. “We’re recycling here.”

Ironically, the original 1984 redevelopment plan for Sebastopol Road rued the corridor’s small parcel sizes, since it recommended that “strip commercial facilities be encouraged to develop and expand.” Some 26 years later, the new urban vision plan specifically urges to “avoid ‘strip mall’ type development,” much to the relief of Jose Rodriguez, owner of Pepe’s Taqueria on Sebastopol Road. (Rodriguez was pleased when in 2008 a proposed Wal-Mart near his business was blocked in court.)

Pepe’s recently moved from city land to county land. As a business owner, Rodriguez recognized little difference and would prefer Roseland to stay as county land. “We have roots in this area,” he says. “Latinos, we like to stay in the same part of the city. Roseland would be OK without the city.”

Dave Puccetti, owner of the popular secondhand store Fatty’s Threads, agrees. “You don’t wanna annex it,” he cautions. “It’s fine on its own. If Roseland was smart, it’d be its own incorporated area.” Puccetti’s shop is a bustling hub of neighborhood residents, none of whom seem interested in annexation when asked. From Puccetti’s point of view, the city has stalled annexation for so long that their priorities are evident, and he doesn’t trust the city to take care of Roseland. “The general thing,” he says, “is that the city has turned from being an agent for the people into a revenue-generating service for themselves.”

Looking Ahead

Roseland is not the only county pocket in the city of Santa Rosa; in fact, there are many, including the largely Latino and relatively poor Santa Ana subdivision south of South Park, a rural neighborhood across from G&G Supermarket on College Avenue near Link Lane, and large portions of Montecito Drive in the wealthy Montecito Heights area. But since 2006, when the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration began filling the Albertson’s parking lot with shoulder-to-shoulder revelers, there has been increased awareness about Roseland’s second-class status outside the city limits and, news reports of crime notwithstanding, its vibrant culture.

Celebrating that culture rather than impacting it is a priority, and one sure thing are the positive intentions officials say they have for Roseland. Norton calls annexation “good government,” Regalia calls annexation with the proper services a “moral obligation,” and Carrillo refers to Roseland as “a jewel of the county.” If current plans continue, it will be made even more of a jewel, with the awaited transformation of the old Albertson’s site into a mixed-use housing center, an open-air plaza and an “international village and marketplace” that reflects the pride residents have for their neighborhood.

This year, a preliminary proposal was submitted by Mission Housing, an affordable-housing developer based in the heart of San Francisco’s Latino-heavy Mission district, including 88 low-income rental units and 50,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial space, and including a plaza for farmers markets and events. Kathleen Kane, executive director of the county’s Community Development Commission, calls it “certainly our highest priority at the moment,” having just dedicated $3.74 million in redevelopment funds toward the purchase of the property. “I am confident that a mixed-use project will get built there. I can’t guess at this point what it will look like or on what time frame.”

Asha Safai from Mission Housing presented the project to a community meeting at Roseland Elementary earlier this year. “The issues that were raised are very valid issues,” he says, citing parking and plaza size. He says the project is in revisions and if all runs smoothly, could be open, at least in stages, by 2012. And if the adjoining property owner is amenable to the county and Mission Housing’s outreach to partner and redevelop the eastern side of the shopping center as well, an even larger plaza center could be built in the heart of Roseland.

What would that mean? Closure of the popular Dollar Tree store, for one. Hopes of the Continental Lanes bowling alley ever reopening dashed. And depending on the adjoining owner’s stance, possible relocation of Roseland Barber Shop, Tarasco Market and Taqueria El Farolito. Which all adds up to what most see as an acceptable tradeoff and what a few see as too drastic a makeover. But until it is finally built, a dispiriting legacy of the missed opportunities of Roseland becoming a part of the Santa Rosa city limits is those who have had their faith strained by the long, tedious process.

“I hate to say it, because as a resident I should be rooting for annexation,” Ridley says, still waiting for a crosswalk in front of her daughter’s school, “but given the response to communities by most government agencies, I don’t know that I would be happy with annexation. I think I would be really sad. Because I would fear it would mean the beginning of the end of our neighborhood. Because I don’t feel like a lot of concern for the neighborhood has been put into this whole process.”

She hesitates to say it. “It’s been all about money,” she sighs, “right from the beginning.”