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Front St.Opinion Section - Clovis Free PressBack St.
Vol. 17  No. 21 Final Edition
Clovis Free Press
May 14, 2000
Sprawl Spills Into Central Valley
Town developers battering down the wall between two Californias.
By Peter H. King, Staff Writer

     TRACY, Calif.-- To builders and boosters, more often than not, goes the privilege of naming a place. A billboard announces yet another subdivision to be built in Tracy. This town on the western flank of the San Joaquin Valley was founded 122 years ago as a railroad junction, and an official of the Central Pacific line seized the moment to honor an old friend back in Ohio, a grain merchant named Lathrop J. Tracy.
     Tracy himself never set foot in the town. One April day in 1918, however, a son, Rufus Tracy, was lured out for a visit. At a luncheon, he presented a Tracy delegation with two photographs of his father. After a tour of the town, Tracy the Younger caught the next train for Berkeley, on the other side of the high hills that separate the valley from coastal California.And, a Tracy historian later would sniff, "he never came back."
     Today Tracyites by the tens of thousands follow Rufus Tracy's path every workday morning to the cities beyond the 1,007-foot Altamont Pass. They call it going over the hill. As early as 4 a.m., the automatic garage doors begin to flip open, and for the next few hours commuters stream out of the town's ever-expanding stock of subdivisions--or "communities," as the developers like to call them.
     Out of Woodfield Estates and Muirfield Villages they fly; out of California Festival and Hearthstone and Summerlane; out of Quail Meadow, the Springs at Parkview, Pheasant Run and many, many more. They are bound, these commuters, for jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area, and, in particular, for the high-tech hothouses of the Silicon Valley. Their drive, in some instances, can consume a couple of hours or more each way, but to live closer to their work, in the torrid real estate market over the hill, would require paying two or three times as much for a home.
     From the perspective of the Central Valley--the term encompasses the San Joaquin and the adjacent Sacramento valleys--Tracy's emergence as a Bay Area outpost represents a remarkable development. It can be seen as a breach in the wall, a defiance of the topographical logic that for 150 years kept this vast, flat and fertile trough of land a fairly isolated place--part of California, but also apart from it.
     Once described enduringly as "the other California," the valley more and more is being seen by experts in growth patterns and urban trends as the "next California"--the next expanse of flat, relatively inexpensive land destined to attract the same sort of sprawling development that filled up the L.A. Basin and the Santa Clara Valley.
     "This used to be a farm town," Tommy Hill, a son of the San Joaquin Valley, was saying the other day. "'It's not a farm town anymore. It's a commuter town."
     Hill, a stocky, stout-jawed 30-year-old, grew up in Stockton, 15 miles to the northeast. He moved to Tracy a year ago to work a graveyard shift as a security guard in one of the town's half-finished subdivisions. On this Sunday afternoon, though, Hill was daylighting in a new, second job. He stood at a corner at the outskirts of town, holding a white, rectangular sign. On the sign was painted a big arrow, which was formed around the words "Hidden Lake."
     As traffic rolled by, Hill shuffled back and forth on a concrete island, waving the sign to point the way to "Hidden Lake," which, of course, is a subdivision: "The idea," Hill said with the enthusiasm of someone who'd been on the $11.25-an-hour job for just two weekends, "is to get the people to go over and see the people who are selling the houses."
     A portable radio was strapped to Hill's khakis and headphones were wrapped over his close-cropped hair. The radio, he said, was tuned to a country station: "I don't have any rhythm in my body, so I just go with the music and try to do my best."
     As he did his Hidden Lakes two-step, a passing motorist honked and flashed Hill a vigorous, approving thumbs-up sign. Hill grinned. More than once already, he said, he had been saluted with another digit. The transformation of Tracy, understand, is not without its critics.
     Rural Past Meeting Central Valley's Future. Situated 60 miles east of San Francisco and 60 miles south of Sacramento, Tracy always has been, as Sam Matthews, publisher emeritus of the Tracy Press put it, "a crossroads town, a gateway." The trails of valley Indian tribes ran close by, as did El Camino Viejo of the Spanish missionaries. Forty-niners rushed by on a beeline from San Francisco to the gold fields. Today, four major freeways cut close by Tracy; so, too, do rail lines and some of the state's major wterworks.
