To join San Jose or Campbell? All geopolitics is local

By Joe Rodriguez

Mercury News Columnist

Posted: 10/23/2010 07:00:00 PM PDT

Updated: 10/24/2010 03:56:45 AM PDT

Donald Whitney lives in the same house where he grew up, the house on a dirt road his father bought in 1951, when orchards still outnumbered swimming pools. And the way he sees it, that house was in the little town of Campbell and not in big San Jose.

"When my dad bought this house," Whitney said in the front yard the other day, "he bought a house in Campbell."


And if you ask anyone else in the neighborhood, they're likely to say the same thing, even though everybody knows it's not exactly true. On paper, they live in Cambrian-36, a small pocket of unincorporated Santa Clara County that was promised four decades ago to San Jose. But in their hearts and daily life, they live in Campbell and they want that made official.

"I grew up in Campbell," Whitney insisted.

But the hard fact is that San Jose has first dibs on the 103-acre pocket of about 1,000 people, and there's not much the residents can do except keep protesting loudly. That's exactly what they have in mind for Tuesday, when the San Jose City Council is expected to start the annexation process -- not to Campbell, but to San Jose.

For months now, residents have shown up at community meetings, calling the annexation a "hostile takeover" and carrying signs reading "No Way San Jose" and "Let Our People Go ... to Campbell."

San Jose Councilwoman Judy Chirco favors the annexation and would represent the area if it's approved.

"I've never seen anyone come in and say, 'Thank you for annexing us,' " she said. "What I feel most strongly about is applying the law equally."

Natural community

Michael Krisman moved his family to the neighborhood they call Campbell Village a few years ago for its safety, relaxed mood and nice blend of old-timers and newcomers. Like most county pockets, the area doesn't have sidewalks, but here that's a blessing. Their absence makes for wider streets and more space for kids to bike and play games. The neighborhood has the feel of a distant, lazy suburb isolated from urban ills, yet a quick drive from urban conveniences.

"There's the natural community," Krisman said. "That's what we have here. It all begins when you buy a house in Campbell."

Around the corner from the him, Tom and Elaine Davis and Lisa Harmer were preparing for Tuesday's rally.

Tom Davis bought his first of two houses in the pocket in 1974 because the lots were big enough for his boat and the county generally doesn't nitpick homeowners on remodeling projects the way cities do.

"Being annexed is like being poured down the drain," he said. "All I'm saying is that we should be allowed to decide which drain."

He and the others also argue that Campbell would deliver better services, such as regular street repair and faster police and paramedic responses to trouble, as well as lower bills for taxes and utility fees.

But for most or all of these arguments, San Jose officials have a counterargument.

San Jose planning director Joe Horwedel said the city's police looked into how well they could serve the pocket and concluded, "We can meet the standards of response time."

Spheres of influence

The debate on county pockets was an outgrowth of a city that, after World War II, began expanding out from its center to accommodate the population explosion in the valley. By the late 1960s, the annexation wars became so nasty, the county and its 15 cities, pushed by the state, formed a truce. They came up with an apt term borrowed directly from geopolitics and the World War II era -- spheres of influence.

"There really were no rules," said Neelima Palacherla, executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission, created at the time to figure out a peaceful and orderly way for cities to grow.

The idea was to plot on a map where San Jose, Campbell and the other cities were likely to grow naturally in 10, 20 and even 30 years. They determined that Cambrian-36 -- aka Campbell Village -- was in San Jose's sphere of influence, not Campbell's.

But no boundaries changed, even as the two cities grew toward each other. Then, the state forced the issue, deciding that counties should concentrate on social services and get out of running urban neighborhoods. Ten years ago, the Legislature ordered cities to annex the small county pockets. To make it easier, no vote of the people would be required in pockets 150 acres or smaller.

Not that San Jose was eager to gobble up its county pockets, many of which were impoverished and needed expensive repairs to sewers and new infrastructure. Sidewalks are not cheap. When the city dragged its feet, the county sued.

Forced to annex them, officials reasoned, San Jose should at least break even.

"This is one of the few desirable, revenue-positive pockets," planning director Horwedel said about Cambrian-36. That means San Jose stands to gain more in property taxes from the neighborhood than it would pay out in services. But that's not all of the city's argument.

Chirco said it's about fairness and fiscal responsibility. If the city lets one prosperous pocket bolt, she said, it would have to let others leave, too.

Residents argue that if the spheres of influence were examined again today, their neighborhood would fall into Campbell.

Evan Low, Campbell's 27-year-old mayor, said revisiting the spheres could back up his city's desire to annex the neighborhood.

"These boundaries were made before I was born," he said. "Most people would ask 'Why are we referring to a policy made so far back?' "

LAFCO's Palacherla agreed, saying, "It's a fair question to ask."

She said cities can ask to revisit the boundaries set by the 40-year-old spheres, but her agency prefers contesting cities to come to the table with a compromise in mind. For example, San Jose could let Campbell have the neighborhood if Campbell gives San Jose another chunk of nice territory.

It may not be geopolitics, but it sure sounds like it.

For residents, it's more about identity. Krisman, a firefighter captain, said he took his sons to Campbell parks when they were little. He and his wife jog on Campbell paths. They shop in Campbell, go to the movies and gather with friends at Campbell restaurants. Sure, they might go to San Jose for a professional hockey game or an opera, but daily life for them mostly happens in Campbell.

"I don't want to be a tourist in my own town," Krisman said.