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A tiny slice of Santa Clara County finds its anchor

The cities of San Jose and Campbell wanted to annex the tiny Cambrian 36 neighborhood. Campbell won after six years, and so did the people of Cambrian 36.

August 04, 2011|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from San Francisco -- The unincorporated pocket of Santa Clara County land is known in planning parlance as Cambrian 36. And to residents, efforts to become part of neighboring Campbell instead of behemoth San Jose had edged along in geologic time.

But after years of heated protests, the 103-acre neighborhood may be getting its wish. Both city councils approved an agreement Tuesday ceding the land to Campbell, in exchange for plenty of revenue for San Jose.

The six-year annexation tug-of-war underscores the desperate search by municipalities for a little extra income in trying times. In Cambrian 36, known by residents as Campbell Village, the riches amount to one hotel and a gas station.

"To walk away from an ongoing revenue source … especially in this era, just wasn't going to happen," said San Jose Planning Director Joseph Horwedel, who helped negotiate the deal with Campbell to share the wealth over the next four decades. "It may have been a different answer in the dot-com days."

For decades, Cambrian 36 had been in San Jose's designated "sphere of influence," leaving it ripe for the picking by California's third-largest city. But residents resisted, learning lifetime lessons along the way in the obscure rules of annexation and the politics of becoming too persistent to ignore.

"We were committed to the cause," said Mike Krisman, 41, a captain with the Santa Clara County Fire Department, which serves his neighborhood as well as the 40,000 residents of Campbell. "We live here. We weren't going anywhere. We had to see this thing through."

The struggle began with a change in state law that streamlined annexations. Communities of 75 acres or more once got to vote on their destiny; when California raised the threshold to 150 acres, it left Cambrian 36 voiceless. A court settlement between Santa Clara County and San Jose, meanwhile, had directed the city to annex a host of unincorporated swatches in the interest of keeping urban development within city borders and consolidating services.

But after swallowing up plenty of distressed pockets that contained no parks, storm drains or revenue potential, Horwedel said, it turned its focus to Cambrian 36's small patch of promise.

The neighborhood had risen out of an orchard in the 1950s, long before San Jose grew up against its flank. It abuts Campbell and has a Campbell mailing address. Residents shop at Campbell's farmers market and have volunteered to help put on the town's Friday night movies.

Getting services from San Jose, they felt, would erode their quality of life — city fire services are farther away, for example — and undermine their identity. Then there is the math.

"You obviously have a larger voice being one in 40,000 versus one in a million," Krisman said.

In 2006, he and neighbor Tom Davis circulated a petition to check the pulse of the 1,000-strong community. Then they approached Campbell officials, who were amenable to bringing them into the fold.

At first, San Jose seemed indifferent to letting Cambrian 36 drift away. But once Campbell compiled a report on revenues to be had from the hotel and gas station, the big city's tone shifted.

At public meetings on the annexation, residents of Cambrian 36 routinely blew whistles and peppered San Jose officials with questions about fire dispatch and response times. There were some nasty exchanges, Horwedel recalled.

The dispute went unresolved until last December, when Campbell Mayor Evan Low — now a councilman — offered to negotiate the revenue question. San Jose agreed. It didn't hurt that Donald Rocha, the incoming San Jose councilman who would have represented the annexed pocket, was sympathetic to neighborhood wishes.

The deal approved Tuesday carves out enough revenue for Campbell to cover costs of upkeep and services for five years and gives San Jose the projected surplus — $199,000 annually. The deal will be renegotiated every five years to share pain and gain equally. After four decades, Campbell gets the village free and clear.

The finer details must still be worked out, but residents in Cambrian 36 are elated.

"Could this really be happening?!?!?!" Kristen Johansen wrote in an online posting. "I … just want to once and for all say I live in Campbell for good."

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