      Even with the inauguration of limited rail service, the commute from Tracy to Silicon Valley is an ordeal that starts before dawn.
     In a non-geographical context, Tracy can be seen as a crossroads once again, the place where the Central Valley's rural past has begun to meet its future. Tracy, a Sierra Club official told a news conference in mid-April, "is ground zero for urban sprawl in the San Joaquin Valley." Matthews put matters a bit more gently, quoting his brother on this point: "California finally caught up to Tracy."And caught up fast.
     Between 1980 and 1990, the town's population jumped from 18,500 to 33,500. In the past decade, it maintained the pace, growing to 53,000. In official state estimates released last week, Tracy's rate of population growth ranked second among all California cities of more than 50,000, trailing only Cupertino. In addition, the city has approved plans for something like 25,000 more homes on surrounding land that is now covered mostly with alfalfa and orchards and open pasture; the population is expected to reach 160,000 in the next quarter century.
     Moreover, there are those who envision the edges of Tracy eventually sprawling over to meet a "new town" to be built nearby, called Mountain House, and then on to Lathrop, where a developer dreams of a Central Valley Disneyland of sorts, and up to Stockton, and out to Manteca, and down California 99 toward Salida and then Modesto. The promoters already have a name for this metropolitan melding. They call it: "The Golden Triangle."
     If the population forecasts prove correct, Tracy will only be keeping pace with the rest of the Central Valley. Roughly 5 million people now live in the region. That number, according to demographers, will grow to 12 million or more in the next 40 years. That's a lot of Woodfield Estates, many Muirfield Villages.
     The growth numbers, however impressive, don't adequately describe the boomtown atmosphere that has overtaken Tracy. Tommy Hills can be seen every weekend on several corners, waving motorists toward the subdivisions. Developers stack billboards, Burma Shave-style, alongside the highways leading into town: "'Commuter close, country quiet" promises one, in a precise summation of the standard Tracy pitch.
     Behind the tract fences, the pace of construction can seem frantic. The agrarian concept of making hay while the sun shines has not been lost on the subdividers. Contractors representing every trade imaginable park their pickups at odd angles and scramble about with tools and blueprints. The air resounds with the pounding of hammers and the roars of heavy equipment.
     One day last month, a worker could be seen on one residential street hurriedly picking cigarette butts left by the construction crews out of freshly rolled front lawns--a final step prior to move-in day. In a neighboring field, meanwhile, scrapers cleared more land for the next round of house-framing. Indeed, the first view afforded many new homeowners is that of uprooted trees piled in an adjoining meadow.
     This, of course, is how most of California has been built--fast, fast, hurry, hurry, easy terms, move in now. It was how houses shot through the dairy lands around Los Angeles, and the groves of Orange County, and the cherry orchards of the Santa Clara Valley. All that's different about the scene playing out here, and also on the outskirts of Sacramento and in Fresno, Modesto, Bakersfield and other fast-growing valley towns strung along California 99, is that this is the Central Valley--the "'invented garden," to employ historian Kevin Starr's elegant phrase.
     This is the one California region where, for once, agriculture seemed destined to be more than a holding action, more than just something to do with flat land until the subdividers appeared. Not only is it hot and dusty in the summer, and blanketed with tule fog in the winter, it has been plumbed and primed for farming. As Victor Davis Hanson, a Fresno County grape grower, writes in "The Land Was Everything" (Free Press)     "The San Joaquin Valley is an enormous mistake of the gods, who rarely give farming man so much natural bounty, so much dormant power to sprout from the once countryside of scrub. Two hundred fifty crops now produce $13 billion worth of food every year. What a fertile Valley we have been and shall not be again."
     Here in Tracy, the rising up of a Bay Area bedroom community amid croplands has brought some awkward moments. There have been controversies over crop-dusters and pesticide spraying and foul smells, prompting the city to adopt a "'right to farm" ordinance. The pro-growth city leadership, it should be noted, also has been protective of the farmers' right to sell to developers, another part of the story.
