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Media Coverage
El Sobrante's Spurt Baffles Residents, Lenders
February 26, 1999



Friday, February 26, 1999
Section: news
Page: A09
David Ferris
Caption: Breakout, EL Sobrante; Breakout, New Developments.

EL SOBRANTE - In Spanish, this valley's name means "the leftover."

To the 19th-century Mexicans who christened El Sobrante, it meant a place no one claimed. A century and a half later, many residents of "the leftover" feel the term still applies.

Decades of annexation have placed parts of El Sobrante inside Richmond's city limits. The rest is overseen by Contra Costa County. But neither entity takes full responsibility for the area, residents and political leaders say. The result, they contend, is a hodgepodge of development and the prospect of more homes without a master plan for growth.

The booming housing market is pushing homes up the hillsides, the only land left. Seven developments, totaling 626 houses on more than 300 acres, are either under construction or bidding for approval. Those already here worry their new neighbors are living on slide-prone land and will compound a shortage of roads, parks and elementary schools.

El Sobrante is a community without a community center, a place with plenty of kids but not enough schools or parks. It has a business district that doesn't do much business and a main drag without sidewalks.

"The school needs fixing; the roads need fixing; the whole thing needs fixing," said Hope Scott, a member of the El Sobrante Municipal Advisory Council, which represents the county portion of the community.

Politicians propose bringing sense to the valley's future by temporarily halting development, and UC-Berkeley is studying ways to bring life back to downtown.

But some contend it's too late to solve El Sobrante's problems through moratoriums or studies, and politics have killed past efforts to curtail development.

"It's a little late. You can't take back authorizations, permits and projects," said Richmond Mayor Rosemary Corbin.

Since the 1950s, El Sobrante has been a destination for commuters looking for an affordable home near San Francisco and West Contra Costa residents looking to move to the hills without paying a fortune. Inhabitants praise the fine weather, its proximity to San Francisco Bay and the ridges that are set aside forever as open space.

Richmond made its first annexations here in the 1950s, a move designed to block San Pablo from moving eastward and snapping up the hillside land developers wanted. Today, most of the slopes belong to Richmond with the valley floor and the main drag through town, San Pablo Dam Road, left to the county.

The marriage of county and city has often left residents feeling that no one is in charge, residents and politicians say. One part is led by the county Board of Supervisors, in distant Martinez, and the other by Richmond, which is perceived as taking plenty in taxes but not giving back much in services.

Occasional efforts by Richmond to take over the remaining portions of the valley have met with fierce opposition by residents. Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt proposed annexation in 1997 as a way to curb development, improve services and give El Sobrante a unified local government.

County residents were adamant: They said they weren't convinced that Richmond would provide limits on development, and they worried about higher taxes and derided the city's sluggish economy and reputation for crime.

"The emotion that is tied to annexing that area is just beyond belief," Butt said.

Some residents rejected annexation because they believed becoming a part of the city would diminish their community's quirky character.

This is a community that, for many years, had more horses than people and developed a reputation as an enclave of blue-collar homeowners. Auto-repair shops on San Pablo Dam Road are nearly as common as restaurants.

Shirley Sharp, one of the first teachers at De Anza High School when it opened in 1957, remembers that before the fields had bleachers, spectators watched football games from their horses.

"People would come here because they could do what they wanted." said Sharp, who now works as a Realtor. "They could raise chickens; they could park trailers."

As population has increased and home prices have climbed, El Sobrante's makeup has shifted. More than two-thirds of employed adults have white-collar jobs, U.S. Census data shows.

Some longtime residents worry that the "yuppification" of the community has begun in earnest.

The steady influx of new residents is gradually changing the ethnic composition of El Sobrante as well. In the county portion, the white population dropped 8 percent between 1980 and 1990, while the black population climbed by 4 percent and the Asian population by 5 percent.

While growth has increased the community's diversity, it also has put a pinch on roads, schools and other services. Residents say the problems have been amplified because neither the city nor the county will address problems head-on.