City residents tend to oppose changes in their neighborhoods’ land-use restrictions for a variety of reasons. Chief among them are concerns about traffic, noise and parking impacts.
Here's a new one: homelessness.
Residents of southwest Bakersfield are speaking out against a proposal to remove the strictly residential zoning at the northeast corner of Wible Road and Hosking Avenue, in part because they worry that allowing development of a new gas station, stores and restaurant there will attract people living on the streets.
That came as something of a surprise to city staff who presented the idea last week to the city Planning Commission, which ended up postponing consideration of the proposed zone change and General Plan amendment until Dec. 5.
“The concerns about homelessness were a new wrinkle,” said Steve Esselman, Bakersfield’s principal planner for advanced planning.
Letters written by local homeowners to commission staff cite fears that people who are homeless will congregate at the now-vacant 10-acre property once commercial buildings go up at the intersection. They assert transients will be attracted to inexpensive food that would be sold there and then camp out in the landscaping.
Other concerns were expressed in the letters, too — that air pollution, noise, light pollution and traffic will all increase if commercial development is allowed in the area. But those are fairly standard complaints in comparison with the worries about a jump in vagrancy.
"Our community believes commercial development will increase the homeless/transient population resulting in increased criminal activity in our neighborhood," Joe Jimenez, president of the Wible Road Action Group, or WRAG, wrote to the city in mid-July.
The group says it has gathered signatures from more than 250 local residents opposed to the zoning change.
The 10-acre lot proposed for commercial development, owned by Cindy Henson, is surrounded by residential buildings. The only land zoned for commercial development in that area is a vacant lot at the southwest corner of the same intersection.
Area resident David Palinsky shared a list of concerns with city staff in a letter he wrote opposing the proposed changes in late August. Topping his objections was the potential for an increase in the area's population of homeless people.
"An increased presence of homeless/transient activities ... always has negative effects on a community including criminal activity, panhandling, public defecation and litter," wrote Palinsky, who is vice president and treasurer of WRAG.
The Ward 7 councilman representing that area, Chris Parlier, declined to share his thoughts on the matter because the proposal may be revised before it goes to the City Council, if it gets that far. But he did say he is "kind of going back and forth" on whether he would support the proposed zone change and General Plan amendment.
"I don't want to get in the big middle of it,” he said.
Esselman said that, from a city planning perspective, there are generally three factors that can contribute to a rise in vagrancy in an area. They are shelter — bushes and trees where people might try to sleep — as well as access to inexpensive food and the presence of recycling centers where transients may want to redeem materials for cash.
No recycling center is proposed there, he pointed out, and new lighting at the lot would probably discourage sleeping there. But it's possible a new restaurant would provide food that could be of interest to homeless people, he said.
He did not rule out the possibility that people living on the streets would hang out near the filling station.
"Do the homeless have the ability to move and congregate? Sure," he said. "But are you really going to walk that far for a gas station?"
Planning commissioners were unable to reach consensus on the proposal at last week's meeting, Esselman said, so they decided to revisit the matter later in hopes a compromise could be reached during the interim.
The reason the item was postponed until December, he said, is because General Plan amendments can only be made during certain windows of opportunity and December is the soonest one can be brought up again.