     Phil Martin, a third-generation Tracy farmer who grows everything from alfalfa to walnuts, said the transformation has not been easy: "I feel we suffer the full impact of growth, but darn few of the benefits. We have to put up with increased traffic, increased crime, increased graffiti, increased vandalism."
     He ticked off a long list of suburban debris that had been deposited in his fields: kitchen appliances, television carts, tires, moving boxes, potted plants--"just about anything," he said, "that they can throw over the fence."
     Martin told of one particularly frustrating encounter: It was the Monday of a Labor Day weekend, and he had dispatched a tractor driver into a field that ran up against a new housing tract. The wind kicked up, as it often will in Tracy. (There's a reason why the Altamont Pass is festooned with wind farms). Martin saw dust was being blown into the backyards and suspended the discing for the day.
     The next morning he discovered a message etched by finger in dirt on the tractor: "Someone had written, 'This machine makes too much damn dust. Why don't you move back to Oaklahoma?' " ending the comment with an expletive. Martin smiled. "You could tell they were from the Bay Area, because they spelled 'Oaklahoma' like Oakland. Anyway that field is growing two-by-fours these days."
     From the other side of the fence comes a different set of complaints. By almost all accounts, even with addition of limited rail service, the commute over the hill has become horrific. Longtime Tracyites speak of the commuters--also referred to as the "commute people" or "growth people"--with a mixture of awe and horror. "I don't know how they do it" is a refrain heard so frequently that it might as well be adopted as an official city motto.
     It is possible to drive through Tracy neighborhoods before the sun comes up and see little tykes in pajamas standing in a garage, operating the push-button garage door for their parents. By 6 a.m. residential streets have a midmorning feel and pace to them. By 9 a.m., they are ghost streets. And around 7 p.m., these same streets seem like the last mile in a road rally, filled with cars racing in from the freeways.
     Not everybody can take the strain. Most people in town can point to some house where a family simply was worn down by the commuting lifestyle. A court mediator in Stockton is said to remark, when he notices that a couple petitioning for divorce happens to be from Tracy, "I see, another case from the slave mill."
     Stories are told of parents who haul their children along on the commute, dropping them at day care centers near the work site. More typical are those who take advantage of Tracy's cottage industry of residential day care providers. Their ads are a staple of the Tracy Press' classifieds:[A DAY OF FUN. w/preschool activities. Hot meals, TLC][JENNI'S JUNGLE. Trnsp. lg. yard in court. reas rates][JUST LIKE HOME Daycare. 4/10 yrs. FT/PT] [LILY's FAMILY Daycare CPR/First Aid, computer games][MARY'S DAYCARE 2 openings, 0-11 yrs. Hot meals love & fun][MISS PAT'S DAYCARE F/t, all meals, All ages] And so on.
     Attempting to Slow the Pace of Growth. To loiter around Tracy this Spring was to hear a lot of people talking in political sound bites. A group of Tracyites had placed on the March ballot a measure that would have slowed the pace of growth. Proponents described Measure T as an attempt to give Tracy a breather, to allow strained infrastructure to catch up with the ever-widening rings of houses. Opponents attacked it as "planning by ballot box" and suggested, vaguely, that it might frighten away potential employers who might be inclined to relocate in Tracy someday.
     The opponents had developers in their corner, which meant they had hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on the campaign. The proponents did not. In the end, after more than 10,000 ballots had been counted, Measure T was defeated by 300 votes, plus change.Trees arrive for new houses in Tracy, which is sprouting subdivisions.Interestingly, Measure T organizers found plenty of support among the commute people. While longtime Tracy residents often complain that the newcomers don't have the inclination, or at least the time, to blend with the larger community, they have brought new political sensibilities over the hill. Some are upset that Tracy is developing into just the sort of place they sought to escape: Less country quiet and, given the drive times, no longer commuter close.
     Matthews recalled how, at one Measure T meeting, a man rose to shout, "By God, when I moved to Tracy, we didn't have all this growth."When did you move here?" the man was asked."A year and a half ago," he shot back.
