JARDINE: Oakdale's size could double — again

jjardine@modbee.comAugust 10, 2013 

Oakdale

Drivers head through downtown Oakdale in 1983, when the population was less than half of what it is today.

AL GOLUB — The Modesto Bee Buy Photo

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textJeff Jardine
    Title: Local columnist
    Coverage areas: People, issues, the community
    Bio: Jeff Jardine joined The Bee's staff in 1988 after a decade at the Stockton Record. He covered sports before moving into news in 1996 and became the Local Columnist in 2003. He graduated from University of the Pacific in 1979, majoring in communications and history.
    Recent stories written by Jeff
    On Twitter: @jeffjardine57
    E-mail: jjardine@modbee.com

— Back in 1990, as Oakdale experienced the growing pains of a population boom, a Bee reporter went to the Moss Rose Bakery downtown to ask some of the longtime residents if they liked the changes they were seeing.

The bakery is a place where locals continue to meet over coffee and a doughnut to solve the world's problems, gossip a bit and hang around until the French bread emerges from the brick oven.

Their responses that day 23 years ago were totally predictable. It's perfectly natural for folks in a small town to want life to remain unfettered, uncomplicated and unaffected by change.

The reporter might as well have asked if they welcomed West Nile disease.

"I think it's getting too big, too fast," one said. "We can't handle the traffic we have now, yet they're building more homes. What are we going to do when more people move in?"

"We're getting too many people who don't care about this town and what it means to those of us who have lived here for a while," said another.

Thursday night, the City Council adopted a general plan update that would allow the city's population to more than double, from 21,000 to 43,000, by 2030.

Double the population in just 17 years? Are you kidding? Again? Turns out Oakdale already has been there, done that.

The city claimed slightly more than 8,700 residents in 1988. By 2005, it had 17,393 — double almost to a person.

New housing developments on the west side of town, along with Burchell Hill on the east side, accounted for the vast majority of that growth. As a result, the city built a new fire station. The school district opened a new elementary school campus, expanded its high school facilities and replaced the portable buildings with permanent ones at the junior high.

The population surge, however, wasn't enough to support a mega shopping center with big boxes including Home Depot, Best Buy, Target and Kohl's, along with a Save Mart roughly the size of Rhode Island. Riverbank got that — in part because of Riverbank's own growth spurt, but also because of the vast Village I developments in north Modesto.

(Yes, it takes a Village I to keep Riverbank's sales tax dollars flowing in, and don't let 'em convince you otherwise.)

Doubling the population of Oakdale, city leaders believe, would entice more retail, including a proposed shopping center along Highway 120 on the east side of town. It also would draw other stores to the west side. Consequently, sales tax revenues would stay in Oakdale instead of wafting off to Modesto, Riverbank or elsewhere.

So, about those concerns voiced in 1990, beginning with rapid growth:

• Yes, growth was inevitable. You build a town just the way you want it, and others are bound to want to join you. Oakdale's population boom leveled off when the economy began its slide around 2006, as evidenced by unfinished subdivisions on the city's west side. Only now does home construction appear to be waking up a bit.

• That the newcomers don't care about the community as much as the natives …

Oakdale residents pride themselves on supporting compelling local causes, whether it's someone with a life-threatening medical condition or raising money for education or athletics.

Sure, transplants to any town might take years to become ingrained in the community, and some never will. Others, though, assimilate quickly through schools, churches, youth sports and community projects. They move to a smaller town because they want to be involved.

An example: A wooden play structure opened in 1993 in Dorada Park, smack-dab in the middle of town. Doreen Splitstone, then a newcomer from the Bay Area, spearheaded the project despite being told by longtime residents that the recession would prevent proponents from raising the $90,000 needed for materials. They also resisted because, they claimed, "nothing like that had ever been done in Oakdale before." OK … Undaunted, she recruited a small army of people that raised the money and then volunteered time and labor to make it happen. The play park has been a hugely popular place for children and families over the past two decades.

So, yes, some newcomers can offer new ideas that improve the quality of life.

• As for traffic, a part of the updated general plan will remain on hold until transportation officials decide where the proposed North County Corridor expressway will meet up with Highway 120-108.

Tourist traffic backs up for miles on both sides of town during the summer months and major holiday weekends. So what? Many stop to eat and gas up, leaving money in their rear-view mirrors.

The bigger issues in expanding Oakdale involve public safety, the water supply and school system. Can they meet the needs of a town twice its current size?

Consider:

• The police and fire departments have fewer personnel than in 2005. In fact, the Police Department has 19 sworn officers, compared with 28 eight years ago. At a minimum, both departments would need to significantly add staff to catch up and then keep up with the growth.

• Oakdale gets its water from wells replenished by the Stanislaus River. The Oakdale Irrigation District also maintains water reserves, should the city's wells be unable to meet the need, General Manager Steve Knell said.

• The school district, meanwhile, now serves 5,300 students at four elementary schools, the junior high and the high school combined. Presumably, total enrollment also could double by 2030. The district owns 10 acres for a new elementary school campus on the southwest side of town. Capital facilities funds from new construction, along with restored matching construction funding from the state, would help finance the new campus.

Oakdale High has 1,600 students and room for 2,200, District Superintendent Marc Malone said. But the population increase shouldn't demand a second high school, he said.

While it would be the school board's call, the district probably would expand the junior high campus — now seventh- and eighth-graders — to include ninth-graders as well, with sophomores, juniors and seniors at the high school campus.

So relax, football fans. The Mustangs' dynasty should remain intact and, in fact, be enhanced by a greater pool of students.

That should be a consolation prize for those who miss the days when Oakdale was so small that they knew everyone in town.

You see, they talk some serious football down at the bakery, too.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

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