A walkway between the Amberton and Stockdale Estates neighborhoods used by a generation of children to walk to school has become the most hotly debated territory in southwest Bakersfield since a homeowner closed it June 14 with a cinder block wall.
According to city officials, the move by homeowner Michael Hansen, who lives in the 7300 block of Calle Privada in Stockdale Estates, was entirely legal, because the half of the walkway that's in Stockdale Estates is on Hansen's private property.
But residents of both housing developments are upset that they and their children now will be forced to use major highways like Ming Avenue and Ashe Road to visit the dog park, reach the Cal State Bakersfield bike path, and walk to Actis Junior High and Stockdale Elementary schools when classes resume.
A spokeswoman for the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District said the district is considering adding a third school bus stop in Amberton to help children get to school.
With the goal of spreading the word about the walkway's closure, more than 70 people have "liked" the Amberton-Stockdale Alliance Facebook page since its creation June 16. Fliers calling for the wall's removal have been taped onto street signs and traffic lights in both developments, though many in Stockdale Estates have been torn down.
Two petitions are circulating -- one questioning the Ward 5 Bakersfield City Council representative's role in the wall's creation, the other asking the wall's owner to remove it. And some homeowners who chose these areas for their safety, good schools and kind neighbors say its community atmosphere has been shattered.
"It makes me feel like a resident of Berlin, when they put up the Berlin Wall," said Ray Firkins, a 20-year Amberton resident who chose the neighborhood over Laurelglen to the south. "You suddenly realize how really important free movement is. It almost defines us."
Stockdale Estates residents agree.
"My kids went to Stockdale Elementary and had a lot of friends over here. It's disappointing," said 20-year Stockdale Estates resident Richard Rodriguez as he visited the Amberton side of the wall Wednesday. "I'm doing what the kids are going to have to do, going out to Ming Avenue. You would think that the city would be more aware of public safety and smart community planning."
"People have been riding their bikes through it for a long time," said John R. Stevens, a retired Kern County deputy district attorney who lives in Stockdale Estates. "It's just like a neighborhood walkway."
Hansen agreed that the walkway was significant, but said that he felt closing it would improve security at his home, which has been broken into three times.
"It's one of those things, the convenience of the wall has to be trumped by the security of my family," said Hansen, who is not related to his Bakersfield City Council representative, Harold Hanson. "I've really been broken into three or four times. I think the last straw came when I was backing out of my driveway one morning and this motorcyclist came flying through there. I almost hit him."
The walkway, which connected the northwest end of Outingdale Court in Amberton to the southeast end of Calle Privada in Stockdale Estates, has been used by members of the public for nearly 35 years, according to Bakersfield Building Director Phil Burns. The Amberton side of the walkway was officially recorded as a pedestrian easement, or right-of-way, in September 1978, one year after Amberton's creation. Stockdale Estates arrived slightly later. Its housing tract has two recording dates, marking its origin as November 1981 and June 1989. A public walkway on the Stockdale Estates side is not mentioned.
"Both (recording dates) do not depict a public access easement on the Calle Privada side," Burns said. And so, when Hansen, the homeowner, contacted Hanson, his council representative, earlier this year, the councilman did some research and concluded that his constituent could block the walkway.
"I was told by the city of Bakersfield that it was his property, and he has the right to do what he did. We are researching that further to make sure that we're absolutely correct," said Hanson, who represents both areas. "I feel badly that so many of these folks think that for some reason I'm the instigator in this. Whether the wall's there or not there, it doesn't matter to me. I just want to do the right thing in this."
Some residents say the homeowner and the councilman should have contacted neighbors to let them know about the impending closure of a heavily traveled traditional pathway.
"He didn't give any notice, and I know he waited until school was out to do it. Because he knew this would be a bigger deal," said Keri Taylor Mikkelsen, who grew up in Amberton, and returned from Sweden to buy a house here so that her four children could attend Stockdale Elementary. "This whole idea of walling off crime, or gating out crime, is really just (creating) a false sense of security. What I would say in response to that is that the same thing happens to pretty much anyone in any neighborhood."
"I understand people getting broken into, but why not (put up) cameras? It's just sad," said Amberton resident Tanya Bray. "I sure hope (Hansen) does something voluntarily. I think we'll do whatever we have to do in terms of starting a lawsuit. It really just makes it anti-neighborhood."
Deputy City Attorney Andrew Heglund said that a civil lawsuit could be one way for homeowners to compel the wall's removal.
"I think one of the arguments that the public can make is that that would be a prescriptive easement over his property," Heglund said, using the legal term for an implied right-of-way through property that is otherwise private. "That's outside of what the city would do, but sure, they could certainly speak with an attorney and make that argument."