Modesto puts off annexing islands

Modesto this week chose to look outside its borders for growth that could bring new commercial and industrial development over the next decade.

That left some asking when the city would take steps to annex the more than 30 underserved, unincorporated pockets within its borders.

One of them was City Councilwoman Kristin Olsen, who urged her colleagues to write a blanket ballot measure that she argued could speed up the annexation of Modesto's county islands.

But a question about cash -- the same hang-up that has stalled improvements to those islands for years -- surfaced, persuading the majority of the council that a ballot measure would be meaningless unless someone could find the money to install sewers, lay sidewalks and upgrade streetlights.

"I wish we could take all 32 of them and get them in the city tomorrow," Mayor Jim Ridenour said about the islands. "None of us have the funding to do this. We're going to have to do them one at a time."

Modesto voters since 1999 have lined up six islands for annexations by approving ballot measures that said they'd favor the city extending sewer lines to those neighborhoods.

Of those areas, only one has advanced to a point where it might be annexed by the end of this year.

That's the Shackelford neighborhood in south Modesto, which benefited from a $2.2 million investment by Stanislaus County that yielded sewer lines.

"The county is committed to getting these islands annexed as fast as economically possible, but they're expensive projects," Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini said.

Modesto's unincorporated islands developed over time as a form of affordable housing when the areas sat outside the city limit. That's why they tend to lack sidewalks, sit closer to roads and rely on septic tanks despite their obviously urban surroundings.

It would take a developer financing a new project or big investments from government to produce the kind of public improvements the city considers necessary before it will absorb the islands.

The city and county often hit a stalemate when they talk about the unincorporated pockets.

On one hand, Modesto won't annex the islands until Stanislaus County ponies up cash to bring the neighborhoods up to city development standards. At last count, the city estimated improving the islands would cost $133 million.

"The county's not producing any method to pay for the improvements and every time we turn around, they come up with a new scheme that somehow involves taking all of the tax revenue for the area, which still won't cover it," said Councilwo-man Janice Keating.

On the other hand, the county contends the city's annexation standards are unreasonably high for 60-year-old neighborhoods.

"They cannot require new subdivision standards on subdivisions that were built in World War II," DeMartini said.

Two efforts are taking place outside Modesto to break the impasse. Neither is particularly welcomed by local officials.

Assemblyman Juan Arambula, I-Fresno, is carrying a bill that would compel cities to annex islands if 25 percent of residents in a given area ask for the change. Andrew White, Arambula's legislative director, said the bill likely would move forward next year. He said the bill would change as its supporters provide more details on how the annexations would be implemented.

Another is a 2005 lawsuit filed by Latino residents in the islands who contend the city and county have discriminated against them by neglecting their neighborhoods.

The city and county won the case in federal court two years ago, but it's awaiting a new ruling from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeal in San Francisco.

Modesto Community and Economic Development Director Brent Sinclair on Tuesday advised the City Council that the time might be right to take a comprehensive look at the city's unincorporated pockets. The goal would be to write ballot measures for votes on sewer extensions over the next two years.

"Let's devote time just for this, because there are so many areas and each area is unique," he said.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at or 578-2366.