     Growth supporters jump on such outbursts, eager to depict those who call for better land-use planning as elitists, ready to yank up the drawbridge now that they have claimed their quarter-acre share of the California dream.
     "These people," said former mayor Clyde Bland, a retired insurance salesman who moved here from Minnesota more than 35 years ago, "will say, 'I love to smell the new-mown hay, but you have wiped out that hayfield and built houses out there.' They don't want traffic. They want to hear the meadowlarks singing." To such complainers, the genial 74-year-old said, he offers this response: "If I had the attitude you had when I was mayor, you wouldn't be living here now."
     Bland was showing a reporter around town. His tour encompassed several Tracys: The original collection of stout structures by the railroad track; a newer old town of tidy brick buildings; and the current downtown, a vintage valley affair of two-story buildings, old-fashioned light poles, and a water tank.
     On the frontier edges, particularly to the west, was the town's latest incarnation--Commuter Tracy, with tiled rooftops upon tiled rooftops, broken only by an occasional supermarket, school or park. Some of the houses were attractive, adorned with shutters, columns and brick facades. Others looked like stucco boxes destined to be scraped down by the winds.
     "Don't even look over there," Bland said, driving by one tract. The faded, pastel rear-ends of the houses rose above a masonry block fence--suggestive, somehow, of a pack of high school seniors mooning the townsfolk. "I am guilty for approving that one," the former mayor said. He paused before adding: "Well, at least they don't look so bad on the front side."
     In other neighborhoods, Bland pointed with pride to wide, landscaped pathways and storm ditches tastefully decorated with river stones. These were touches added on his watch, in the mid-'90s, and to him they prove that Tracy has not exploded helter-skelter, but rather according to a well-managed, high-quality plan.
     He traced the outward leaps Tracy would make in the future, adding "community" after "community" until it finally reached the shimmering golden hills on the valley's western border. By that point, he said, CEOs will be eager to come "over the hill," bringing "upscale" jobs with them. Such, anyway, is the dream, if not the plan.
     There are those who maintain that Tracy will run out of water before it runs out of land. City Council members, in public meetings, make a show of insisting that developers must locate water sources before their projects can go forward. The water almost always seems to turn up. Certainly the development Tommy Hill was hawking--Hidden Lake--projected an image of aquatic bounty. Hardly hidden, the man-made, 10-acre lake is the subdivision centerpiece, its fountain hurling water high into the air. On one edge of the lake stood a row of show homes--the Sagewood, the Briarwood, the Rosewood and the Woodside.
     As families streamed through, the adults sometimes would cock their heads and study the layouts, as if imagining themselves living the Rosewood life. To encourage such mindplay, each house had been furnished and decorated to make it appear that a family already lived there. In the kitchen, a basket filled with Thai ingredients waited to be cooked. Skates and Tara Lipinski posters could be found in an imaginary daughter's room. And at the imaginary parents' bedside had been placed a novel ("Random Winds") and a bottle of Chardonnay--but no alarm clock.
      A last image from Tracy: A young mother sat in the front yard of her new home on a picnic blanket, fixing a peanut butter sandwich for her little boy, who was chasing a ball. A collie bounded about, completing a scene that could have been ripped from a page of Sunset magazine.
     This was on a new street named Kelley Mist. Perhaps in the winter, when the tule fogs set in, the homeowners will see this bit of lilting nomenclature as a sly joke. This Spring day, though, was bright and clear, gorgeous. They had moved into the home, the woman explained, only a couple of months before, as soon as it was completed. She had yet to meet all the neighbors; they tended to leave early, come home late.
     From her blanket, peering west up the street and through a break in another row of new houses, she could see all the way to the hills. They were stunning--all green from the rains and dotted with windmills and wildflowers. As she admired the hills, a passerby made the social blunder of wondering aloud how long it would be before new construction blocked out her view.
     "Well, I don't know," she said. "I mean, they wouldn't build all the way to the hills, would they?" Somehow, it seemed more polite simply to let the question float away. The answer will present itself soon enough.

Letter to the Editor

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times.

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