Modesto's Parklawn neighborhood feels left in lurch

Stanislaus County has made progress in upgrading unincorporated islands, those older substandard neighborhoods in and around the city of Modesto.

For example, the county spent millions of dollars improving the Shackelford and Robertson Road areas so city sewer service could be extended to homes there.

But residents of the Parklawn area of south Modesto feel they have been left behind.

"Something has to be done as soon as possible," said Hortencia Franco, a Parklawn neighborhood resident and organizer. "We have been holding community meetings for 10 or 12 years, and nothing ever seems to get done."

Recently, Modesto City Councilman Dave Geer has taken an interest in Parklawn, an enclave of

326 homes off Hatch Road, just west of Highway 99.

Geer was elected last year to serve the city's

District 2, which borders the 80-acre Parklawn area, and the councilman would have a key role in an effort to annex Parklawn into the city.

The county has a plan to improve the streets and install lines to connect Parklawn to Modesto's sewer system. But the plan was dealt a setback last month when the state took redevelopment money from counties and cities.

Redevelopment funding, combined with block grants, has been the key to upgrading county islands.

"They are caught between a rock and a hard place," Geer said last week. "The county doesn't have the money to fix up the area so it is suitable for annexation, and there is no money at the city level."

Built without standards

Maria Garibaldo's home is a prime example of the worsening conditions in Park-lawn. The small-lot subdivision was built in the late 1940s and the 1950s, when development standards were slack. There were no requirements for curbs, gutters and sidewalks, and each home was given its own septic system.

For decades, sewage and drain water from the Garibaldo home has been dumped into septic tanks and leach lines underlying the back yard, causing the ground around the home to subside.

As a result, one side of the home is sinking into the ground.

Garibaldo's disabled husband no longer is able to make repairs to the home. And without sidewalks in the neighborhood, Garibaldo can't take her husband for a stroll in his wheelchair.

After rainstorms, children going to and from school walk through mud alongside the streets. And the graffiti on abandoned homes is evidence of the gangs that harass the neighborhood. On May 30, a 29-year-old man was injured in a shooting at Parklawn Park.

Geer said he believes the deteriorating septic systems are a public health issue.

Besides the backed-up toilets and odors, several homes have sloped floors, cracked walls or uneven foundations, the apparent long-term effects of waste water percolating into the ground around the homes.

Franco said many low- income residents don't have the money to repair their septic systems, which may need to be serviced three to four times a year, at a cost of $180 to $200 each time.

Rosario Cedano pointed to the cracked floor tiles in her home, which has sloping floors in the kitchen and living room.

She and her 17-year-old son, Antonio, have attended recent meetings designed to organize the neighborhood.

"Now, we have heard it could be 2020 before anything is done," Antonio said. "We are like the ones who are left behind."

Residents talking to lawyers

Franco said residents are talking with lawyers. In 2004, a San Francisco group filed a lawsuit alleging that the county and Modesto discriminated against Latinos living in four unincorporated islands, including Parklawn.

Although the plaintiffs lost in court, some believe the litigation prodded the county to make improvements, such as connecting homes in the Shackelford and Robertson Road areas to sewer lines.

It's too early to tell whether additional litigation will be filed.

Officials estimate it would cost $12 million to improve the streets and connect Parklawn to Modesto's sewer system. The city already supplies water to the area.

According to a city policy, the county is responsible for improving the island before it can be annexed to Modesto.

Before losing the redevelopment money to the state, the county was working through a list of projects that gave higher priority to Keyes, Empire and other neighborhoods.

County Supervisor Jim DeMartini said Parklawn did benefit from $200,000 in street-light and park improvements paid for with grants. The county has access to some emergency funding for fixing the worst septic systems.

"It's really costly to go back and retrofit these subdivisions," DeMartini said. "Sewer is the No. 1 issue at Parklawn. Then we need to do the storm drains and the sidewalks."

DeMartini has worked with the South Modesto Municipal Advisory Council to provide sewer hookups to county islands, and Parklawn is the last project in his district.

He said Modesto's switch to district elections provides another ally for improving the Parklawn area. He said the city has not acted quickly when the county has provided money for unincorporated islands.

"In the past, the City Council members were elected at large and you didn't have representatives in those areas to get anything done," he said. "I'm sure Dave Geer will do a good job for his district. I've known him for a long time, and he is easy to get along with."

Geer said he is considering the right time for asking the council to schedule a public vote on extending sewer lines to Parklawn.

Councilman looks for answer

Officials might have to wait for the state to restore redevelopment funds or find another source of money. But the 2015 to 2020 timeline for the Parklawn improvements is unacceptable to him.

"I'm a realist," he said. "I know it can't happen overnight. It is just a matter of finding a way to do it."

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at or 578-2321.

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