Oakdale gets it right: Trees, trails and parks

October 25, 2008 

OAKDALE - A front porch swing catches a lift of breeze and gently sways beyond a white picket fence. A meandering sidewalk, 10 feet off the road, works through bright green grass. The sidewalk connects to a bike path, nature trail and a country river.

It's not old-timey nostalgia or a Hollywood ideal. It's a 320-home mass production subdivision called Burchell Hill.

It is smart growth.

Armed with a strong community vision and a few founding documents, Oakdale has thought "smart" since the mid-1990s. The philosophy helped the self-proclaimed "Cowboy Capital" take top honors in The Modesto Bee's survey of all 60 cities in the San Joaquin Valley.

Oakdale, known for its chocolate festival and annual rodeo, quietly embraced smart growth policies to produce vibrant, attractive neighborhoods with a mix of affordable homes while charging adequate development fees. Other policies protect Oakdale's beloved historic clock tower.

The city also scored highly in areas that may be less visible but still support smart growth concepts, with strong policies regarding jobs, streets, water and sewers. And Oakdale's west end is protected by an agricultural buffer, a rare greenbelt formally acknowledged by Riverbank.

Such forward thinking vaults Oakdale to the top of The Bee's survey of ideals. But the policies have been in place long enough to produce real results.

Drive through Oakdale and you'll see soulless markers of 1970s and '80s drab development common in the valley -- tall subdivision walls, garage-dominated houses, wide treeless streets. But keep moving into the city's newer neighborhoods and things seem to get older, with streets cast in shade trees, garages and alleys hidden behind homes, and walking paths and parks.

The change started in 1993.

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Regular people helped draw up a new general plan, identifying development spheres outside the city limit for possible expansion. Leaders vowed to annex only entire spheres to avoid disconnected, patchwork growth. Developers were told they had to ask permission to start a specific plan process, which entails mapping a big swath of land, sometimes hundreds of acres.

"The biggest challenge to smart growth is the production home builder," said city manager Steve Hallam, who spent seven years as the city's planning chief. "It's hard to get them to pause and realize we don't want our subdivision to look like their other subdivision in Modesto, Riverbank, Turlock or Patterson."

Community weighs in

In 1995, then-Mayor Pat Kuhn started calling town hall meetings. She showed photos from throughout the valley -- the Merced County Courthouse, open fields, huge big-box parking lots and the like. Residents were asked to grade elements from positive to negative 10.

"The very, very highest rated slides were historical buildings, so that made it very easy when we wanted to save the bank building, the First National Bank. We could say the community had voted on it," Kuhn said. "Walking trails and historical buildings were most popular. Sign blight, wide streets and neon signs over the road were simply hated."

The city drafted expectations for home builders. Not guidelines, Hallam quickly points out, but expectations. Building themes, setbacks, street designs and all other accoutrements of a modern urban area are mandatory. Builders essentially self-regulate with checklists.

Unanticipated positive consequences popped up when building slowed on the city's edges. Developers began to look inward, at vacant land within the city.

The average property assessment value in Stanislaus County decreased $122,000 this year. Assessments plunged 19.8 percent in Newman and 8.1 percent in Modesto, but only 5.5 percent in Turlock and 6.7 percent in Oakdale -- two of the valley's high- scoring cities in The Bee's survey.

Oakdale's Burchell Hill shows what smart growth can do for regular people, leaders say. Foreclosures are less common here. Neighbors have a Web site and newsletter and regularly track City Council meetings. There’s an annual neighborhood yard sale, and more home owners groups and associations than anywhere else in Oakdale.

The city once wanted to mark some no-parking curbs in red, but didn't move fast enough for neighbors' liking. So they organized work crews, got the paint from City Hall and did it themselves.

"The community is awesome," said Jennifer Dykes, 39, who walks or rides a bicycle to the grocery store with her husband and their 8-year-old son. They haul a raft to the Stanislaus River on the path's other end.

"We fell in love with the river, the lake, the parks," she continued. "The first time we saw this house, we were instantly in love."

When speeding irritated enough Burchell Hill people, the Police Department trained neighbors on using a radar gun and set them up to record speeds and license plates. The results: The offenders turned out to be primarily Burchell Hill residents. So the homeowners association started a neighborhood campaign to raise awareness and lighten lead feet.

Even as Burchell Hill unfolded, other developers pressed for free-for-all building. The Oakdale City Council was tested sorely when the market superheated about 2002, said Mayor Farrell Jackson, a council member at the time.

"Large developers started advertising and moving forward as if they had a large specific plan, but they didn't have city consent," Jackson said. "They thought they could come in and win over the community. But in Oakdale, the community trusts the city."

One developer’s Web site proclaimed a vision for 650 acres south of Highway 108 featuring 2,000 homes, man-made lakes and a college satellite campus. The city hadn’t seen so much as a blueprint.

“It was like getting beat up every day,” Kuhn said. “If it wasn’t in a City Council meeting, it was in your office or on the phone. People would get in your face and scream, ‘You’re costing me money!’ But these weren’t people from Oakdale. They thought they could ride out of town with saddlebags full of money.”

“The key to success,” Jackson said, “is not folding in hard times.”

A subsequent stab at smart growth, on Oakdale's other end, hasn't turned out as well despite more wraparound porches and narrow streets. Bridle Ridge neighbors in recent months have complained that a developer got out of town when the economy soured, leaving behind debris and knee-high weeds instead of promised parkland.

But many remain hopeful that vestiges of Oakdale's smart growth glory days eventually will bring more Burchell Hills.

Policies are helping preserve Oakdale's claim to the best jobs-to-housing ratio and highest sales tax per capita in Stanislaus County, leaders say.

More important to Jennifer Dykes are friendly neighbors, the path to stores and the river, and a lush park just across the street where her husband coaches her son's soccer and Little League teams.

“We have great neighbors, everyone’s friendly,” she said. “It almost makes me feel like it was as a child.”

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley contributed to this report.

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