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Casey Christie / The Californian

Casey Christie / The Californian Steve Pierce peers out of the old bomb shelter in his backyard where he has lived for 37 years on So. Garnsey. Pierce is against the Highway 58 extension that may end up running through his property.

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Steve Pierce shows off the narrow entrance to the old bomb shelter in his backyard where he has lived for 37 years on So. Garnsey.

Residents of the Westpark neighborhood, upset by Caltrans' proposal to run the Highway 58 extension through their homes, may have stumbled onto a game changer.

Or stumbled into one, as it were.

Bomb shelters.

Back in the early 1960s. when panic was running high over the Cuban missile crisis, several people hired a local contractor, the late Jim Womack, to build bomb shelters in their backyards.

These were complete with electricity, water, ventilation, a privy of sorts, and two-foot-thick concrete walls.

They were never needed, thank goodness.

And they were mostly left forgotten all these years.

Until Keith Womack went to the state's open house last Thursday night.

Keith is Jim Womack's son. Keith has a business in the path of Alternative B, Caltrans' preferred option for the highway extension.

He spoke with several engineers about the possibly historic houses and buildings around his property on South Garnsey Avenue, south of Stockdale Highway, which Alt. B would pave over on its northern turn toward the center of the Westpark neighborhood.

There was the house where, in the 1920s, moonshine was made in the basement and which actually had a tunnel to an old roadhouse (now a vitamin shop, interestingly) a couple blocks away.

Caltrans didn't feel it qualified. It had been remodeled over the years.

There was the old Kern County Land Company buildings that Womack still uses for office space. But Caltrans wasn't interested in those, either.

Womack was about to leave the meeting when he wondered aloud if those old bomb shelters would count.

Suddenly, Caltrans was all ears.

"They said they never knew anything about them," Womack said. "They missed them completely."

The importance of whether these shelters might be considered historic is because of Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation regulations. Section 4(f) provides strong protection for historic sites as well as public park lands.

Even sites that are merely eligible for historic designation have to be protected.

Two other 58 alternatives were discounted because one would cross Saunders Park as it went north next to Highway 99, and the other would take out the Rancho Vista historic district plus pave a few acres of the volleyball court park at Mohawk Street.

The Rancho Vista historic district is a tract of post-World War II prefabricated homes. The tract has not been registered as historic, but remember, it only has to be eligible.

I was told by Caltrans officials last week that if a similar historic site were discovered along Alt. B, it would level the playing field among the routes.

"If there are 4(f) properties on every alignment, then 4(f) goes into a balancing phase and we have to balance all the impacts," explained Bryan Apper, a senior environmental planner for Caltrans. "It puts all the alternatives back into the mix."

He and project manager Steve Milton had not heard of the bomb shelters and said they'd get back to me once their cultural resources people had an opportunity to study the situation.

If the bomb shelters trigger 4(f) -- and that is a long way from being determined -- Alt. B may still win out considering it is the cheapest to build and doesn't affect any parklands. There's only about $700 million to spend. No more. So, price is a huge factor.

The 58 extension can't go over budget on construction costs nor by attracting a federal lawsuit over 4(f), which is why the Rancho Vista and Saunders Park options were ruled out.

However, if Alt. B comes up with a 4(f) snag and all impacts are on the table, Section 4(f) does allow for mitigation of both park and historic sites as long as no other options are feasible.

That could mean a lot of things, even finding replacement park land, according to a policy paper on the intricacies of 4(f) on the Federal Highway Administration's website (see below for the address).

An historic site on Alt. B would be a very big deal.

Which is probably why Caltrans reacted to Womack's bomb shelters as if a bomb went off.

"'This changes everything,'" Womack recalled one engineer saying.

First thing Friday morning, Maddy Padilla, who owns the home in front of Womack's business, saw a Caltrans truck in her cul de sac. She flagged it down and directed the crew to Womack, who gave them a tour of the bomb shelter.

"They took a ton of pictures and then they left," Womack said.

Jim Womack used to own the Padillas' house and when he started getting calls from frightened customers asking about bomb shelters, he decided to first build one in his own backyard to figure out costs and work out the logistics.

Womack's original bomb shelter is still accessible and still has its water tank, air vents and latrine. But the heavy wood and steel door is gone and his dad eventually built a garage around it.

Two doors down, though, another Womack-built bomb shelter is in pristine condition.

Steve Pierce's daughters used it as a play house when they were little. Now, it's mostly extra storage.

It's much larger than the Womack prototype, almost double the size. It was plumbed for water from outside storage tanks, has electricity and the original shelving still all in good shape. The ceilings still show marks where plywood was used to press against the concrete and the heavy steel door is just as sturdy, though rusted, as the day it was installed. Vents for the air exchange poke up through Pierce's backyard. The intake vent has a metal cap thought to prevent radiation from getting into the shelter.

"There were some misconceptions because of the word 'fallout,'" Keith Womack explained.

He remembered his dad built about half a dozen of the bomb shelters around town in the early '60s.

"People were really freaking out," he said. "We (he and his two brothers) just called it the 'fraidy hole.'"

Now, he, Pierce and Padilla are all hoping those old 'fraidy holes will give their neighborhood a fighting chance.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com